Larry McMurtry’s Loop Group

I’m a HUGE Larry McMurtry fan.  I have been for most of my life.  His early "contemporary" novels (LAST PICTURE SHOW, MOVING ON, ALL MY FRIENDS ARE GOING TO BE STRANGERS, TERMS OF ENDEARMENT etc.) and his  classic westerns (LONESOME DOVE,  STREETS OF LAREDO) are fantastic. He also wrote the screenplay for the terrific miniseries version of Frederick Manfred’s western RIDERS OF JUDGEMENT last season for TNT. 

McMurtry has a natural, amiable writing style that is as comforting, and difficult to leave, as a warm bed.  I was sad when MOVIN’ ON and LONESOME DOVE, books that clock in around 600 pages, had to end (I’ve re-read LONESOME DOVE twice). All his characters, even the ugliest, meanest ones, have a natural sense of humor.  But that doesn’t mean he’s soft… his novels are full of physical and emotional violence, cruelty and death…but with equal measures of humanity and hope. I love the guy and I drop everything to read his books the moment they come out.   

That said, his "contemporary" novels over the last ten years or so have been increasingly disappointing and repetitive, while his westerns continue to soar. His four BERRYBENDER westerns, the last of which came out a few months ago, were a pure joy…more comedic and sillier than his other work, but surprisingly violent as well.

His non-westerns lately (DUANE’S DEPRESSED, THE LATE CHILD, EVENING STAR, etc.) have all seemed to focus on depressed, dreary, aimless characters trying to jar themselves out of a deep funk… usually by abandoning their loved ones, behaving irrationally and self-destructively,  and taking some kind of road trip. His latest book, LOOP GROUP, is yet another take on the same theme and his weakest book in decades.

For the first time, his characters feel like caricatures of previous characters in his earlier, better novels… and his writing has lost it’s snap.  His prose  is sloppy and unfocused,  littered with cliches as well as cliche images (haven’t we seen the reference to `Japanese tourists running around with their cameras, taking pictures of everything’ enough now?). He also appears to make many factual errors.  For example, he talks about people driving east on Cahuenga in LA, and couple of haracters walking into a California Wal-Mart, buying a gun, and walking out with it, and a box of shells the same day (Isn’t there a waiting period?)

But I doubt the factual bumps and cliches would have bothered me so much if the characters, the plot, and the writing were up to McMurtry’s usual level of excellence.  THE LOOP GROUP is a McMurtry book even devoted McMurtry fans should skip.

(The last time I felt this disappointed by a favorite author was a year or two back when John Irving came out with THE FOURTH HAND, an uninspired novel that read as if it had been dashed off half-heartedly using reheated Irving leftovers from other, better books). 

Ken Bruen

One more note on the Ken Bruen discussion.. I’ve ordered THE WHITE TRILOGY as well as HER LAST CALL TO LOUIS MACNEICE. I’ve been told by many of my author friends, several of whom (much to my surprise) shared my opinion of THE GUARDS,  that I will be blown away by the books. I look forward to reading them!

Dan Neil

I’m not a big car guy… by that I mean, I love cars, but I don’t know the first thing about engines or horsepower or even how to change my oil. I’m barely capable of checking how much air is in my tires.Montegoext

But I love reading Dan Neil’s car reviews & features in The Los Angeles Times. He recently won a Pulitizer Prize for his funny, clever, incredibly entertaining writing.  His  review today  of the new Mercury Montego started my day off with some laughs. Here are some excerpts.

A car whose lack of charisma is so dense no light can escape its surface…

The faux wood-grain interior trim looks like it came off a prison lunch tray.
I’ve felt better leather upholstery on footballs…

Overall, the car has a profoundly
geriatric feeling about it, like it was built with a swollen prostate. To drive
this car is to feel the icy hand of death upon you…Montegointerior

There is no soul to this car, and it’s about as sexy as going through your
mother’s underwear drawer…

This torpor has a soundtrack. When you mash the gas the powertrain moans as if
you were raising dear departed Uncle Sal at a séance…

Who Was The Best TV PI?

Someone asked me this question in an email today and I thought I’d share my answers with you.

For me, it’s a toss-up between Jim Rockford (THE ROCKFORD FILES) and Harry Orwell (HARRY O).  The runner-ups would be Joe Mannix (MANNIX),  Thomas Magnum (MAGNUM PI) and Spenser, though he’s not truly a TV character, since the series was based on the Parker novels.

HarryoI also have fond memories of Darren McGavin as PI David Ross  in the short-lived series THE OUTSIDER, sort of a no-nonsense precursor of THE ROCKFORD FILES. McGavin also starred in one of the worst PI shows ever, as a detective who’s partner can shrink to microscopic size (SMALL AND FRYE).  While we’re at it, Tony Franciosa starred in two of the worst PI shows ever made — MATT HELM (yeah, he was a PI!) and FINDER OF LOST LOVES.   

