Monday, March 17, 2008

Shallow Graves: A Review

In which we shall have spoilers, foul language, unreasonable rages and liberal use of the Gas Grill of Retribution.

In fact, there is so much to be dealt with here, I'm not sure the Grill can handle it all by itself. I hereby formally request permission to make use of the Clue-by-Four™ and the Shovel-of-Doom®.

Shallow Graves is the first book in Jeffrey Deaver's Location Scout Mystery Series. John Pellam, the hero, scouts locations for movies. He also fights crime. He does not have a cape. Jeffrey Deaver does not have a clue. He probably has a cape. He strikes me as that kind of guy. In all fairness, I'll acknowledge that this book was published in 1992 and the first movie made from a Deaver novel didn't happen until five years later, so he probably had no direct experience. Also, in all fairness, I've been led to believe that some authors have been known to do a thing called research when writing on a subject with which they have little familiarity. In all fairness, this is the last part of this review which will include fairness. Mr. Deaver, the gloves are off.

OK, so the book begins with Pellam and his assistant, Marty in the Winnebago headed back into town after an exhausting day of scouting. Ding, Ding, Ding, Ding, Ding, Ding, Ding. Problem #1. Scouts don't have assistants. There are just other scouts. Who scout. By themselves. As in, nobody pays two fucking scouts to ride around together all day to accomplish the work of one scout. Scouting (at least in the initial stages) is a solitary activity. Scouts are not usually expected to work through the entire production schedule and are budgeted in weeks or even man-days. If you have more than one working at a time, its so that they can cover more territory in a short time.

And what else is wrong on Page One of the book?

"They'd just found an old farmhouse a mile up the road and had offered the astonished owner thirteen hundred dollars to shoot two scenes on his front porch..." There's just so much wrong with that. First of all its an old farmhouse. They want to shoot two scenes there. Its also set in 1992. So, I realize I have no idea what's in these two scenes. Maybe there's a huge explosion. Maybe one is a scene where the entire roster of the N.E. Patriots show up to avenge themselves on the NY Giants. Maybe its like that 1/8 page scene in Gone with the Wind that just says "Atlanta Burns". But, more likely, its some dinky dialog scenes of someone showing up or leaving the farmhouse. Its just as likely that these 2 scenes will be shot before lunch and the company will move somewhere else to shoot for the rest of the day. In 1992, for an old farmhouse, exterior only, in upstate NY, I'd have offered $500. In 2008, for the same thing, I'd probably offer the same. I'd go higher, but that's where I'd start.

Whew. We're done with page one. Anybody need to take a break. Gotta pee? Need some more coffee? Go ahead. I'll wait.

Good, everybody comfortable now? Let's continue.

At one point later in the chapter, Marty and Pellam are going through the Polaroids they shot that day. (I'll just mention, in passing that I don't know what kind of Polaroid he was using that it fit in his pocket, or that he calls the shots 'roids 'cause I've never heard anyone call them 'roids before and it might be time to cue the Shovel-of-Doom--Tong!) Yes, we use Polaroids in the Film Biz. The Costume Department takes a shot of every cast member in every wardrobe change and notes the scene number. The Script Supervisor takes a lot of Polaroids on the set and makes lots of arcane notations I'd never be able to interpret. What do you call a Location Scout who shoots with a Polaroid? A dumbass who's either working for people as dumb as he is, or a dumbass who's gonna get fired in a few hours. Technology changes, but the only time I ever shot anything with a Polaroid, it was because somebody needed to see some detail at a location right now and we didn't have time to send someone over there and to wait an hour to process film. Otherwise, we shoot extensive coverage of a location. We shoot "pans" which are made up of 4 or 5 shots "stitched" together to show the geography and we take some "singles" which are meant to either sell the location or to be what we envision as a frame from the movie, just with the actors missing.

Here's an example of the old way when we shot film.

Here's an example of the new way where everything is digital.

Next, we arrive at one of the most glaring errors in the film. And where to begin. Its really three errors rolled up into one. Yay! Trifecta baby! Deaver has Pellam make a call to the Assistant Producer. Let's stop right there before we get to the content of the phone call. I realize there may be some confusion about the roles of Executive Producers, Co-Producers, Associate Producers, Supervising Producers, Line Producer, Coordinating Producers and whatever title might get invented next week to satisfy someone's need for an Ego Caress.

So, anyway, there are two reasons a Location Scout would never call the Assistant Producer on a movie. The first is that in films, we follow a chain of command. You report to your Department Head. So, the Location Scout would call the Location Manager. As, a Location Manager, I would, at the very least, severely chastise a scout who went outside of that chain without my knowledge. But that's OK. Read the rest of the book and you'll find that this movie doesn't have a Location Manager. Ooops!

The second and more compelling reason that a Location Manager would never call the Assistant Producer is that he doesn't fucking exist. There's no such thing as an Assistant Producer. There might be an Assistant to the Producer. There might be a
Producer's Assistant. But that person does not assist with producing. That person picks up laundry. That person makes dinner reservations. That person finds out who owns the rights to some song from 1953 that the Producer thinks would be great to have on the radio in Scene 92.

