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Tom Chaney: Evil, Ego, and High Principle

Of Writers And Their Books: Evil, Ego, and High Principle Tom says that it is the sound beneath the silence which makes Errors and Omissions such a satisfying experiencere. This column first appeared 21 September 2008.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Nigh Perfect Food!

By Tom Chaney

Evil, Ego, and High Principle

I have trouble writing about a mystery/suspense novel that I am eager for other folks to try. I want to tell enough about it to peak the interest of a reader, but I don't want to give too much away.

A couple of years back I wrote about a suspense novel written by a friend. I thought I had steered a clean course between telling enough to intrigue and not enough to spoil the surprise ending. She took me mildly to task for revealing it all.
In the case of Paul Goldstein's Errors and Omissions [Anchor Books, 2006] it should not be a problem revealing my pleasure in the story yet leaving enough unsaid.

But now the first pleasure came in how I got the book. A friend from Campbellsville asked whether I knew about Errors and Omissions. When I confessed my ignorance, he vowed to deliver it to my door the following morning. And he did.

Two main elements drive any good novel -- character and plot. In "E & O" both are so woven into such a complete fabric that the resulting tapestry is subject to the chiaroscuro effect of light and shadow much as the elements of life are inextricably twirled together into an ever changing, indefinable whole. And there is no big Truth here -- just a bunch of little truths and facts for the artist, the lawyer, the photographer, the studio head.

Here is Michael Seeley the brilliant, intellectual property lawyer facing disbarment for appearing drunk in a judge's chambers.

His New York law firm gives him one final chance at redemption when Hollywood studio Universal Pictures requires that he fly to the west coast to prove the studio owns the rights to a James Bond-like movie with sequels. The sequence of films is the only cash cow Universal owns.

Seeley cannot confirm that the studio owns the rights to the original. It appears that ownership belongs to photographer Bert Cobb who was once employed by the studio. Cobb refuses on principle to relinquish rights, just as Seeley cannot, also on principle, sign a false document certifying studio ownership.

Here is Mayer Bermann, head of United Pictures finding Spykiller in his archives in 1963 to compete with the popular James Bond films of that era. Spykiller is a noir film from the 1950's which becomes the source for the ten sequels.

Problem is that no contract with the writer exists, not even the casual note scrawled on a dinner napkin of lore. Meanwhile a Supreme Court decision has given rights to free-lance writers rather than studios when no evidence of a contract exists. Half of Universal's library is in jeopardy.

Photographer Bert Cobb refuses to sell his rights and assign them to the studio and his refusal costs him his life. We learn that he refuses because he didn't write the screenplay.

Here is Max Kanarek who had been whisked out of Hollywood by Bermann in the flush of the red scare and the black list of the McCarthy days. Had Kanarek been betrayed by Bermann as the lone real communist in the movie industry? Was it Bermann who altered Spykiller to change the villain from ally to communist to shift the nexus of evil?

Seeley follows the trail of Kanarek the artist who did write the screenplay to Poland where he now lives and where he was the childhood friend of Bermann in the Nazi years.

The depth of the personal issues beneath this sketch suggests the Bottomless Pit in Mammoth Cave with only torches to illuminate the stygian dark.

I rarely find a book these days that is impossible to lay aside for food and drink. Errors and Omissions is such a book, however.

Let me cite a few virtues in which it revels: life-long and unmitigated evil and selfishness; stupidity leading to fatal, gratuitous violence; commitment to principle in the face of death for one's self and one's loved ones; and the ego of an attorney so large, he does damage to his client's cause as well as his own career.

For more than thirty years Paul Goldstein has taught intellectual property law at Stanford Law School. He's been writing stories since he was twelve years old. This combination of honed skill with the pen and a sure sense of legal intricacy makes me hanker for more. Fortunately we have another Seeley novel now on the market.

Listen to this sample of Goldstein's style. When Seeley leaves Bermann's mansion in the hills he looks down over Los Angeles.

"Cloaked in a deep, inky blue, the city stretched out below him like a cascade of diamonds on a wash of coal. The lights of the silently moving traffic mirrored the lights in the jet black sky. When had he ever seen stars like this? .... There was a current of sound beneath the silence."

It is that sound beneath the silence which makes Errors and Omissions such a satisfying experience, and which makes me want more of Professor Goldstein's work. I have already ordered the next one.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2013-09-22 04:22:03
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