What are your picks for best and worst TV PIs ever?

The Surprise Character

Author Sandra Scoppettone had an experience writing the other day that I can certainly sympathize with:

I had my protagonist searching a
hotel room for clues to the missing man. She opened a wardrobe and the
body of a naked woman fell out.

I didn’t plan this at all.  It
happened.  I have no idea who she is or what she has to do with the
missing man case.  The woman falling out of the wardrobe was the way I
ended chapter two.

I’m 4 pages into chapter 4 and I still don’t
know anything about her.  The police have arrived now.  Don’t have any
idea where this is going to go.

Yes, it’s a bit scary not to
know, but it’s also what makes writing without an outline fun.  Maybe
tomorrow I’ll find out who she is.

I write with an outline, but this kind of thing still happens to me all the time. Well, it does when I’m writing books, not in television, where the outline is, to use a cliche, set in stone after it has been approved by the studio and network and distributed to key department heads for production purposes. But I digress..

I refer to my novel outlines as "living outlines," I keep revising them as I write to take into account these little surprises along the way or new ideas that occur to me.  I finish my outline around the same time I finish my books. 

The most troublesome, unexpected change I had to deal with was in my book MY GUN HAS BULLETS. I had a character, Eddie Planet, who was supposed to die very early on. But I fell in love with Eddie, and enjoyed writing him so much, that I kept putting off his death, until I finally accepted the fact that I couldn’t kill him. I was stuck with him for the whole book. Well, that threw my entire plot into disarray. It screwed up every plot turn. I spent the whole book trying to solve plot problems on-the-go.  But I think it was a much better book because I kept Eddie alive… and, in fact, I liked him so much, he became the central character in the sequel, BEYOND THE BEYOND.

I think it’s those surprise characters and unforeseen twists that make writing so exciting.  No matter how well you plot a story, the book always seems (to use another cliche) take on a life of its own.  Or, to use Sandra’s example:

The Surprise Character. I know who she is now. She was
identified by the detective’s client. This happened yesterday. I was
shocked to learn who she was. I ended chapter 5 with this revelation.

morning I woke early and before I went back to sleep I kept writing
opening lines of chapter 6 in my head. But I didn’t use any of them
when I went to work this morning.

Since chapter 5 ended with a
name I had to open chapter 6 with more information about who this
victim was. In learning this I’ve set myself a lot of new problems. I
still don’t know why she was found where she was or why she was
murdered. Needless to say, I don’t know who killed her…

…So what? That’s part of writing a novel. Any novel. Not only a mystery.
I think all good novels are mysteries to the author until they’re

Speaking of which, mine won’t be if I don’t spend less time this blog and more on my manuscript! I’m outta here. Enough procrastinating…



How Not To Sell a TV Series, Again

I received this email:

I’m looking for someone to work with to spice-up and sell shows with. If you are in
the area I’d love to get together and see if we could make something happen with
a few ideas I have.

I replied:

Thanks, but no thanks. I’ve got plenty of ideas… and I’m busy enough just
trying to sell my own stuff. But I wish you the best of luck in your endeavors!

He replied:

You’re busy, I understand. Thanks anyway. If you could just tell me one thing…how do you promote your ideas? The
reason I ask is that from the people I’ve talked to, I mean, from what they’ve
told me, it’s wonder how any shows get made…I get this vision of a dog chasing
its tail.
For example, A&E TV, the parent network for History Channel says, "we
do not review unsolicited submissions." Are they saying that they come up with
every show? Does a writer have to sell a production company on the idea who then
produces the show, show it at a festival in hopes that someone buys it? Or is
that whole "we do not review unsolicited submissions" stuff crap? What’s the

I replied:

First off, and no offense intended, but if you don’t already know the
answers to those questions, you probably aren’t experienced enough to be
pitching TV shows to networks now  anyway.
I have no idea how the non-fiction/reality show game is played. When it
comes to dramatic series, I recommend you read chapter 17, "Your Really Great
Idea for a TV Show," from my book SUCCESSFUL TELEVISION WRITING.

Is it Okay to Have an Opinion?

My comments on this blog about Ken Bruen’s THE GUARDS has sparked a spirited debate here, on Sarah Weinman’s blog, and several other blogs out there. A number of people… authors, in particular… are upset that I posted my criticisms of the book publicly. Author Charlie Stella, on Sarah’s blog, wrote:

Goldberg doesn’t get what all the excitement is about? Okay, fair enough. Like some of the commentators, I don’t get what all the excitement is about some other writers … and I’m sure there are people who upchucked their lunch at reading my stuff as well. I have to wonder why Goldberg took the public potshot, though … unless the guy is just another jerkoff.

