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Three Movie Ideas


When I talk to Nick, our occasional London correspondent, we often kick around ideas for movies — and I realized recently that most of them have a rough theme in common: a group of twenty-something friends who embark on a half-baked criminal plot that winds up changing their lives. It’s been a while since we’ve had a good movie like this (Office Space?), and it seems like the perfect fit for the current apathetic zeitgeist among Millenials.

You may have heard about the guy who got a studio deal from a movie idea he described on Reddit. Frankly, that still sounds like an awful lot of work. I’m not sure even the prospect of Hollywood riches could entice the two of us off our asses to actually write a screenplay. So instead I’ll outline three of our best ideas here in the hope that some more industrious person will take them:

#1. A young aspiring filmmaker gets her first big break, striking a deal to have her own script produced with a sizable budget. She can direct herself and have almost total creative control — the one condition is that she has to accept a particular mid-list young star to play a lead role. And this star turns out to be a holy terror to work with, a caricature of a spoiled actor, verbally abusive to everyone on the set and full of terrible ideas for changing the script.

At some point, the protagonist and her crew get the idea that if this star died in some dramatic way during filming, like Heath Ledger or Brandon Lee, it would generate massive publicity for the movie, give them an excuse to write the character down to a more minor role, and make life on the set much easier in general. So they start plotting (in a clumsily amateur way) to bump the star off by inducing a drug overdose, drunken car crash or some other “accidental” death. Whether they eventually succeed depends on just how dark you want to make it, but a lot of the humor would be in the failed attempts (somewhat like Harold & Maude).

#2. A similar group of aimless twenty-something friends come up with a plan to “kidnap” a rich businessman for ransom, without using any force; instead, a female member of the group will seduce him and convince him to leave town with her for an impulsive weekend affair. Maybe he’s her boss who’s been inappropriately hitting on her at work, or there’s some other revenge element, but maybe he’s just a random target.

Anyway, through a combination of “accidents” (she spills her drink on his cell phone) and clever hacking (intercepting the excuses he emails to his secretary and wife) they contrive to make it look like he’s vanished without a trace. Her job is to keep him busy and out of contact for a few days, while the others contact the family or employer and demand their ransom. Their plan is that by the time he gets home unharmed and realizes what happened, he’ll be too compromised by his own attempted infidelity to report anything to the police. (This part works even better if he’s some kind of public figure.)

From there you could go in any direction — obviously the plan has to go wrong somehow, but that could happen in a variety of ways. Maybe the rich guy actually wanted to disappear (shades of Bulworth) and turns the tables on them somehow, or his wife wants him dead (like in Ruthless People), or he and his “kidnapper” unexpectedly fall in love…

This one literally came to me in a dream, and it may have been partly influenced by a German movie called Die Fetten Jahre sind vorbei, which has some similar elements. Here’s Nick’s UK-centric take on it:

Jeff Bridges, a banking tycoon who routes a lot of money through the isle of Guernsey (a tax haven), travels there to take care of some paperwork. Our three protagonists, parochial high street bank clerks from the island — flashy suits, fancy themselves young Gordon Geckos, pretend to read the FT every day, totally clueless — know that he’s a big hitter (they’ve seen his name again and again on legal documents), and conspire to kidnap him.

Enter [charming up-and-coming British actress], the most beautiful girl in the village. She’s roped in by our heroes and seduces Jeff into extending his stay. He gets stuck in Guernsey, having a quirky romance with the girl, while the kidnappers are in London trying incompetently to extort money from the bank for his “safe return.” Cue comical boardroom meetings in balaclavas, confusion, absurdity.

The whole thing gets tied into increasingly absurd knots: Jeff refuses to cooperate, wants to become a fisherman, etc. But despite their continuing failure to even get the bank’s attention, our three stooges manage to trigger some kind of international market crisis, and the whole thing, once backed into a seemingly inescapable corner, is resolved by a farcical government intervention (we get punctuating scenes of absurd Fed guys, like the CIA characters in Burn After Reading, who prove equally clueless). In the end everyone wins, everyone loses, and the message is that no one has a fucking clue what’s going on.

