Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Devil in Velvet by John Dickson Carr

The Devil In Velvet

(The following extra was in response to a Red Room Creative Challenge to write about a favorite time travel story.)

My favorite time-travel story is The Devil in Velvet by Golden Age Mystery writer John Dickson Carr, usually known as the master of the subgenre known as the “locked room mystery.”

For Devil in Velvet, Carr stepped away from locked rooms to pen a  bubbly and delightful one-off that’s part time-travel tale, part deal-with-the-devil story, part comic-historical swashbuckling romantic mystery that I like to think must have partially inspired George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman tales.

The novel opens in 1925. Nicholas Fenton is an aging, tweedy, book-bound Cambridge professor who’s become fixated on a murder mystery dating back to 1675 Restoration England that implicates an ancestor of the professor's. If only he could his name and restore honor and dignity to the Fenton line!

Who should flare up in Nicholas’s musty study one night but another Nick, the one known as Old Scratch, to grant Nicholas’s wish.

Unfortunately, Old Horny’s method involves transplanting the meek professor’s soul into the body of the main suspect, a 26-year-old impulse-driven, drunken, sword-wielding rake, also named Nicholas Fenton. (For modern movie-going readers, think the mind of Christopher Plummer forcibly fused with the body of Johnny Depp; older readers, Sir Michael Hordern inserted into Errol Flynn).

To say that this ignites a serious case of inner conflict (as they call it in writers workshops) and Yin v. Yang warfare is putting it mildly. The good professor must not only prove the innocence of his thoroughly disgusting ancestor, but must also save the murder victim’s life without falling in love with her, all the while trying to negotiate the seamy grubby world of Restoration England.

The results are tremendously entertaining, written with precise and vivid color, narrative dash, and great humor. The Devil in Velvet never ceases to enthrall and delight. (It’s one of those books I’d throw at Nabokov and Edmund Wilson when they start carping against genre fiction). I’ve only read one other of Carr’s novels, but according to some fans, this rates as his best. Seeing it through the time machine of my memory brings a smile.

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, January 28, 2012

Notes from a Cat Whisperer 2: Of Cats and Men

“Sheesh, what are you? A dog!?”


Before February 1964, I was a dog guy. Then, soon after the Beatles rolled ashore that bleak late winter, I read in some fan magazine that my favorite Fab, John Lennon, liked cats. Therefore, to be more like John Lennon, I announced I liked cats.

Sharing—big mistake. Sharing led to lofty, reflexive, dinner-table sneers from my much-older brothers, stabbed down on my little head: “A-HA! He just likes cats because John Lennon likes cats! Copycat! Phony!” Then followed a victory dance around the dining room table: Puny little brother had, once again, been proven a fool.

True, I was a copycat. But this truth didn’t last long.

We had a cat for me to like: an overweight, lumbering, tuxedo tom named Kuching (“cat” in Malaysian). Originally the cat of my oldest brother Christopher, Kuching became more or less my pal. He was an old beast and seemed to appreciate my attention. He came when I called; romped deliriously about when we fed him catnip; humped a softball we gave him to play with.

I cried when we left him behind with Christopher to move to the Midwest when I was eleven. He died not long afterward, as many older pets seem to do when taken from their homes.


One of the first lessons I learned as a boy from my other older brothers—whose Life Lessons too often proved unwise—is that liking cats is not manly.

Women are cat people, not men. It is unmanly to prefer the company of felines to canines. Men are supposed to be—should be, must be--dog guys, not cat guys. Dogs are manly pets, manly companions for manly men.

Cats, delicate and dainty, are feminine (I mean look at how a cat falls twenty feet out of a tree and walks away without a scratch. How girly can you get?)

To be a cat guy is so . . .  gay.

Dogs take direction. Dogs follow orders. They are a tribute to a manly man’s sense of power and control. Their obedience to their masters is a sign of unquestioned masculine power: “Behold! The odiferous groveling Beast does as I say! See my command of all I survey!”

Maybe I have less need of flattery.

 "G-get the hell out of my picture!"


“Cats are useless,” an uncle of mine once spat, his old smoky voice edged with a bitter disgust I knew well regarding other subjects. “They’re good for nothin’!”