To which, Jennifer Jordan wrote:

I didn’t interpret Mr.Goldberg’s post as a pot shot but perhaps you feel any opinion made in a public forum is such. What I got from it, in the end was more a feeling of tiredness with the P.I. genre. It could well be that he hoped to incur the reactions that he’s gotten because, as Sarah said, these very reactions say a lot about Bruen’s writing. He could have made these comments about quite a few authors and not had the ‘public outcry’ that he has here. The outright anger is a testament to Bruen, who is the only author that can instill fear in me by saying he’ll come into town for a drink. That is the biggest damn drink you’ll ever take. Oddly, I don’t see many jumping to Kathy Reichs defense.

I think that’s because Kathy Reichs doesn’t hang out at Bouchercon or at other "crime writer events" socializing with other authors and mystery lovers. Ken Bruen does.

And he’s also a very, very nice guy with a strong literary voice and sharp prose. Kathy’s prose isn’t as accomplished.

He’s greatly admired by a tight-knit group of noir lovers and authors. Kathy Reichs isn’t.

He’s also received numerous accolades for his work from respected novelists and crime writing organizations. Kathy Reichs hasn’t.

But I think the most significant difference, as far as Kathy being fair game and Ken being off-limits, is that she’s a lot more successful, commercially, than he is. Far more, in fact.

Which raises an interesting issue, one that John Rickards, on his blog Empire of Dirt, discusses:

Patricia Cornwell brings out Trace and everyone slates it. Everyone. Come to that, everyone freely uses her, along with Dan Brown, James Patterson etc. etc. as examples of kinda crappy commercial fiction.

No one objects. At least, not round here, virtually speaking.

Is there some ‘upper ceiling’ of commercial success or profile above which a writer becomes fair game for those outside? Is it because few, if any, of us – the reader, the other writer, the reviewer – know these people in person and can therefore say what we like without fear of reproach?

Is there, at least amongst people ‘in the industry’ – and this is where Craig’s comment comes in – a sense that you shouldn’t shit where you sleep? Rather like Hunter S Thompson’s observation of the Washington press corps in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 that they were too chummy with the politicians they were covering and that so much was kept ‘off the record’ because journos didn’t want to offend their friends on the Hill – are we so cosy with one another that we’re afraid of saying what we think?


I’d be curious to hear your answers to that question.

Personally, I think if Kathy Reichs hung out at conventions, was more active in professional organizations (PWA, MWA, SinC) and was friends with lots of authors, and crime writing aficionados, she’d "off-limits" as well, regardless of the creative merits or commercial success of her work.

TV Themes R.I.P.

Once again, the press is declaring the death of tv themes.

Despite such attempts at revival, the theme song is dying. Once a siren’s call
that heralded the beginning of a show and drew people to the TV set from all
over the house, the theme song is fast going the way of Harbert’s cassette

Network executives point to several causes of death: There are
more commercials per half hour of TV, leaving less time for programs. The first
thing to go is often the theme song. It’s costly to hire a good composer to
write a song and pay the residuals due with each airing. Viewers have shorter
attention spans and won’t sit through theme songs. And they can seem
unsophisticated in this era of savvy audiences.

But the loss is
significant. Anyone who has clapped along to the "Friends" theme or sat through
a middle school music class rendition of "The Greatest American Hero" song can
feel it. Good TV shows are made better by good theme songs and remembered more
fondly for them. Think of "Cheers" with its "Where Everybody Knows Your Name."
Or "The Golden Girls" and "Thank You for Being a Friend." Or the jazzy themes of
"Hill Street Blues" and "L.A. Law."

What I really think they mean is the death of TV theme songs, but even that isn’t true.
I’m a big TV theme fan and, while there are fewer memorable themes these days, there are certainly no shortage of  instrumental or vocal themes… just not as many as in days past, and not as many that are catchy enough to remember.

Recent shows with vocal themes include  Nip/Tuck, The Sopranos,  Missing, Monk,  Wild Card,  The O.C.  and Star Trek Enterprise.  (And that doesn’t include shows using pop songs for their themes, like the three CSI shows). Recent shows with memorable instrumental themes include Six Feet Under, Deadwood,  The West Wing,  and, dare I say it, Survivor.

I think networks and studios are making a mistake not recognizing the importance of a strong theme tune/song.  All it takes is a few notes of a memorable theme to create an immediate, emotional reaction in viewers, immediately evoking their affection for the show and its characters.

