Black Panther

Let’s get the obligatory thumbs up/down portion of this review out of the way first: Black Panther is one of the better superhero movies. It’s in my personal top-five list, somewhere in the mix that includes The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, Wonder Woman, and Logan. Fans of the genre will enjoy the hero’s journey and outlandish setting (Wakanda is a dazzling blend of Camelot and Star Trek), action/adventure fans who are ambivalent about superheroes will still appreciate the fast-paced narrative and kick-ass battles, and for those who’d rather skip all the explosions and CGI, at least you have other ways to enjoy a night at the show.

The film offers no shortage of topics on which to comment — the hilarious memes its inspired, the lame attempts by racist cowards to sabotage its aggregate audience score or scare caucassians with reports of fake assaults, its cultural significance to black America and black girls especially, even its potential impact on a character who, as I’ve commented before, has had a complicated history in the comics. But for today, I’ll restrict my comments to the decision not to develop the Infinity Stones story arc that’s been sown through most films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

(Background for the curious but uninitiated: the Infinity Stones are six gems of immense power, formed during the Big Bang that started the universe. Five of the stones have appeared in MCU films, as has Thanos, a madman attempting to gather the entire set and cause all kinds of trouble. Since Black Panther is the last MCU film before Thanos completes his collection in this May’s Avengers: Infinity War, many assumed the sixth stone would be in Wakanda, or that T’Challa would somehow stumble across its presence.)

I was glad to see Black Panther make no mention of the sixth stone, as its inclusion would have been an unnecessary distraction. T’Challa’s role within the MCU had already been established by his appearance in Captain America: Civil War (another film that did little to further the saga of the stones), and there was no need to further incorporate his character in this marvelously complex world. Most MCU heroes have been featured in at least one film with only tangential relationships to the MCU; Black Panther deserved an opportunity to shine on his own, and based on the phenomenal box-office receipts, T’Challs needed no assistance from his Avengers buddies or the Infinity Stones storyline to deliver a terrific story.

Some day, the current era of superhero movies will come to an end, most likely when the current generation of charismatic actors decides to move on to other projects. I’m just glad that Black Panther was able to have his moment on the stage before the curtain came down.

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King of the Holly Hop

Some words of advice to all private investigators, especially the fictional ones: don’t go to any of your high school reunions, because if you do, somebody’s gonna get themselves killed.

Milan Jacovich arrives at his class’ 40th, and one of his fellow alumni has a drink thrown in his face, walks out to his car, and catches a bullet with his noggin. Advice for reunion attendees: if a private eye shows up, don’t wander off by yourself. Especially if you’re carrying emotional baggage from your high school years.

Hired by the lead suspect in the case to clear his name, Milan interviews many of his classmates, and discovers some ugly scar tissue over adolescent wounds. The lead suspect, for one, had been humiliated during the Holly Hop, a school dance held just before Christmas his senior year; he confronts the cause of his embarrassment at the reunion, and when that man winds up dead minutes later, suspicion rightly falls on him.

“King of the Holly Hop” falls within a series of Milan Jacovich mystery novels written by Les Roberts. I haven’t read any other books in the series, but I didn’t feel at a disadvantage for entering this series without a previous introduction. There isn’t as much action as you’d find in most other mysteries, but Roberts’ characters are complex and engaging. If you like the mystery/crime genre, you’ll appreciate this novel’s craftsmanship, and if you’re just looking for an entertaining read, you’ll find more than enough satisfaction.

Where the Heart Leads, Part 3

“I apologize for being short with you on the phone,” Eddie said in a rasping voice, as if his throat had shriveled in the Arizona heat. “I didn’t know you were working for Clara.”

Micky cleared his throat again. “All she wants, is to know what happened to her husband.”

“Husband?” Eddie laughed wearily. “Well there’s your first problem, detective. Jonas Haart, was never her husband.”

Micky couldn’t help looking surprised, as he suddenly realized he hadn’t checked this basic fact.

“Jonas was a hit man. The electrical company he worked for was owned by the mob, his job an excuse to infiltrate homes and businesses, his ‘marriage’ to Clara a part of his cover.”

“But if Clara knew this — why’d she hire me, to find him?”