Cats don’t take direction. You can play games with them like fetch and hide-and-go-pounce and the smarter ones display a prankish humor—stealing objects from under your nose and hiding them, stopping to look to make sure you follow. They can figure how to manipulate door knobs and water faucets with no training, but only, it seems, on their own initiative.

They can manipulate you too, the little bastards—mostly for food and attention (It’s those button-round eyes, goddamnit, that innocent goofy stare that melts my high castle walls.) They’ll get extremely jealous, will turn their backs and sulk when their feelings are hurt, say, when you don’t want to play. "Refuse to play with me, will you!? I'll go take a big dump on your fancy carpet! Ha!"

I won’t say they’re “independent” because that implies a degree of free will only humans have. Cats, as I’ve learned, are firmly dependent on their people. Don’t be fooled by their superb hunting skills into thinking they thrive in a feral state. The list of things that brutally shorten their lives, from cars, to bigger, meaner animals to (especially) parasites, means, for them, a short miserable life span. (Again: Keep the Cat Indoors!)

You can leave them alone overnight, but not for much longer. They want you home and soon.

But they are genuinely idiosyncratic critters. They live by a different agenda. They’re wired differently and so experience and relate to the world differently than we do.

They’re . . . cats . . . damn them!


They know we’re there, sense that we’re crucial to their well-being and happiness. Their big ears and superb hearing, indicate that our voices appeal to them in some way. We feed them, keep them safe and warm. Sometimes, it may seem they’re attuned to our moods, but that may be simple projection on our part.

They are resolutely self-centered pleasure whores: They love us for food, but also for making them feel good, for talking to them. At their most social, I believe, they do see us as their parent cats. As gods. But no matter how awestruck they may be, it’s still all about them. It’s like the acolyte running the church.

I’ve made friends with so many cats without ever going near a food dish, that I can say with easy confidence that when a cat sits at my feet, staring up at me, it’s not begging for food. It’s paying tribute. “You are a bringer of wonder and magic to my circumvented world. Make more magic!” And yeah, I’m flattered, even while simultaneously laughing my ass off: "So, I'm a god, am I? Oh, if you only knew . . . .”

What do we—meaning I—get out of all this?

Well, um . . . reduced rodent populations . . . I guess . . . .

That’s about it for pragmatic considerations. Their little jaws are ill-suited for carrying pipe, slippers, and newspapers. They’re not the most reliable fire alarms and are more likely to nuzzle a burglar than scare him off.

And when Timmy falls down the well, they’ll probably get distracted by some bug before they take ten steps toward home. An hour later, Timmy’s drowned and the cat is checking the kitchen clock: “Gee it’s kibble time, wonder where that Timmy kid is.”

A chicken is a more useful pet: At least you get eggs.

“Ohhhh, stop it, enough already!”


Loving cats is a little like believing in God. Within the icy, bladed frame of secular reason, science, and sniffy amoral pragmatism, there is no case to be made for it. Don’t even try. You look irrational and foolish. Given the lengths that, say, cat ladies go to with their appalling menageries, it can also be dangerous.

But there it is. Countless people, like me, welcome them into their homes, fall prey to their unconscious charms. We like their soft fur and soft purrs. Love from a cat can be just as intense (and sentimental) as that from a dog and even flattering in a way that dog love isn’t. It’s like a mysterious wall has fallen and a sweet surprise has come padding through, eyes wide and wondering: “Is that food? Wanna play? Pet me?”

It’s humiliating for a man to be seen making friendly with a cat. I feel my guy cred shear away, along with my independence and self-image as the no-nonsense, steely-eyed movie tough guy I thought I wanted to be.

Really, who’d ever want to see Clint Eastwood go “Oooooooo wook at d’ cuuuute puddy-puddy!”?  (Me, I'd give a week’s pay.)

By the way, my cattish tastes are another reason I never made it in show business. In near-absolute percentages, show people are dog people to nerve and marrow: that taking direction thing. Cats not only don’t show up on time, they’ve forgotten their lines, if they even read the script in the first place. (They’re also terrible actors. The only decent film performance I’ve ever seen given by a cat is in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And let’s not get into their singing.)


It’s been over a year since our dear Flo passed (the first cat I’d lived with in over ten years). Much of what I’ve said here I learned from living with her. She was one of the dopiest cats I’ve known, but remarkably, also one of the most social, a combination I’ve never encountered before. To the day she died, she was like a baby. Nothing ever grew old. Every day was the world beginning again.