#3. So the basic premise is that a one letter typo in a common email address connects you to the inner sanctum of someone’s online life. The protagonists are two cousins or siblings who share a common last name, like Smith or Jones. They both have gmail or yahoo addresses with their first initial and surname, so they frequently get wayward messages for a particular set of strangers with the same last name and similar email addresses.

And they’re both young Americans in Europe, where they’re sharing a messy apartment, half-assing their way through graduate degrees or dead end jobs in between long nights of clubs, drugs and partying, and generally living a stereotypical bohemian expat lifestyle.

But these misaddressed emails they get are all middle-America banalities from the world they’ve left behind. Ironic snobbery ensues: at first they scoff at these idiosyncratic bobs of exactly what they profess to loathe about America, re basketball hoop zoning, Christmas light bills, Mini Cooper promotional offers, etc.

So they decide to start impersonating these suburban strangers, replying to emails on their behalf. It starts with one of them writing back to a mailing list of soccer moms debating that basketball hoop and whether it’s allowed in their homeowner’s association rules — an angry rant mocking them for living shallow, empty lives. After getting a rise out of their targets with a few emails like this, our two “heroes” get hooked and keep pushing the envelope, eventually contriving to get their targets’ passwords and infiltrate their real email accounts as well as just replying to misaddressed messages.

The movie will cut back and forth throughout between the victims of these email pranks and the perpetrators, comparing and contrasting their day-to-day lives and showing how they’re both affected by these online exchanges.

To our protagonists it still seems like harmless fun, but one of them has a real mean streak and keeps coming up with nastier plans. The other, the sensitive one, is starting to worry that they’re going too far, and also developing an online crush on the similarly-aged son/daughter of one of these families, maybe even a correspondence with them under some other false pretense.

It all comes to a head when the mean one sends a nasty prank email that inadvertently results in a tragedy; for example, he might pretend to be the dad in this same family having an affair and “accidentally” send some incriminating email to his wife, thinking it will shake up their boring lives — but instead it leads to a violent altercation in which someone is killed.

This throws our two leads into a panic, with the good one wanting to come forward and admit their involvement, and the bad one insisting they should cover it up. And then the final twist: before they can agree on what to do, they’re found out anyway by another misaddressed email, sent by one of them to the other but accidentally going to one of their victims. After all, since all the main characters, in Europe and America, are connected by a one-letter email typo, it’s just as easy for the smug protagonists to mess up as it is for their targets. As with the first two ideas, how you resolve it from there depends on how just how dark you want the movie to be.

The Greatest Private Eyes



I’m reading an interesting book from the ’80s that profiles various private detective characters and the authors who created them. It begins with a survey of writers and critics, who are asked to rank each character they’re familiar with in five categories: literary value, entertainment value, character development, plot, and writing style. The voting is in two timeframes: 1920-70, and 1970-82.

They’re presented in order of fame/familiarity, but I thought sorting them by those average rankings would be more interesting. Here are the top ten in each time period:


  1. Philip Marlowe
  2. Sam Spade
  3. Lew Archer
  4. The Continental Op
  5. Ed & Am Hunter
  6. Travis McGee
  7. Nero Wolfe
  8. Nick & Nora Charles
  9. Paul Pine
  10. Mac Robinson


  1. C.W. Sughrue
  2. Murray Kirk
  3. Jacob Asch
  4. Mitch Tobin
  5. Thomas Kyd (not the playwright)
  6. Matt Scudder
  7. Albert Samson
  8. The “Nameless Detective” (Bill Pronzini)
  9. Dan Kearney
  10. Harry Stoner

There are a few on there that I’ve never read, which I plan to remedy soon. But a few notes on these lists:

