Thursday, September 22, 2016

Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife: CriMemoir by Chris Orlet

When I asked Chris Orlet for a guest piece I half-expected a Narrative Music bit - I mean the guy's debut novel is named after murder ballad ferfuxache - but dude's also a journalist with an interest in crime. We've been talking books and films for a couple years now, but when he turned in this piece I couldn't believe it was the first I'd heard about this true story and the book he'd tried to get up for writing about it. Holee crap though, I'm hoping he will some time. So here's a first for HBW, this one is technically a CriMemoir, but I think it qualifies as a Narrative Music piece too as this story already inspired the song Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife by Drive By Truckers.

Read this piece, then jump on his new book In the Pines from New Pulp Press.

Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife: The True Crime Book That Wasn’t
by Chris Orlet

If you’re a guy of a certain age you may have cause to remember the rock band House of Freaks: frontman Bryan Harvey and percussionist Johhny Hott. The two-piece—they didn’t need no stinking bass player—was active in the late 1980s and early 90s. They never quite hit it big, though they were big enough that a twenty-something from Belleville, Illinois (yours truly) caught their video Sun Goes Down on MTV’s 120 Minutes and ran out the next morning and bought the cassette of their 1989 album Tantilla, and played it nonstop till the damn thing broke, which was like two months later.

Soon after that I forgot about House of Freaks. Other, new bands came along. Music tastes changed. Record labels signed, then dropped them. The Freaks put out a few more albums that were greeted with a deafening silence and they retired from the business.

We forgot about them, that is, until we heard the news on New Years Day, 2006. Bryan Harvey and his wife Kathryn and their two young daughters had been brutally murdered in their Richmond, Virginia home. It was a murder that seemed to have been eerily foretold in the Freaks’ own lytics, like the song When the Hammer Came Down. (In fact the cops at first suspected Hott because so many of their lyrics mirrored the actual Harvey family murders.)

The killing turned out to have been part of a seven-day murder spree by two twenty-eight-year-old ex-felons: Ray Joseph Dandridge and his uncle Ricky Javon Gray. All told, Dandridge and Gray murdered seven people before the Philadelphia police caught up with them. Some of the victims were killed during attempted robberies, ostensibly to fund Dandridge and Gray’s expensive drug habits, though one girlfriend was murdered simply because they were “tired of her.”

I’d been looking to try my hand at a true crime story for a while, when I heard about the Harvey family murders. The pieces were all there: the perfect family, a crazy murder spree, a former rock and roll idol, who, like so many other indie artists, had grown disillusioned with the music industry. The story had legs. The more I read and researched the more interesting the story became.

Doubtless the most gut-wrenching scene occurred shortly before the murder. Dandridge and Gray had been driving around Richmond New Years morning looking for a house to rob. Around 10 p.m. they spotted the door ajar at the Harvey residence and walked in. They forced Bryan and Kathryn and their 9-year-old daughter Stella into the basement and bound them with electrical tape. The youngest daughter, Ruby, 4, was at a sleepover at a friend’s house. While the killers ransacked the house, the friend knocked on the door. She was dropping off Ruby and her own daughter for a scheduled play date. The killers allowed Kathryn to go upstairs and answer the door. Kathryn tried to signal the friend by silently making her hand into a gun and pointing at her head. The friend, however, misread the sign as meaning “Things are crazy here.” Ruby ran down the basement stairs and when her friend tried to follow, Kathryn stopped her. Kathryn said she wasn’t feeling well and would have to reschedule the play date. The friend and her daughter left.

That was the last time anyone saw any of the Harveys alive.

So that was the story. There was just one problem: the killers. Dandridge and Gray. They appeared to be soulless, doped-up automatons with no redeeming qualities. Indeed, they seemed scarcely human.

It would be easy to generate sympathy for the victims, but what if the killers were totally without consciences?