Now we’re living in a new place. No cats allowed or possible. I’m reduced to watching episodes of “Simon’s Cat” (which, among its other virtues, nicely portrays the weary exasperation of cat owners; the sense that the little delinquents are always up to something behind our backs  . . . damn them!). Flo lives in a framed photo we keep on the DVD shelf, on in our memories and scampering up to us, hopping across the bed, or just sitting at our feet staring up, as though dumbstruck. We’re left with the wariness of the neighborhood cats who, no matter how patient we are, keep their distance in their dangerous world.

Yeah . . . pathetic . . . .

But until then, there’s nothing to do, but wait until the wheel turns again.

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, January 21, 2012

Notes from a Cat Whisperer: Part I

Some people—namely my wife—call me

. . . the Cat Whisperer . . .

[Cue music sting]

I usually work like this: I walk into your house. I meet your cat. An hour later, I stroll out with cat tucked happily under my arm, while you shake your head in wonder: “But he doesn’t do that with anybody.”  (Or, “You stole my cat, you son of a bitch.”)

Sometimes, the little goofballs come running after me, weaving between my legs, whipping their tails, chirping at me not to leave: “Stay, Big Two-legged Cat, stay! Pet me more! Make the kitty feel good!”

And I rarely rarely feed them either. You don’t have to feed a cat to earn its fierce affection, to have it hugging your lap and staring up at you like you’re God (which to them you are). You just have to know how to work the little varmints. Like any human baby, they’re suckers for a tender touch and a soft voice. A lot of cats are pushovers and saps if you know what you’re doing. They’re babies, really. They have no taste in people.

A theory: Cats like the sound of human voices, much as we like their purring. Maybe it’s one of the first steps we took in building our relationship thousands of years ago in the Middle East.

So: talk to your cat! Even if you’re at a loss for words, “blah blah Fido blah blah” will be enough to draw their enraptured attention: “Oh boy oh boy, they’re talkin’ to me, yup! They’re talkin’ to me!” Doesn’t matter what you say.


Now, a qualification: I’ve met a fair number of cats with whom I’ve failed to bond in any way. Per my non-scientific experience, I’d say these cats are truly asocial, likely unintelligent, animals.

For example, purebred felines such as Siamese and Persians (“throw-pillow cats,” I call those) seem to fall into this category; they lie there and buzz like a dial tone, barely conscious, not interactive. Siamese owners swear their cats are the smartest cats of all, but I’ve never seen it.

God may have given cats slightly more brains than we sometimes think, but as with humans, He distributed them unevenly.

There are also cats ‘fraidy, who spend my entire visit trembling under the couch: “You’re going to eat me, aren’t you? Eat me and steal my cat toys, that’s you want to do!”

There are cats bitchy, like a sleek coal-black creature I met once, the sweetest darling ever . . . for about five minutes. Then, with frightening suddenness, her claws unfurled with an audible click like a jackknife, as her back fur rose like porcupine quills. A vicious swat and ugly hiss--“ENOUGH!”--and off she’d angrily dart as though I’d jumped up and down on her tail. “Screw you, too,” I muttered, showing her my finger. That one got left on the shelf.

Out of doors, cats become inaccessible. Outside of the familiar indoor environment, they seem to shed their affectionate indoor personas, transform into fearful, wary creatures . . . but, of course, there’s a lot to be scared of—giant cat-eating dogs, huge cat-hating humans, enormous cat-crushing automobiles, and, worst of all, other cats.

It’s a wonder they even ask to go out. Frankly, it’s best to ignore their pleas and keep them inside. They’ll live longer, healthier lives and so will the birds.

Cats . . . damn them!


This last October, it happened again. Elizabeth and I took our anniversary vacation, this time at the ranch ofour friend Julie’s father in the southern Colorado Rockies, a huge cabin on a wooded hillside, the nearest neighbor a crow’s mile away.

Caretakers live there for most of the year. They’d gone on their own vacation when we’d arrived and left behind instructions for the care of the house.

Among the instructions: “Feed the cat.”

With a mighty groan, I promptly shouldered this Herculean task. The predictable chain of events followed.