  • Nearly all of these detectives work in one of four cities: LA, San Francisco, New York or Chicago.  The exceptions are Travis McGee (Miami), Harry Stoner (Cincinnati), Albert Samson (Indianapolis) and C.W. Sughrue (Montana).
  • In terms of fame and influence, the most striking absence is Mickey Spillane’s detective, Mike Hammer, who may have sold more copies than all twenty combined. It’s no surprise though, as Spillane was always seen as a hack by his fellow writers, a role he partially embraced. He famously said “I don’t have readers, I have customers,” and “Those big-shot writers … could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar.” I’ve only read a few of his books and while they definitely have less literary value than the ones above, they were pretty fun. I’d say they suffer more from being dated than from a lack of quality.
  • Murray Kirk seems to be on the wrong list; as far as I know he only appeared in one book, Stanley Ellin’s The Eighth Circle, in 1958. It’s a great book, though also slightly dated.
  • Mitch Tobin too, maybe, since his five novels came out from 1966 to 1972. I’m halfway through these books and they’re incredible. Among other things, it’s the only detective series I’ve read that has a true narrative arc from one book to the next. They were written by the estimable Donald Westlake, who’s much better known for his “Parker” novels that were made into numerous films. Those are great books but I think the Mitch Tobin ones may be even better. (There’s an upcoming anthology of Westlake’s non-fiction writing that I’m looking forward to.)
  • C.W. Sughrue is the creation of James Crumley, who also had another detective character, Milo Milodragovitch. I’m not given to gushing but I can honestly say that I find the C.W. and Milo novels better than anything on the second list, or any other post-1970 crime fiction I’ve read, period — and that’s not taking anything away from the others. Crumley was just operating on a different level.
  • At least two of the most promising writers here — Timothy Harris (Thomas Kyd) and Howard Browne (Paul Pine) were lured away by Hollywood to be screenwriters after just a few private eye novels. Raymond Chandler, of course, wrote or co-wrote three classic movies, Double IndemnityThe Blue Dahlia and Strangers on a Train, but apparently he hated every minute of it and fought with the directors, and it wasn’t the end of his Marlowe novels.
  • The absence of women on both lists is striking, especially the second one. There weren’t many female private eyes before 1970, except for Nora in The Thin Man at #8 (and I’m not even sure that book should really count as a private eye novel) and Bertha Cool, who came in at #19. On the post-1970 list, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warschawski came in at #16 and Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone was #25. I haven’t read either series, so I can’t really comment. I have read a couple of the more recent Lydia Chin books, which are pretty good, and some of Sue Grafton’s popular Kinsey Millhone series which began a little too late for this survey. It’s an interesting question why there haven’t been more female private eye type characters, especially given that a number of amateur/“gentlemen” detectives in more formal or “cozy” type mysteries, as well as the officers in police procedurals, have been women, going back quite a long time. I don’t think there are inherently male elements to the private eye archetype, or if there are I don’t think they’re the important ones.

Joyce Kilmer and War Poetry


joyce kilmer

If you’ve ever driven north to New York City, there’s a good chance you’ve stopped for gas at the Joyce Kilmer Service Area:

joyce kilmer service area

I’ve probably been there a hundred times. As a kid, I assumed Joyce Kilmer was a woman. When I was tall enough to read the plaques, I learned the two main facts about Kilmer that most Americans know, if they know his gender — that he died in World War I, and that he wrote this stupid poem:

joyce kilmer - trees

This time I decided to find out a little more about him:

Kilmer was considered the leading American Roman Catholic poet and lecturer of his generation, whom critics often compared to British contemporaries G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc…

With the publication of “Trees” in the magazine Poetry in August 1913, Kilmer gained immense popularity as a poet across the United States…. Over the next few years, Kilmer was prolific in his output—managing an intense schedule of lectures, publishing a large number of essays and literary criticism, and writing poetry. In 1915, he became poetry editor of Current Literature and contributing editor of Warner’s Library of the World’s Best Literature. In 1916 and 1917, before the American entry into World War I, Kilmer would publish four books…

I found a lot of his other poems online too. Some are better than the tree poem, but none are very good. Most have the same sappy Sunday School tone. And I’m not alone in that opinion; at Columbia University, Kilmer’s alma mater, they even have an annual Bad Poetry Contest in his honor.