Like all wanna-be true crime writers, I had Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood as my guidepost. In that book, Capote had shown great sympathy for the murdered Clutter family. But other than the fact that these innocent and prosperous Kansans had been violently murdered, the Clutters weren’t all that interesting. To Capote, it was the killers, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, who were the fascinating characters.

Yet try as I might, I couldn’t find a way to make Dandridge and Gray, if not sympathetic, at least worth reading about.

Yes, Gray and Dandridge had apparently suffered traumatic childhoods. They may have been sexually abused. They had no future or prospects to speak of. They lived on the margins of society, in and out of prison. Existing only to get high, have sex, and watch porn movies. But even in that way they weren’t all that different from countless other petty criminals.

I read blog posts and poems that Dandridge posted online while in prison. I wrote to Gray, now on death row in a Virginia prison, in an attempt to find out who he was and what had driven him to murder nine innocent people. But I never heard back.

I gave it up as a bad job. It was just too much of a stretch to make Dandridge and Gray into people the reader would want to read about, let alone care about. In the end, it would be the story about the perfect white family horribly massacred by White America’s worst nightmare: crazed black drug fiends. Not the kind of story America wants or needs right now.

This I learned: not all murderers deserve an audience. And some stories are better left untold.

Chris Orlet is a freelance writer living St. Louis. His debut novel is In the Pines from New Pulp Press.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Hack Writer

A writer is always collecting experiences and sponging characters from everyday interactions, but there a handful of jobs a writer can hold that are indispensable gold mines of story elements that will inform and enrich their art. Top of the list for crime writers: cop, social worker, drug dealer, skip tracer - and probably top of the heap - cab driver.

So, good news for your eye holes: Chicago cabbie Jack Clark's Chicago cabbie Eddie Miles is back for another go-round in the Back Door To L.A.

Back in 2010 I flipped out over Nobody's Angel, Hard Case Crime's resurrection of Clark's first Eddie Miles novel. It went on to be one of my favorites of the year and the next to last HCC book in the mass market size (HCC returned nearly two years later in their current larger paperback and even hardcover format). I'm happy to report that Back Door To L.A. (only the second Miles book and more than twenty years since Nobody's Angel's first publication) is another strong entry in the series.

Here's the piece I wrote about Nobody's Angel back in 2010... everything still applies and to Back Door to L.A. too. Get some.

Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere… There's no escape. I'm God's lonely man.” – Travis Bickle

Jack Clark, a Chicago taxi driver among other things, (like journalist and singer-songwriter), self-published Nobody's Angel in 1996 and sold it exclusively out of his cab, (hey John Grisham did the same thing for a while). Now it’s been reprinted by Hard Case Crime and made available outside the cab, in actual bookstores. Thank god. It rocks.

My first fifteen stabs at writing about this book were awful. I kept waxing poetic on the nighttime streets, the human detritus and the noble hack patrolling his beat. It got bad. I mean really bad. You have no idea. But such was the power of this book—I bet it launches a hundred purple reviews—so full of grand, large themes and cinematic setting and heroic melancholy that it cries out to be treated thus. But Jack ain't having none of it. He keeps the whole thing on a reasonable scale and that’s one reason I loved this book.

His protagonist, Eddie Miles, himself a veteran Chicago cabbie is as hard-bitten and weathered, as flawed and vulnerable and as philosophic and smart-alecky as all the great first person protagonists before him, but he walks the razor’s edge of hardboiled cliché and cloying sentimentality with deft, sure-footed steps and pulls you through all that clean of any sticky, pulpy residue. That’s another reason I loved this book.

Somebody is killing taxi drivers. Somebody is killing street walkers. Eddie Miles does something about it. I read that premise and rolled my eyes—honestly, I don’t know how he pulled it off, ‘cause it’s a neat, clean read, never bogged down by clunky plot mechanics or choked by forced emotions. Clark’s simple, honest prose style immerses you at once in the minutia of hack life and Eddie’s entirely reasonable goals. And though, I am perfectly willing to do so in the right circumstances, I was never even close to straining my plausibility muscles. That is one really big reason I loved this book.