As the story goes, Echo, a muscular gray tabby sporting a thin scratch across his nose, had wandered in from the forest that previous spring, having no doubt dodged many a hungry coyote, fox and eagle. It was reasonably speculated that he’d lived with another family nearby and had been left behind in the cruel, infuriating belief that cats are really wild animals like any other (or maybe the owners were simply too lazy to care).

The caretakers set out some food for him and that was enough to persuade him to stay. He was an outdoor cat who, I was told, didn’t come inside, even when invited. (Note: Julie’s brothers, frequent visitors, are both allergic to cats, one of the sadder ailments that can strike a human being).

Despite the scar and his time in the wild, Echo was a handsome, smart and friendly fellow. When I offered my hand, he marked it immediately. The next morning, he followed me around the grounds, as loyal as Lassie, weaving figure eights between my feet, climbing up my leg, purring his heart out. I found him waiting for me when we returned home from outings. When I walked out onto the porch where he spent most of his time, he’d looked up in delight from his bed, and raise his head for my hand, rising, stretching, a purr shuddering through his body.

The third night, he actually followed me inside the house when I went to fill his food dish. Fine catly company, he was. To him, I’m sure, I was awesome.

In the end, of course, we said our good-byes. I can still seeing him sitting in the driveway, blinking and baffled, forlornly watching as we drove away.

Then, I turned away, gritting my teeth, seething, as I stared out the car window: I’d been charmed, seduced and suckered once again:

Cats . . . damn them!

[To be continued]

(re-edited 1/30/12)

Photos by author
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, January 14, 2012

“Well . . . I’m Big in Brazil”: 15 Years of Online Writing

Firstly, allow me to apologize for boring many of you with the following piece, but many other Internet writers and self-publishers also write year-end summaries of their achievements, providing statistics to illustrate. Those of you walking a similar path may find my experiences, thoughts, and perspectives in this matter useful. I hope you do.

You may have a good idea of your own share, too. Please do!

To compensate the rest of my loyal non-writing readers on Blogger and at the Red Room, I will provide links to entertaining videos throughout, such as the following promoting the upcoming Film Noir Festival, featuring Eddie Muller:


In the Year of Our Lord 2011, I posted 49 essays on a variety of topics. posting each essay on three separate websites: Blogger, the Red Room, and, beginning in mid-March, Scrib’d, the most in any year since I returned to online writing around 2007.

Based on the stats I keep in a separate Excel sheet, I had a grand total of 26,292 page views over all three pages for the year.

Why three sites? My sense is that an unknown writer like me needs to wave his flag in as many places on the Internet as is comfortable without muddying his footprint or spreading himself too thin.

Despite efforts to drive everyone to my official “A Curious Man” Blogger page, the Red Room had far and away the most views: 15,318. My Blogger page had not even half that: 7,017; my Scrib’d home page came in a further distant third at 3,897 (though it’s probably more for reasons I’ll explain later.

In fact, all these statistics contain some margin of error. I could, if I were obsessive enough, capture every tiny click, but then I'd be an object of pity: “Doesn’t get outside much, does he?”

I received an average of 2,191 views per month or about 505 per week, or about 72 a day. The highest monthly total was in December (2,680). The highest weekly total was 894 for the week of December 10, the week I happened to plant a link to a column on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire series in a Slate magazine comments section.

During the first part of the year, online page views ranged from 300 to 500 per week. Toward the end of the year, they rose from 600 to 800.

Now for an episode of "Simon's Cat":


What were the most popular pieces? It varied among at least two of the pages.

On Blogger, my essay on character actor Lee Van Cleef’s film noir roles far outpaced everything else I posted there in the 2011 (328). Two other pieces from 2011 that were popular were my critique of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire (184) and my annual promise to not watch the Oscars (112) (which received a large number of thumbs down when I posted the link in the comments on the San Francisco Chronicle's SFGate—what d'ya say we do that again!?)

All the other top-ten Blogger articles were ones I wrote from 2007 through 2010, including my initial page promoting my novel Dragon’s Ark. Also popular were travel articles on hiking Mt. Tamalpais; an article on e-books; another on self-publishing; a review of a beer house in Emeryville; and a nostalgic look at the 1990s retro swing scene in San Francisco.