Kilmer’s fans might argue that he just had bad timing; as one of the last prominent writers of formal, sentimental lyric poems at the advent of Modernism (J. Alfred Prufrock was written in 1915) his work was bound to seem out of place.

It’s instructive, though, to compare him with Britain’s young poets who died in the war — Rupert Brooke, Julian Grenfell, Wilfred Owen and various others — who are held in somewhat higher regard by modern readers. Their war poems are often considered in two groups: the “early war” poets like Brooke and Grenfell, both killed in 1915, were notably more patriotic, but also more sentimental and lyrical, than those who saw the war drag on. They mixed pastoral and other natural motifs, common in Georgian poetry, with celebrations of soldiers’ valor and glory. 1915 was also the year of In Flanders Fields, penned by the Canadian John McCrae, which is possibly the best-known poem of the war and exemplifies this style:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The poets who died later in the war struck a very different tone — as in Owen’s famous Dulce et Decorum Est, whose structure (a rhyming double sonnet) is a bitter mockery of those sing-songy fields-of-glory poems from just a couple years earlier:

…If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

…or Arthur West:

God! How I hate you, you young cheerful men,
Whose pious poetry blossoms on your graves
As soon as you are in them, nurtured up
By the salt of your corruption, and the tears
Of mothers, local vicars, college deans,
And flanked by prefaces and photographs
From all your minor poet friends — the fools —
Who paint their sentimental elegies
Where sure, no angel treads; and, living, share
The dead’s brief immortality…

Kilmer outlived them both; he was killed in 1918, just a few months before the Armistice. But his last poem, Rouge Bouquet, was the same sort of pious elegy that Owen and West derided — it could just as easily have been written at the beginning of the war as at the end, given its complete lack of cynicism:

…There is on earth no worthier grave
To hold the bodies of the brave
Than this place of pain and pride
Where they nobly fought and nobly died.
Never fear but in the skies
Saints and angels stand
Smiling with their holy eyes
On this new-come band…

It’s odd to think of something like that being written after those classic anti-war poems, but I’m sure it wasn’t the only example. I wonder how much of it reflects a different American experience of the war as opposed to the European one — we obviously had a shorter war and many fewer casualties — and how much it’s just a matter of Kilmer’s own sentimentality and faith. It’s also a reminder that the whole early war / late war distinction may be partly a matter of cherry-picking the poems that fit it, something imposed by anthologists and critics to fit the later “Lost Generation” narrative of postwar disillusionment.

In any case, Kilmer was a brave soldier, but was he really the best American poet we lost in the war? Another candidate is Alan Seeger (uncle of Pete Seeger), a New Yorker who joined the French Foreign Legion in 1914 and was killed in 1916, before the US even entered the conflict. His best-known poem is A Rendezvous with Death:

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair…

It definitely fits in that early-war category — natural beauty, battlefield glory and a quick trip to heaven — but considered on those terms, I like it better than Kilmer’s treacle. The first line evokes Dickinson’s Because I could not stop for Death, maybe deliberately, and it’s an interesting parallel to that poem. Admittedly I found some of his other war poems to be a little overwrought or preachy … well, in any case, as a New Yorker, Seeger is presumably not up for a rest area on the New Jersey turnpike.

In fact, as New Jersey poets go, Kilmer’s chief virtue seems to be that he came from an area (New Brunswick) that made a good place for a rest stop. Robert Pinsky is from Long Beach, too far away from the turnpike. William Carlos Williams was from Rutherford, which you’d think would be close enough, but the two nearest rest stops are named for New Yorkers Vince Lombardi and Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton’s fatal duel was fought on the nearby Palisades cliffs, and Lombardi …well, he started as an assistant coach with the Giants, who now play in East Rutherford, so I’m assuming that’s the connection — but when he was with the team, they were still playing in New York, so it seems a little tenuous. Maybe Seeger has a shot after all…

More Bad News at Couchsurfing


Couchsurfing, the troubled nonprofit-turned-startup that I wrote about earlier this year, has now shed almost half of its employees, including the CEO:

The startup, backed by General Catalyst, Benchmark, Menlo Ventures, Point Nine and Omidyar Network, is now going to focus on mobile — and we have heard that this is where all new hires will happen. The company up to now had raised some $22.6 million, with the last $15 million in August 2012.