Far, I’m sure from autobiographical, it does clearly draw upon Clark’s own experiences and characters that undoubtedly have walked and breathed in Chicago at one time or another. The anecdotal structure pulls you along at just the right pace and the economics of his story telling are commendable. There’s a world of intriguing and memorable detail expertly packed into two-hundred pages and just the right amount of heartache. The book’s close features one of the best final lines of any book I’ve ever read. Please don’t pick it up and read that last page first, it’s so worth getting there naturally.

Didn't singer-songwriter Tom Russell drive a cab too? Those guys can write.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Steven Knight's London Underground Trilogy

Illegal immigration, refugees, competitive workforce and free-market capitalism's most horrific extremes - man has there ever been a more timely time for Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things?

I first saw this film in 2002 when star Audrey Tautou was hot from Jeane-Pierre Jeunet's Amelie (a far more successful feature outing as a singular director after his solo-debut Alien: Resurrection followed a nearly two decade-long collaborative career with Marc Caro). I was already a big fan of director, Frears, whose adaptation (along with screenwriter Donald Westlake) of Jim Thompson's The Grifters remains one of my absolute favorites and whose work on The Hit and Hi-Lo Country proved The Grifters wasn't a one-off, lightning strike of flare for crime fare.

Tautou was the face of the poster, but the film was stolen by an actor with an unfamiliar face and impossible to guess at name, Chiwetel Ejiofor, who anchors the picture even when he isn't center frame, his moral gravity and personal guilt silently expressed loud and clear.

Still, for all the talent I'm fond of and drawn to in this flick it's screenwriter Steven Knight whose movie I immediately identify it as. Though urban, British underworlds are something he continues to explore (Peaky Blinders is one of my favorite things on TV) Dirty Pretty Things is the opening chapter of a thematic trilogy of his - followed by David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises and his own feature directing debut, Redemption (aka Hummingbird), that explores the lives of desperate people doing terrible things to survive in the shadows of prosperity.

Near the end of the film Ejiofor's character refers to the protagonists of the picture in a way that succinctly expresses the marginalized peoples of this trilogy "We are the people you do not see. We are the ones who drive your cabs. We clean your rooms. And suck your cocks." You can keep your hero cops, crusading politicians, expert killers and ruthless crime lords, it is exactly these types of characters that most interest me in crime-themed fare.

This week I'm showing Dirty Pretty Things (Wednesday at the Maplewood Library at 7pm) as part of the Hardboiled Wonderland Film Series. One of my chief goals in putting the series together was to highlight some overlooked titles, and this is one I hope gets some more attention. It's elegant and sinister, humane and terrifyingly plausible in its utter routine-ness. So if you've been attending or playing along with the series at home, this is one to tune in for.

Dirty Pretty Things serves as a thesis statement for the trilogy. After you've watched it plug in Eastern Promises

and follow them both with Redemption (err, Hummingbird). Then get back to me and let me know your thoughts on the trilogy.

Friday, September 9, 2016


War On Everyone - d: John Michael McDonagh

Free Fire: d: Ben Wheatley w: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley

Dog Eat Dog - d: Paul Schrader w: Edward Bunker, Matthew Wilder

Live By Night - d: Ben Affleck w: Dennis Lehane, Ben Affleck

Monday, September 5, 2016

Eye Thai Crime Time

Spent some time disappeared down a rabbit hole of Italian crime films of the seventies recently. Plenty of folks with more insight and knowledge than me (some of whom I hope will chime in here soon), but I just wanted to drop a few thoughts. Watch your step.