Most oddly, a 2007 piece where I praise The Sopranos, character “Paulie Walnuts” Gualitieri and mention his “silver hair,” was popular. (For those who entered “Paulie Walnuts hair,” the second-most popular SEO, in search of sound consumer advice on hair products for older men, I profoundly apologize. It wasn’t that good an article by any stretch, either.)

Comments left by readers average two per article.

Two qualifications: 

1) The statistics above are probably on the low side, as they don’t count the eyeballs that only rolled over the main page.

2) While Blogger stats provide numbers for the day, month and week, they don’t provide them for calendar years, only for the total time period since Blogger introduced their new stat system in May 2009 (which otherwise is not a bad system for my current needs).

Also: of all the articles that made viewers’ top ten, I would pick none of them as my best-ever favorites. This means either a) best does not mean “popular” or b) Burchfield’s a poor critic of his own work.

As for traffic sources, most visits came via Google (many of them from my small e-mail distribution list); in distant second were the good folks who hang out on Ramsey Campbell’s discussion page hosted by where I weekly place links.

Then comes Slate (thanks to that previously mentioned link); Twitter; JoelFriedlander’s “Book Designer”; then Google UK; Facebook;; the mysterious; and the even-more mystifying (but I’ll take ‘em where I can get ‘em).

Takeaway: As much as has been made of Facebook and Twitter as great tools for driving traffic, that doesn’t seem to be quite my experience; I think this only goes to show the sponginess of the Internet and may also relate to the material I’m providing.

As for my Blogger audience, most came from the U.S. Surprisingly, Germany takes second (Danke schön, Judith!). The UK is third; then Russia, Canada, Netherlands, France, Malaysia, Brazil, and Denmark.

Now, here’s the Drifters singing their 1964 hit “Up on The Roof.”


I only started placing my articles on Scrib’d in mid-March 2011, so those stats cover a shorter time period. The results here have been notably different than on Blogger.

The top four spots were held by advertisements and promotions for Dragon’s Ark (649, including a sample chapter from the novel), Whackers preview sample (349); and a promotional piece for a reading I gave at the California Writers Club in April with author Matt Stewart (The French Revolution), who’s more famous than I.

The also-rans: a serious think-piece on Osama bin Laden’s death; a pleasing feuilleton on World War II movies; two Dragon’s Ark-related essays on Dracula in the movies; a meditation on the Fukushima tragedy and my review of Nabokov’s The Gift. No overlap with Blogger in this top-ten list. My Scrib’d readers like different things.

No comments have been left on any of the articles. As for my audience, the stats here don’t seem to be very clear. The U.S. is at the top, of course. India is also a top view-getter.

I am also listed as having 24 “followers,” but these are all Facebook friends and I suspect were automatically connected by Facebook without any of us asking. (Ahem, Mr. Zuckerberg & Co., I'll create my own redundancies, thank you.)

Naturally, my page views on Scrib’d started out on the low side for the first several months. Some days showed no views at all. I considered moving on, but as the numbers have risen a little, I’ll stick around for now.

Scrib’d’s site statistics claim to drill down to a much finer detail than Blogger’s and Red Room’s, capturing numbers such as “Embed Reads,” “Readcasts” (a form of sharing ala Facebook) and “Engagement” (measuring the time readers spend with an article.

Except for “Readcasts,” I’m unsure how reliable these figures are. (The “Engagement” time stands at practically zero seconds; I can’t be that boring, can I?) The program has bugs—occasionally, it fails to include views of specific articles in their daily overall totals. I complain. It gets fixed. Then the hamsters stumble again.

In this episode of “Simon’s Cat,” the cat plays with a box!


Though clearly the most-visited of my three pages, the Red Room provides the least statistical information of all. Their stats cover strictly overall page views and specific sub-page visits (how many visit my profile; how many view my blog page; how many view my advertising, etc.). I also seem able to go back only six months to mid-2011.

I have no idea which articles received the most views. As the Red Room village is populated by highly literate and thoughtful people, I’d guess my book reviews are the most interesting. I also suspect a higher percentage actually read my postings, as Red Room members are truly purpose driven in the best sense.

So: I cannot complain. The Red Room remains a good  neighborhood, even after my efforts to drive traffic to my “Official Site.” After all, I’ve received over 15,000 page views, won three Red Room Creative Challenges and have been featured once on their front page.