As for the layoffs … a spokesperson tells us that the full number is about 40% of staff, with now no more than 20 people working at the company…

A little more unconfirmed detail: part of the layoffs, apparently, have resulted in deep cuts to its engineering team, with the entire engineering team let go “except for a 3 person skeleton support crew,” according to a tipster.

Our tipster — again, this is unconfirmed — says that the reason for the layoffs and other changes is because the company has seen an $800,000 monthly burn rate. But we understand the company has a long cash runway at the moment to figure out ways to turn that around (staff cuts help, too).

This is sad news, and I don’t take any pleasure in having predicted it. I still hope there’s a going concern to be salvaged here. But it’s very difficult to imagine a business model that will provide a material return on that much investment, or even enough cash flow to keep the lights on when the existing money runs out.

Early on, in an attempt to quell user anger at the for-profit conversion, the company seems to have ruled out advertising, selling member data in any form, or charging any kind of fee for existing site functionality. That didn’t leave many options. One that they floated was to solicit donations to charity every time a “surfer” was hosted, and take a small cut of these donations. Cute but a little pushy, and it likely wouldn’t amount to more than pocket change. They also considered a “freemium” model, but there wasn’t much you could add to the basic services that would really be worth paying for:


Freemium models work best when the premium features are relatively independent of the basic features. If someone else pays for more space on Dropbox, you don’t get less space in your free account. In the case of CS, the main thing they can offer a premium member is various types of priority over non-premium members. You can dress that up however you want, but in the end you’re not really adding a new service, just pitting your existing users against each other: the premium service degrades the free one. If frequent flyers board the plane first, the rest of the passengers have to wait a bit longer. If premium CS members show up higher in searches, then free members show up lower.

In the meantime, they’ve brought back this “verification” gimmick — a way of aggressively hitting you up for a voluntary $25 donation when you join by arbitrarily attaching it to this “trust” marker whereby they send you a postcard to verify that you have a mailing address, and then you get a little check mark icon on your profile. I don’t know how much money that’s bringing in, but it can’t be very much. (And just think about it: if this process actually does have a material impact on member safety and trust, shouldn’t it be mandatory? Isn’t that the last thing you’d want to charge for if you have any regard for your members’ safety?)

So now they’re going to “focus on mobile”? To be honest, I’m not sure what that even means. They’ve already got mobile apps, which could certainly be better, but this is a network that relies on huge amounts of text-heavy user-generated content — forms, member-to-member references, discussion boards — exactly the kind of content that’s difficult to enter and consume on a tiny touchscreen. It’s about the farthest thing possible from apps like Instagram or Shazam that play to the strengths of a mobile platform. It seems more like OKCupid or Quora: it needs a good app, no question, but it also needs a fully-featured, well-functioning website — not the kind that can be run by a “skeleton support crew” while they redirect most of their budget to mobile development.

Anyway, maybe this “mobile” thing is just the latest round of buzzword bingo at a company that’s out of ideas, but I hope there’s something more substantive behind it. And it does suggest the glimmer of a revenue model, which is to simply charge for a mobile app while keeping the website free. That way they’re not technically charging for any functionality, just charging to make it easier from a phone.

I can imagine a lot of travellers setting up an account on the website, sending out some hosting requests, and somewhere in transit, frustrated with trying to load the full site on their crappy mobile browser just to find a host’s phone number or something, being willing to pony up $5 for the app.