“Because she figured out what was going down. Jonas’ identity had been compromised, and the mob needed to relocate him. When he disappeared without a trace, Clara knew the mob didn’t trust her, and she’d eventually be removed. But if she could find him, that knowledge could be used to strike a bargain. You, detective, were her last hope.”

Micky felt his forehead perspiring. “I take it, you’re not going to tell me where Jonas is?”

Eddie waved a dismissive hand. “I called Clara right after I hung up with you, and told her not to worry. She was loyal to Jonas, and generous with me. I told her I’d take care of her — I even told her, ‘I love you.’ Because I do love her, detective. We’ll relocate her, to here. She’ll be my caretaker.”

Micky stood up. “That’s great, Mr. Clague. I think my work here is done, so if you don’t mind — ”

“Oh, I do mind,” said Eddie, as Micky felt a meaty hand slam down on his shoulder, pushing him back down on his chair. “You should have given up on this investigation when the trail grew cold — that would have been the intelligent move. But you couldn’t control your curiosity — you let yourself be led by the heart, not your mind. And that decision has taken you to a place you should never have gone. And can’t ever leave.”

End of “Where the Heart Leads”

Where the Heart Leads, Part 2

[Continuing my flash fiction story from yesterday]

Micky’s call to elderly man was greeted cooly, and when the private investigator mentioned Jonas Haart, his contact ended the call abruptly.

Going to the police was never a consideration — years of working with the authorities gave Micky confidence that it would take more than the sales receipt for a fuel can to re-open the investigation. Neither was dropping the case. Instead, Micky booked the next flight to Phoenix, and upon his arrival contacted Uber for a ride to his contact’s home.

The sedan pulled in to a retirement community, tiny one-floor homes with white paint and red clay stains. Micky’s expectations rose as he saw the interior lights were on at his destination. He rushed to the front door and rang the buzzer; a moment later, feet shuffled towards him, and the door opened.

From behind the screen door, Micky cleared his throat, already dry from the desert heat. “Mister Clague?”

Eyes that had seen enough of this world looked up at him. “You must be that detective.”

“I’m not with the police, sir. I’m just a private investigator, working on behalf of my client — ”

“Clara.” Energy blossomed in his tired eyes. The man pushed the screen door open, and beckoned Micky to enter. “She always treated me well, like she did everyone. She never deserved any of this.”

As soon as he entered the home, Micky blinked as a wave of ammonia fumes came over him. The elderly man shuffled towards a cushioned arm chair, and waved towards a sofa at the far end of the room.

“I don’t want take too much of your time, Mr. Clague — ”

“Eddie, please.” Reaching the arm chair, Eddie turned, and smiled. “If I’m going to tell you this story, we need to be on a first name basis.”

Where the Heart Leads, Part 1

[Something a little different and fun today, using the Writing Prompt Generator from The Story Shack to set the parameters for today’s flash fiction story. I’m going to cheat on the word count — the story is supposed to be no more than 300 words, but I’m going to write this in 300-word installments.]

Jonas Haart kissed his wife Clara, walked into his garage, reversed his car into his subdivision… and had not been seen since that morning three years ago.

A week after Clara notified the police, his car was found in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart 217 miles to the south. The vehicle was undamaged, and a forensic scan only uncovered DNA evidence from Jonas and his wife. There hadn’t been, and would not ever be, charges on any of his credit cards, or withdrawals from his sizable bank or investment accounts.

Frustrated by the police’s seeming disinterest in her husband’s disappearance, Clara hired Micky Waldenburg. The private investigator reviewed hours of security camera videos, and interviewed gas station attendants within a hundred mile radius (the car’s tank was nearly full), but when Micky became as befuddled as the police, he returned Clara’s money along with an apology.

But he never forgot the case.

And two years later, a lead had fallen into his lap.

A violent rainstorm unearthed debris from ditches along the interstate, and among the detritus was a five gallon metal fuel can, with a gallon of stale automobile gas at its bottom. A county worker picked it up and contacted the police, but when they showed no interest he called in a favor from a friend in the forensics lab.

When his lab friend told reported whose fingerprints were found on the can, the worker called his uncle Micky, who nearly dropped his phone when he heard his nephew say, “Jonas Haart.”