So, thank you Red Room!

And now, The Vogues with their 1965 hit "Five O'Clock World"!


The main purpose behind the burst of essays in 2011 was to promote my book Dragon’sArk. The circus might serve as a useful metaphor: I’m not only the owner and  ringmaster, I’m also the barker hollering outside the tent, handing out these essays as free samples to get passersby inside to lay real money down for the main attraction—the novel—and a couple of inexpensive fun little sideshows—the screenplays Whackers and the upcoming The Uglies.

How’s that working? Not too well, so far. Sales of Dragon’s Ark stand at around 40 or 50. Sales of Whackers are at one.

What can I do to sell more books? I think I’m taking a decent-enough road, but it’s not enough. I’ll have to take other, further steps in the coming year. One of these will be buying advertising space, which I’ve already experimented with some mild and surprising success on Goodreads.

But, as you’re all clawing  the screen for another episode of “Simon’s Cat,” I’ll take up that discussion later.

Text copyrighted 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, January 5, 2012

2011: A Few Favorite Things

 Yosemite Valley from Glacier Point, Christmas Eve: The best damn thing I saw all year . . . even better than Breaking Bad

In my fifty-seven years, I’ve never known one without turbulence. There have always been wars and suffering, great and small; revolutions and reactions; famines and plagues; violence and assorted crimes. Every year has been—in the idealistic sense—bad, though some stand out historically: 1963, 1968, 1980, 2001. “History is just one damn thing after another,” Henry Ford is supposed to have said. You can take that in one of three ways: as an expression of dismissal, frustration, or resignation.

(Already, 2012 has shown a cruel face. Many of My Great Plans have gone awry, as I tripped over a cunning nasty flu that wrapped me up like a damp, moldy wool sweater as I leapt from the gate; hence the late date for this. Perhaps John Cusack and the Mayans [that new hip-hop group I’ve heard about, on Wikipedia I guess] are right! The World will end in 2012!)

Still every year has its virtues, pleasures and joys, and 2011 was no exception, as I’ll try to demonstrate.


Once again, as an unpaid book critic, I liked most of what I read in 2012, and what I didn’t like was put quietly aside.

My favorite book of last year, hands down, was Vladimir Nabokov’s The Gift (read my review here). I also encountered great joy in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay by Michael Chabon,  a passionate tribute to the epic energy and imagination of genre fiction (or, in this case, classic comics).

As time goes by, I find myself turning away from horror and mystery fiction to wander the foggy alleys of espionage. It was a very good year for this dense, challenging, and slippery genre. I got a tremendous charge out of Alan Furst’s Red Gold (someday, I’ll catch up with the rest, don’t worry). My annual visit to the oeuvre of Eric Ambler also led me down the atmospheric Balkan byways of Judgment on Deltchev. My year in spy novels was topped by John le Carré’s The Honorable Schoolboy, the second in his Karla trilogy.

Further down the list, but still worthwhile, were Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers and Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog, two of the more ambitious genre novels of the year. I also laughed heartily at Matt Stewart’s engaging only-in-San-Francisco-farce, The French Revolution.

I read many short stories this year in breaks between novels. The best were from Peter Straub’s ambitious two volume collection American Fantastic Tales where I re-visited such classics as “The God of Dark Laughter” by Michael Chabon; “The Events at Poroth Farm” by T.E.D. Klein; “Smoke Ghost” by Fritz Leiber; and Mr. Straub’s own “A Short Guide to the City,” a novella I never tire of. The best new discovery in this collection was “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio,” by Tennessee Williams, a writer who, I gather, went on to greater things after this story appeared in Weird Tales.

Unfortunately, as an actual book-writer, I cannot read everything that tempts my inner eye. Most of my reading is taken up with research for my work-in-progress, Butchertown; therefore, my shelf is narrow and sometimes dry, based on pragmatic considerations of research, rather than the pursuit of adventure. Still, two books I found worth reading were Last Call by Daniel Okrent (a major source for the PBS series Prohibition) and California: A State of Change a beautiful coffee table volume by Laura Cunningham, a book I hated to set aside . . . but just wait until you start writing your own books and you’ll get what I mean, bub.