(I can’t imagine many new members joining through an app and filling out a decent profile, because that’s just too much data entry for a small-screen environment. So again, they still need a usable website.)

Anyway, this paid mobile app strategy would be kind of sneaky, I guess, but at least it would bring in some additional revenue, and it’s the only thing I can think of that really would. What else is there?

Incentives in Sports, Part 2


Last year I wrote about situations where NBA and NFL coaches call more conservative plays than the odds would dictate. Today there’s a good article about the baseball equivalent: the sacrifice bunt.

Why do managers call for so many bunts with no outs and a runner on first, when the stats show that it lowers your expected runs scored?

Most sacrifice bunts occur when there’s a runner on first with no outs. In those situations the average offense will go on to score 0.783 runs. Let’s say a sacrifice bunt in that situation is successful … Now you have a runner on second and one out. The average offense with a runner on second and one out scores 0.699 runs. The run expectancy has decreased thanks to the sacrifice bunt.

run expectancies

Well, I’m not sure those stats go into enough detail to resolve the question. You’d have to know what led up to each situation, for one thing, and where you are in the batting order. Sacrifice plays are not called at random; there are a lot of potential confounding variables.

Also, the expected runs scored may not always be the right metric; sacrifices are more common in one-run games in the late innings, where you’d rather maximize your chances of scoring a single run than maximize the total number of runs scored.

But let’s concede for the sake of argument that managers like Dusty Baker are costing their team wins in the long run by bunting too often. Which seems especially likely given that the gap in expected runs has more than doubled in the modern higher-scoring game. Does that fit with my argument in the previous post? Not really.

To recap: the two complaints I talked about were NFL coaches punting too often on fourth downs and NBA coaches not calling for enough three-pointers at the end of close games. In both cases, observers tend to look for the “irrationality” in the coach’s head; I thought it might be a fan preference for minimizing regret, one that interfered at the margin with our preference for maximizing victories.

This doesn’t usually apply in this situation. If a team has a man on first with no outs, doesn’t bunt him to second, and doesn’t score, I don’t usually think “if only they’d bunted.” So I guess we can blame this one on the old-fashioned managers:

…for these reasons of history, psychology, and nerd-hating-ology, the bunt endures, like a cockroach crawling around baseball’s basement, even as other relatively new practices … become uncontroversial. At this point, after all we’ve learned over the past 30 years, calling for the sacrifice bunt feels like muscle memory more than anything else.

What does trigger more regret in baseball, at least for me, is being caught stealing. So you’d think that according to my theory managers might steal fewer bases than is optimal. But I gather that the Moneyball types think that most teams steal more than they should. So … who knows. I guess this is why I’m not a sports pundit.

Robert Heinlein: Still Crap


It’s not often that a book is so bad that I feel the need to write about it as a warning to others, but this is one of those times.

That was the opening line of my review of Stranger in a Strange Land two years ago. This month, writer Ian Sales had a similar reaction to another Heinlein “classic”:

I’m starting to wonder what I’ve done that you should all hate me so much you’d make me read Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress…

It’s good to know I’m not the only one. His rant is more knowledgeable than mine, but it hits a lot of the same points: Heinlein’s sexism, pedantry, clumsy writing and utterly hateful politics make it impossible to understand why he’s still considered such a titan of science fiction, or why he ever was.

…as the story progressed, and Heinlein spouted his bullshit through his various characters and manipulated situations to make points with all the subtlety of Arnold Schwarzenegger, so I grew to really dislike the book … And I will cheerfully mock anyone who claims it as a classic of the genre. It is didactic in the worst possible sense, its politics are risible, its moral landscape is hopelessly confused, and it reads like the wet dream of the dirty old uncle everyone ignores at the family barbecue.

Go read the whole thing, and then check out Sales’ excellent review site Mistressworks to find some better choices.

German Private Eyes



Germany, Austria and Switzerland are big markets for crime fiction, and they write a lot of it too — but like their northern neighbors they seem to lean towards police procedurals, and most of the private detective sub-genre is translated from English. Even the best-known German private eye, Bernie Gunther, was created by the Scottish author Philip Kerr.

I asked the owner of my local Krimi bookstore about this, and he said “well, we don’t have a lot of private investigators working on major crimes like you do in the US. Here the police do it all. So those stories wouldn’t be as believable if they were set in Germany.”

To be honest, I think the US might disappoint him in that regard. There are many areas in which private operators supplement the police — background checks, surveillance, tracking down deadbeat dads and bail jumpers and maybe the occasional runaway teen — but I can’t remember ever reading about one who played a major role in solving a murder or kidnapping or far-ranging conspiracy, as they do in so many thousands of books. I suspect that the Chandleresque private eye, like the lone Western gunslinger, is far more myth than reality.

Anyway, he had only two recommendations for good private eye characters written in German, and I’ve now read a couple books in each series. The first is Gerhard Selb, whose last name means “self” and is translated that way in the English editions. Selb is a semi-retired bachelor in his late 60s in Mannheim, who’s mopey and somber about the past — particularly his own past as a Nazi prosecutor — but a charming curmudgeon when it comes to the present. He’s a gentleman who listens to classical music, enjoys fine dining, and counts CEOs, surgeons and chess champions among his friends. His cases are complex and highly entangled with postwar German politics and history.


Unsurprisingly for a character who is basically a lawyer’s retirement fantasy, Selb was created in 1987 by two lawyers: Bernard Schlink and Walter Popp. Schlink has since become much better known for his international bestseller The Reader, which was filmed with Kate Winslet, and as with the narrator of that story, there seems to be a good deal of Schlink himself in Selb’s ruminations.

The second private eye is Kemal Kayankaya, a younger man in Frankfurt. Ethnically Turkish, he was orphaned as a child and adopted and raised by native German parents. As a result, he doesn’t speak any Turkish and isn’t accepted by the Turkish immigrant community, but still encounters constant discrimination from ethnic Germans:

So he’s the ultimate loner, the ultimate outsider among hard-boiled private eyes, forever caught between two solitudes, too Turkish to be accepted by German society, and not Turkish enough to be accepted by that community. As he moves through all strata of society in Frankfurt (“the ugliest town in Germany”), through sex shops, gambling dens, government offices and other unsavory centers of vice and greed, only stopping for an occasional drink or two, he’s beat up, harassed, threatened with arrest and torture, even as he peels away layer after layer of corruption and racism. [source]


Written by Jakob Arjouni, who died earlier this year, these books are much more in the Chandler mold. I found them more successful than the Selb books, not so much because of the direct parallels to Chandler, but because Arjouni understood that a good private eye character gets his edge from being an outsider, alienated from his own society — and making his detective ethnically Turkish but culturally German was his device for achieving that distance.

Selb, by contrast, is just not enough of an outsider. He’s got too many friends in high places, too many ponderous thoughts about the past, and, ultimately, too much to lose in his comfortable life. But if these books don’t quite work as traditional private eye novels, they’re still an interesting tour through German history.

A third one that I’m just getting started with is Simon Brenner, a somewhat reluctant and unwitting detective created by the Austrian writer Wolf Haas. Unlike Selb and Kayankaya, who narrate their books in the first person, the Brenner books have a third-person narrator who writes in a very colloquial, folksy, humorous style, and Brenner himself is kind of a comic sad-sack figure. I haven’t read enough of this series to have an opinion yet, but it’s extremely popular.


The photos in this post are from movie adaptations. The first of the Kayankaya books was filmed in 1992, and I can recommend that as a fun movie and a good place to start. A year earlier, one of the Selb books became a TV movie which I haven’t been able to track down.  And there have been several recent higher-profile adaptations of the Brenner stories starring the comedian Josef Hader, which I plan to watch as I finish the books.

As always, if you’re interested in private eye characters, the place to start is the Thrilling Detective website, which I quoted above on Kayankaya; they also have good summaries and bibliographies for Brenner and Selb.


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