Using the can’s manufacturer and model, Micky traced its sale to a Home Depot a few miles from Haart’s home. It had been purchased not by Haart, but rather an elderly man who now lived in Mesa, Arizona.

Closing Time

It’s 2018, and it’s time.

Time to follow through on an ambition I’ve held since the time I started my professional career almost thirty years ago: to stop working jobs I have to do, and do the work I want to do.

It won’t be easy, because for all the banality of my current profession, it does have its comforts. Several months ago, I realized that three decades of routine had conditioned me to avoid risk. I was going to need some help in order to make the transition to my new career.

It was around that time when I downloaded Your Guide to Calling It Quits, a short book that can be started and finished in the same evening. The author (Kelly Gurnett, who writes and blogs under the name Cordelia) begins with a brief autobiography, which read much like my own experience: “I woke up every morning absolutely dreading the day ahead of me.”

(Honestly, every morning is a bit of a stretch, but there have been far too many dread-full waking hours of late.)

The book didn’t answer all of my questions, but it contained enough insights to be truly inspirational. I particularly appreciated Cordelia’s statement that quitting has to be a positive action.

You can’t quit because you’re fed up with what you’re doing. A response rooted in despair or frustration is likely to lead to an equally negative situation.

You need to quit in order to do what you want to be doing. In other words, you need something to quit for. As I like to say, you need to run towards where you want to be, not away from where you are now.

Precisely because it is so short, “Your Guide to Calling it Quits” is a wonderful little gift for anyone contemplating a major career change. (Ironically, the author’s blog has not been updated in close to a year; has Cordelia quit quitting?) I’ve enjoyed revisiting the book lately and letting myself be inspired by its pithy advice.

I’m going to need that inspiration in the coming year, because this transition ain’t gonna be easy. Indeed, every new beginning is some other beginning’s end.

Permit

[Using today’s prompt from The Daily Post to develop an encounter from one of my story drafts]

“Just fixing to be on my way, once this log’s been cleared.” Jimmy squinted as the officer pointed the beam of his flashlight onto Jimmy’s face. “Say, John Law, mind getting that light outta my eyes?”

Without acknowledging Jimmy’s request, the officer moved the beam down to the lower edge of the van’s windshield. “Your county permit’s out of date.”

Jimmy scoffed. “Mailed my check in the other day, sticker ain’t come back yet.”

“Has to be there by the 31st — ”

“Check was mailed the 30th.”

“You’re late — ”

“It’s the goddam second of February!”

The officer brought his flashlight up to the side of his face, and flashed its beam across Jimmy’s face again. “Need to see your license and registration.”

Sitting in the passenger seat of the van, Rex reflexively reached for the glove compartment — but was immediately stopped by Jimmy’s right arm, reaching across his chest.

“Officer, you wanna gimme a ticket for an out of date county permit, go ahead. Do what I done last year — go to the registrar, show ’em my cancelled check for the permit fee, get them to waive the fine. People do it all the time. No need for you to see no — ” Jimmy spat out the next words — “license, no registration.”

The officer grasped his flashlight tighter. “There’s no need to get angry. I just need to see — ”

“You don’t need to see nothing!

Tweety & the Monkey Man

For most people, stopping a murderous man-ape would be enough challenge for one day. But Jess Friedman, Monster Hunter Mom and protagonist of “Tweety & the Monkey Man”, must also endure the killer stares of disapproving mothers, sadistic personal trainers, and self-righteous daycare providers.

The novella, the first of a series set in the same fictive universe as Eric Asher’s Bubba The Monster Hunter, is fast-paced, suspenseful, and enjoyable work of urban horror fantasy. Blackrose’s attempts at humor can be a little forced at times — there is a reference to the famous “failure to communicate” line from “Cool Hand Luke” which seems entirely out of place for a mid-thirties woman in 2017 — but the overall quality of her writing more than compensates for her occasional faults.

Like all the books in the Bubba universe, “Tweety & the Monkey Man” is published by Falstaff Books, an independent fantasy/sci-fi press from North Carolina. The book shows all the qualities of professional editing — the tone is consistent, the cover design is subtle but appealing, and each of the secondary characters is given an opportunity to shine. More than a few typos slipped through the cracks, and I do wish the editorial staff had talked the author out of that “Cool Hand Luke” reference, but their efforts certainly give this book a polished appearance.