Southern Colorado . . . Makes the set for Star Wars look like a ten-cent Republic Serial


Maybe the most compelling work of narrative visual art—better than most movies—I experienced last year was AMC’s stunning, mind-swallowing, and terrifying mini-series Breaking Bad.

For those who stand wisely outside the echo chamber, BreakingBad is the blackest of black comedies. It tells the story of Walter White, a middle-class high-school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico whose world is crumbling beneath him: choking on debt, with a new baby on the way, Walter also discovers he hosts a virulent lung cancer and will die soon.

What’s a desperate member of the sinking American middle class to do to protect his beloved family, to provide for their uncertain future? Why, turn to meth dealing, of course! Breaking Mad manages to convince us that a man—or at least this one—might try anything, if desperate enough. Especially in these times.

Ever since The Sopranos, the cable mini-series has grown to become our dominant narrative art form, achieving heights of artistry that movies find harder to achieve nowadays.

Breaking Bad may be the mini-series’ apotheosis. Like the best of them, the show combines the capacious room, rich detail, and moral intricacy of the novel with the bracing thoughtful visuals of great movies. Watching this show—a classic tale of good intentions gone ghastly—is an exhilarating and terrifying ride full of jarring and hilarious plots twists, pungent, rich characterizations, great performances, and abundant moral sense. (A word of advice: watch it—and other mini-series—on DVD. The absence of commercials intensifies the experience.)

We’ve also enjoyed catching up on AMC’s Mad Men, an elegantly visual drama about the lives and fortunes of Madison Avenue ad executives in 1960s New York. I started out in the same neighborhood and the same economic class, so I appreciate its careful attention to detail (though practically all of it is filmed in L.A.).

Mad Men hearkens back to serious 1960s black-and-white TV dramas such as Naked City, East Side West Side andThe Defenders. Its proud literacy is to its credit. It’s also an often lacerating domestic drama, a genre I admit often makes me squirm for an episode of The Untouchables.

Also many of its characterizations seem static—how many episodes do we need to learn that Pete Campbell is a brown-nosing asshole? Whatever happened to Roger Sterling’s heart problems anyway? In the first season, he had two heart attacks. Three seasons later, he’s still smoking like a boiler, drinking like a shark and skipping around like Stephen Colbert. The guy who plays him (John Slattery) is excellent, but I swear, any second now, he's gonna fall like a tree.

Finally, Betty Draper (now Betty Francis), once she’s out from under her husband’s shadow, becomes the willowy cipher I expected her of being: not half as interesting a character as either Peggy Olson or Joan Harris. January Jones as Betty may be a good actress, so blame the writers for that one.

Speaking of Mrs. Draper’s husband, though, what really keeps us captivated is Jon Hamm as Don Draper. Hamm, the handsomest male star since Cary Grant and Sean Connery, is also a terrific performer here. He makes Draper into a basically good, artistic man who’s selling his soul and living a great lie and grappling with the consequences of the lie and the actual truth behind the it and the often terrible choices it leads—womanizing is just the start—to live in a privileged style he’s become much too accustomed to, one that is truly not his.

Even when the plotting goes off the rails, Hamm delivers a great performance. It’s a pleasure to watch the waves of torment and confusion rise, fall and roll through that handsome face. I keep watching to answer one question: “What’s this man going to with his life?”

That may be reason enough.

Now, though my chest still feels wrapped in tarnished copper, it's time to charge on into 2012.  Let’s see . . .  anybody know where can I download music videos of John Cusack and the Mayans? I’ll check Wikipedia. They’re always right.

(Edited 1/13/12)

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, January 4, 2012


DO NOT CATCH THIS FLU. The Flu first emerges as a deceptively mild cold that lasts for 3 days or so. You may even feel the cold disappearing and your energy flaring anew, but DO NOT BE FOOLED. For verily, on the 4th day, the Flu shall blossom and soak and rage through your helpless flesh, and your only entertainment will be the flashing interior of your eyelids. Yea, even when the second day arrives and the fever has abated, DO NOT BE FOOLED (as I am not), for it may be merely resting and lurking, prepared to ambush, to strike, to attack again, as it chortles and chuckles like Lee Van Cleef, delighting in its boundless evil. I repeat: DO NOT CATCH THIS FLU. Thank you.
 Photo by author.
Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield