Boom Like That

Even though it’s pretty quiet as we head into the holiday, I thought it might be worth running down some recent stories from this month.

ImageFirst, my interview with the former heavyweight champion of the world, Mike Tyson, came out over at Kirkus Reviews today. I was quite surprised to land this interview, despite the fact that the author of the new memoir, Undisputed Truth, has basically appeared on every media outlet that has electricity by this point.

A lot of people have asked me what he was like, and the truth is that he’s well-spoken, polite and he seems genuinely regretful about many of the terrible things he’s both experienced and delivered onto others. I will say, for someone who was that famous, he was shockingly candid. I gave him my usual caution as we started that I wasn’t writing a gossip column and that if we hit something too uncomfortable, he could just let me know and we could move on. He immediately replied, saying, “No, no. You ask me anything you want and I’ll tell you. We’re professionals here.”

It’s easy to forget that as many violations as he’s committed—and there are some lascivious stories in this book, let me tell you—the man who became the warrior was once the boy who lived in fear every day of his life. This didn’t make it into the story, but Tyson gave me a little insight into the temper of his longtime trainer, Cus D’amato.

Image“You know, I didn’t really have an ego and I’ve never been jealous of anyone,” he said. “But then I met Cus and he explained these characteristics that I needed to be the best in the world at this particular art. You need the ambition, you need the jealousy. I said something complimentary about Larry Holmes one time when I was a teenager, and Cus just ripped into me, man. He ripped into me something fierce and he said, ‘This was supposed to be your title. They should strip this man of his title. He couldn’t beat you.’ And I never said another complimentary thing about anybody. It was all about me.”

I also thought it was a little sad that so many people are still after him, too. Tyson admitted in Undisputed Truth that he fought under the influence of marijuana and cocaine, so that’s brought the threat of lawsuits by promoters, while still others have accused him of pinching fighters for his new production company. I asked him if he thought there could ever come a time when there wasn’t somebody on his case, and he got real quiet. “I don’t know,” he finally said. “It’s my life. I just talk about my life. It happened to me.”

On a much lighter note, Tyson is a scream in this new commercial for Footlocker, so he has that going for him.

ImageOn an entirely different case, I’ve been covering the JFK assassination anniversary and the avalanche of new books that have come out. First up, I was asked to run down the “new” revelations in Phillip Shenon’s A Cruel and Shocking Act, which is a bit lurid but certainly should generate a fair amount of gossip from those on both sides of the conspiracy theory line. It was a more interesting exercise to interview Howard P. Willens, author of History Will Prove Us Right and the last surviving member of the three-person supervisor staff of the Warren Commission. I’ve done quite a number of interviews over the years with men and women who were primary witnesses to major historical events and it’s a bit tricky because memory is never a certain thing. I’m pleased to say that Howard is as sharp an attorney as he was 50 years ago and has a memory for details like a steel trap. This was a straight-up Q&A (albeit there were only five hours between the interview and its publication), so I don’t have too many details to add.

I did run across the most bizarre video online that accused Governor John Connally of shooting President Kennedy with a handgun.  Howard hadn’t heard of that one, but he said he does occasionally get asked about the theory that Secret Service agent George Hickey shot the President by accident. As he said, the debate rages on.

ImageI keep swearing that I’m going to leave the crime thing behind, but they keep pulling me back in. (I wrote a crime column at Bookslut for five full years and you can get your fill of any genre after that much time.) But when I got a press release from Charles Ardai at Hard Case Crime letting me know that he was republishing eight (!) of Michael Crichton’s old John Lange novels, I decided it was time for us to catch up with a full interview. Even if Ardai’s lurid covers and pulp fiction isn’t for you, it’s an interesting look inside a truly unique indie publishing house, not to mention a hint of just how many of your favorite writers paid the bills writing naughty books on the side. (I’m looking at you, Lawrence Block).

I also always enjoy talking with Ardai about his detective work; he’s managed to find, discover and publish some seriously hidden manuscripts, like the last novel by James M. Cain and pseudonymous novels by guys like Block and the late Donald Westlake. This time, we talked about some of the wilder rumors. He’s right that there are copies of Charles Willeford’s Grimmhaven floating around out there, despite the fact that it’s supposed to be under lock and key in a museum in Fort Lauderdale. But still no word on a lost Travis McGee novel, sadly. Here’s a link to the Time Magazine story that launched the rumor.

Oh, hey—fun fact—the actress Rose McGowan was the cover model for this cover of The Twenty-Year Death by artist Chuck Pyle.


Lastly, I’ll leave you with a cipher. Twenty-two miles from here, in Olivet Cemetery, is buried one James McParland. This turn-of-the-century lawman is the subject of the new book by polar historian Beau Riffenburgh, Pinkerton’s Great Detective: The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland. McParland, probably the most famous of that age of Pinkerton detectives, is a pretty amazing story. He’s most famous for infiltrating and subsequently shutting down most of the criminal infrastructure of the Molly Maguires and was fictionalized by no less than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the last Sherlock Holmes novel, The Valley of Fear. But as thrilling as it all sounds, it turns out that McParland was incredibly secretive, known to take on different characters and serving as an obsessive destroyer of documentation, especially when it came to his own activities. But then again, life as an undercover cop can’t be easiest in the most civilized of times, let alone a century ago when gunslingers still strolled the streets of Denver.

That’s all for now. Everyone stay safe this week and I’ll see you on the other side for more fun and games next month.


“It was the sort of day that didn’t give a damn.”