After being so blown away by Stefano Sollima's Suburra last year (have you seriously not yet watched that shit? Come on) - finding it reminiscent, in its bleak portrait of all-encompassing corruption, of Matteo Garrone's Gomorah or Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo, and after being similarly shocked to attention by Carlotto Massimo's The Goodbye Kiss and At the End of a Dull Day (thanks btw to Thomas Wickersham for the introduction) I wanted more of this Italian thing.

I started with Revolver (aka Blood in the Streets 1973) directed by Sergio Sollima and starring Oliver Reed as a prison warden whose wife is kidnapped and Fabio Testi as the prisoner whose release is demanded by the kidnappers in exchange for his wife. Reed capitulates by arranging for Testi's escape, but turns the tables by kidnapping the prisoner himself. Of course his assumption about the reason the kidnappers want Testi released is way off. Foes become bros and much blood is let in the streets. This one has a terrific climax and is bolstered by an incredible score from Ennio Morricone.

Followed it up with Fernando Di Leo's Caliber 9 (1972) featuring the fugly mug of Gastone Moschin as Ugo Piazza released to the streets after years in prison where his former friends and eternal enemies seem to agree he conveniently had himself sent after the money from a heist went missing. Ugo knows it's hopeless to convince anyone that he didn't steal the stolen loot, and stoically takes beatings, shakedowns and threats from cops, crooks and the fates until... he doesn't. This is a perfect example of the kind of street-level hardboiled crime film I wish were made more often. Reminded me of early standalone Ken Bruen stuffs - and that's about as high a recommendation as I'll ever give.

Di Leo must have ingested some super potent vitamins because he also put out The Italian Connection in the year of Our Lord 1972 in which Mario Adorf, a small time pimp who, finds himself the target of a hit put out by the top boss with no idea why. Doesn't matter he can't figure out why he's wanted dead - if the boss wants you gone, everybody wants you gone. And not only is every friend now a probable enemy, the boss has imported two cold blooded professionals from New York, Henry Silva and Woody Strode, to do the job. This one is more an action flick than Caliber 9, but it'sruthless enough with who gets it and when (as well as having an all-in performance from Adorf) to make for highly watchable entertainment and uncommonly emotionally engaging action flick fare.

Stayed with Di Leo for 1973's Il Boss in which Henry Silva plays a hit man/enforcer working his way up the ladder of power on one side of a mob war. It begins with a spectacular hit sequence and never really gets better, but sustains a tone violence and cold-bloodedness I'm prone to appreciate.

Enzo G. Castellari's The Big Racket (1976) stars Fabio Testi as a Dirty Harry-style cop prone to playing loose with legalities when putting pain to the bad guys. No bones are made about the badness of the baddies or the righteous motives of Testi, but yeah, he really shouldn't be allowed to carry a badge anymore. Once he's kicked off the force he mounts a vigilante campaign against the gangster-ring ruining lives with impunity. He recruits a Dirty Dozen-esque team of revenge-seeking-victims to mount an all out war against the criminals and - lots of people die in satisfying ways.

By the time I got to 1974's Street Law, also directed by Castellari, starring Franco Nero as an everyman whose life is turned upside down by the intrusion of violence, I'll admit I was a little dulled to the style and tone to of the violence specific to these 1970s Italian films, and some of the charm of the poor sound dubbing present in all of these was wearing thin. Nero too, giving it his all, but only landing the moment half the time contributed to my placing it significantly below the earlier films in this little detour I took. Given a year or even a few months between viewings, I'd probably have enjoyed this one quite a bit more, but it felt the slightest.
A palette cleanser of sorts was Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist (1970) with its period setting (1930s), art deco designs, classical compositions and slow pacing. Based on the novel by Alberto Moravia about a man set on proving himself to be a good fascist by assassinating a former teacher of his. Enjoyed, but not rocked by - I'll sooner return to something like Michelaneolo Antonioni's The Passenger when I want a slow burn, but I'm pretty sure this was not a one and done viewing for me.

With my palette cleansed I'll get around to watching Andrea Bianchi's Cry of a Prostitute (1974) soon.