There’s a story, I don’t know if it’s true, that Scott Rudin wanted to ditch the finger-snapping Addams Family theme from the movie and its trailers. But when he saw the immediate reaction the first few notes had with preview audiences, he changed his mind. A strong theme is instant brand recognition…forever.

What makes the Mission Impossible movies, well, Mission Impossible is that classic Lalo Schifrin theme and the incidental score (which was also used in the film). Addams Family, Star Trek, Friends, Hawaii Five-O, Cheers, X-Files, Seinfeld, Law & Order… those are just a few of many, many TV themes that have become part of our shared culture, whether you’re a regular viewer of those shows or not.   

When studios buy the remake rights to old TV series, I would argue what they are really buying is the format and theme music/song.  What would Hawaii Five-O be without the Morton Stevens theme? What’s The Brady Bunch without the opening song and the incidental score? 

The importance of the theme music/song also extends to most movie franchises. A James Bond movie simply isn’t a 007 film without the James Bond theme (what Bond fan didn’t long for it in NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN?).  What would the Man With No Name be without Ennio Morricone’s haunting score? What people remember most about Shaft isn’t the movie… it’s Isaac Hayes theme song.

The TV theme isn’t dead…it’s just not as appreciated as it should be by the very people, the networks and studios, who have the most to gain by supporting it. The problem is, the gains aren’t as immediately tangible as using the money that would have gone into the music budget on designer wardrobe, big-name guest stars, or a more elaborate action sequences…

Top Fives

Mystery Ink polled over 50 fiction writers, reviewers and other assorted
readers, asking them to name their five favorite books they read during the
year. A list of those, well, lists are up at their website.  T. Jefferson Parker’s CALIFORNIA GIRL,  Scott Phillips COTTONWOOD and Ken Bruen’s THE GUARDS show up a lot. Here’s my list of five.

My brother Tod’s LIVING DEAD GIRL also shows up in a couple of the  lists…including this mention, from author Thomas Perry:

Dead Girl
by Tod Goldberg — Probably the most skillful and unusual
piece of crime fiction by a young writer I’ve read in years.

If I were to expand my list to include, say, the top ten books I read this year, it would also include:

  • Larry McMurtry’s four Berrybender novels (which I think of as one book spread out over four volumes).
  • Frederick Manfred’s  The Scarlet Plume.
  • Paul Quarrington’s Fishing with My Old Guy
  • Dan J. Marlowe’s One Endless Hour
  • Lawrence Block’s Hitman novellas and short stories (which I also think of as one book. I thought the novel he wrote with the character, though, was rather weak).

That’s not to say I didn’t read a lot of other great novels this year, including many listed by others at Mystery Ink,  but these are the ones that will stick with me for some time to come.

TV Marathon

As part of my physical therapy, I have to spend four to six hours a day with my arm in a machine that forcibly bends and extends it… so I have been watching a lot of television lately.

First, I went on a big GUNSMOKE binge… which is easy, since the color episodes play on TVLand every day and the black-and-white episodes air on Western Channel. Plus both networks have been running mini-marathons. You gotta love Tivo.

Anyway, besides noticing what a great, under-appreciated show GUNSMOKE was (though there were a few seasons in the mid-60s you can skip)… I was struck by how often it has been subtly imitated over the years. The key characters on the show are Marshal Matt Dillon, his deputy Chester (and later Festus), his friend ornery Doc Adams, and his girlfriend Kitty, the saloon-keeper (and, let’s be honest here, proprietor of the whore house). But that central triumvirate…  lawman, deputy, and doctor, have been repeated ever since in many series…including one very popular example.

Gene Roddenberry described STAR TREK as "WAGON TRAIN in space." It probably would have been more accurate to call it GUNSMOKE in space. Captain Kirk is Matt Dillon, Mr. Spock is Chester, and Doctor McCoy is, well, virtually the same character as Doc Adams. All the STAR TREK shows have repeated that triumvirate in some form or another…

I also caught up on the first season of NIP/TUCK on DVD… a show that deserves all the praise it has been getting. I can’t wait for season two box set to come out. And I watched the first season DVD set of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT… which left me cold. I can see why it’s struggling to attract an audience, despite its Emmy awards.

I’ve also caught a bunch of movies…among them THE BIG SLEEP (love the movie, though I still can’t follow the plot at all), TONY ROME and LADY IN CEMENT (two fun Frank Sinatra PI movies based on Marv Albert novels), THE GOOD THE BAD AND UGLY special edition (a classic), MISSING (the Tommy Lee Jones western, the DVD is loaded with deleted scenes and alternate endings), all the Bond films for the millionth time, and two PINK PANTHER movies.. in addition to my usual primetime viewing.