ImageI was absolutely thrilled to interview Martin Cruz Smith. I lost track of him a little bit in the past few years but he was hugely influential on my own writing and certainly helped to spark the interest in crime fiction and espionage novels that drove me to write a crime column for a full five years over at Bookslut and keeps me immersed in the subject to this day.

I was far less thrilled this morning to find that the author revealed today to the New York Times that he has been living with Parkinson’s Disease since 1995, but I thought he handled the revelation in an incredibly graceful way. My personal experience speaking with him was terrific, as he offered sharp insights about his beloved and much put-upon anti-hero, Arkady Renko. I really appreciated his sense of humor and his candor, and wish him only the best as he continues working on his new book.

This feature survived mostly intact, but did require a few nips and tucks here and there. Here’s a little bonus for the couple of you that have found your way here—a humorous thought from the author about the bullet fragment still lodged in Arkady Renko’s brain. It’s the “ticking time bomb” that suddenly takes on a lot more meaning in the wake of today’s news.

It certainly wouldn’t be an Arkady Renko novel without a significant amount of mayhem, usually directed at the Inspector Detective himself. In addition to the lurking ghost of that bullet in his head, within pages Smith has his favorite character beaten to a pulp.


Martin Cruz Smith in the Lenin Suite at the National Hotel circa 1990.

“I’m surprised that Arkady puts up with how I treat him, honestly,” Smith laughs.. “What drives me crazy—and I can’t read these kinds of books—are those stories where the lead characters are invulnerable. They get out of bed the next day and knife wounds have turned into mosquito bites. He’s stuck, of course, with a writer whose idea is to bring in a brain surgeon to warn him not to put himself in any more danger, and I immediately throw him back in the pit.”

ImageIf you read any of the breaking news about Smith’s new novel Tatiana, you’ll quickly figure out that his title character is based on the heroic journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was gunned down outside her Moscow apartment seven years ago now. I would greatly encourage anybody who finds this story compelling to seek out her work. If you would like to get a sense of her, you can start with “Chronicle of Repression,” my review of her last released work, A Russian Diary, from the Rocky Mountain News.

Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation

ImageI’m doing a lot of interviews with cool people right now, but I wanted to jump on for a few minutes and add a little back story to a story that was published today. In a feature I think turned out pretty good, I interviewed the great singer-songwriter Joe Henry and his talented filmmaker brother David about their new collaboration, Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World that Made Him. You can check out the resulting feature, “A Little Pryor Love,” at Kirkus Reviews here.

Now, I know a lot about Richard Pryor—we’re talking professional-level lore about his comedy, his process, and his deeply screwed-up life. Not only did I read his autobiography and several other books about the man, but I own maybe three box sets that chronicle his decades of comedy and dozens of associated albums. To me, he was in that pantheon that includes George Carlin and Bill Hicks where I just couldn’t get enough of the man. Much of comedy is of its time. People like these—and let me include contemporary comedians like Tig Notaro in that lineup—somehow breach that barrier.

In these very early interviews, Joe and David both said they were the same way; swapping Richard Pryor albums and staying up late to see him on television. I had heard a rumor that Joe keeps a portrait of Richard in his office, and I was pleased to find out that not only was the rumor true, but it still hangs there today. Anyway, the point is that I took this book with me on vacation to the heart of desolate Mesa Verde National Park and was just absorbed by it, and learned a great many things about Pryor that I—and in fact, not many other people—knew at all about the fiery rise and doomed arc of his life.

I tend to write long anyway, so I’m grateful to my editors at Kirkus Reviews for as much rope as I get, but there’s a lot that gets left out of these stories. I always liked liner notes, so here’s a couple of unpublished bonuses for you travelers who followed this story down the rabbit hole. Here’s David Henry on the dual nature of Richard Pryor:

“Almost everybody we talked to still absolutely love him, even if they were brutalized by him or betrayed in some way. He was an irresistible person. But no, we didn’t soft-pedal any of his behavior. He was very forthright about using coke to wild excess, but he always placed it in the past. He never owned up to being a current user. He could still tell the truth but he wouldn’t admit that he wasn’t going to stop.”

And here’s Joe, when I asked him if the experience of producing or collaborating with so many different artists (and it’s a laundry list) comes to mind when he thinks about the mad life of Richard Pryor

“It does have an effect. Anytime I’m that deeply invested with another artist, it changes things for me in ways that I sometimes understand, and more deeply in ways that I don’t. I think the most visceral way I can suggest studying Richard has changed me is to be so aware of how vulnerable one has to be, in the grander sense of the word, to be able to give something back of substance.”

Just to add to the experience, I wanted to share the song that started this whole ride. In 2000, Joe wrote a song that later appeared on his 2001 album Scar, and featured accompaniment by the legendary jazz trumpeter Ornette Coleman. It’s an extraordinary piece of art in which Joe sings in the persona of Richard Pryor.

You should also check out Joe’s Esquire article that followed, “How to Write a Song.” And on David’s behalf, I would also encourage you to check out his new movie, Pleased to Meet Me. Although the film hasn’t been sold yet, there’s a lot of interest in it, and it’s a very strange comedy starring John Doe from X, Aimee Mann, Loudon Wainwright III, and Joe Henry. There’s a great trailer on the site as well.

And by all means, go check out Furious Cool. It’s a fantastic examination of one of America’s most gifted, searing and flawed personas. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite moments with Richard Pryor from Live on the Sunset Strip.

Keep in mind, almost everything Richard Pryor ever put on tape is NSFW, so be forewarnedit’s not at all my intention to offend anyone, so be aware there’s some hard language here. But give yourself a few minutes of open-mindedness and you’ll experience a great moment of enlightenment on the part of a guy who was often not very self-aware. Ladies and gentlemen, Richard Pryor.