On to the content of the call. Pellam plays a neat prank on the non-existent Assistant Producer he should not be speaking to by pretending he got the wrong script and is scouting desert locations in Arizona instead of quaint cemeteries in upstate NY. When I scout, I have some pretty extensive conversations with the Director and the Production Designer before I go out. Believe me, If I start talking about how I think I can get us onto a NASA launch pad, and the script they sent is set in the 1850's, someone will pick up on the glitch long before anyone scouts anything.

Then, in the same conversation, Pellam mentions he's been doctoring the script a little. I've made suggestions about scripts before. It might be that a scene is written as taking place in a restaurant. Its just a conversation. There's nothing about the scene that really calls for a restaurant. The writer just put it there. I might ask if we couldn't do the scene as an exterior "walk and talk". Restaurants are expensive; streets are free or close to it. If the movie has a ton of interiors, taking a scene outside can "open up" the film and make it less claustrophobic.
I would never have the balls to walk into the Directors office and say, "Gee, I don't think Julia would say that to Jeremy. It just doesn't ring true to me. Here, I've revised the scene. See if you don't think its better." Exit Nathan's career, stage left.

Hooboy, we're up to page 37 where Pellam puts his permit in the window of his motor home. As far as I know, NYC is the only place in America that issues scouting permits. 'nuff said.

Later, after Marty is killed, Pellam tries to get info from the local cops. They're strangely unfriendly to him. I find this strange. The first thing I do when I'm pretty sure I'm going to like a location in a town is to go meet the cops and anyone else who I might need. We hire a lot of cops when we shoot in the streets to help with controlling traffic and such. Cops like overtime. Cops like people who hire them and pay them overtime. Cops generally like me.

There's a thing about Pellam not having a cell phone that comes up a number of times in the book. Now, remember, it was published in 1992, so not everyone had a phone then. But here's the thing. I remember distinctly, beginning in about 1989 and going on for the next couple of years, every cell phone manufacturer was falling all over themselves and beating the crap out of their competition for product placement opportunities in movies. The deal they'd make was they'd give a production as many phones as they wanted for free in exchange for you putting their phone in the movie. Needless to say, a Scout working on the other side of the country would have had a phone.

There's references to HoneyWagons as the luxury accommodation on location. Not! Stars have their own trailers. Their contracts specify exactly how big it needs to be and what amenities it must have. The contract will go on to say that if Actor X gets one that's bigger, they you've got to get the same size for Actor Y. A HoneyWagon is a big thing with 6-8 small dressing rooms and bathrooms for the crew. Its for the day players. Its for the 2nd A.D. to have an office. The Producer might use a room on it but only if he wants to show how frugal he is. Let's just analyze this for a moment. The origin of the term HoneyWagon is from the old westerns. They'd have one truck called the Honey Truck. It was called this because it had a few small walled off cubicles containing Honey Buckets. Yup, that's some luxury accommodations.

I made notations about a bunch of other mistakes, but I just can't go on. The thing is that while I'm offended by Deaver's lack of knowledge of the world in which he chooses to place his hero, I'm even more offended by his writing. First off (and here's the spoiler), the whole plot hinges on the fact that one guy who is selling illegal narcotics out of his pharmaceuticals firm doesn't want the movie to come to town because it might expose him. WTF? (And I'll let John tackle the whole scientist angle if he wants.) How the hell is a movie shooting at local cemeteries and farms going to endanger this guy's drug operation especially when he has decreed that no drugs should be sold locally? That's just plain stupid.

And check out this imagery. Two of the bad guys are having dinner in a fancy restaurant. Deaver writes,

"The twins sat at a table with red linen tablecloths; in their laps were thick napkins that left whitecaps of lint on their matching dark slacks.

Whitecaps of lint?
That's just a crime against writing.


Eric said...

Now you know how I feel on the rare occasions I pick up a "legal thriller."

And don't even try with the "Yeah, well at least John Grisham was a..." bit. The only evidence in a Grisham book that the man ever practiced law is on the jacket.

Honestly, my reaction to your review is that I'm not-so-much outraged about Deaver's writing as I am amused that it's finally happening to someone else's profession for a change. Lawyers and doctors have been putting up with this kind of crap for years; you location managers and scouts have had a free ride for far too long.


Anonymous said...

I don't understand why people don't write project management thrillers. ;)

I have an idea for a project management based SF novella that I haven't the faintest idea how to make universally appealing... why doesn't the profession have the literary-abuse potential of medicine, law, and now location scouting?

MWT said...

I'd be partial to hearing the rest of your notations. This stuff is fascinating. :)

Nathan said...


I picked the tiniest of nits. I've got another post in mind that might temporarily satisfy you.

Tania said...

What Jeri said! Yeah!

Don't get the guys I used to work with started on Clive Cussler. Oceanographers mock Clive Cussler with a mighty and vitriolic scorn.

Random Michelle K said...


Is there anyone safe to read out there?

And I almost forgot: Yay Nathan! Excellent snark, although there could always be MORE of it.

Tom said...

Yes, great review! Snarky snarkiness, the best kind. Career #3: critic.

But you should have called this post "Leave It To Deaver."

Nathan said...

Leave it to Deaver would have been an excellent title.

Nathan said...

In fact, it rates "Best of Polybloggimous"!

Eric said...

Jeri, you may be selling yourself short. Ellen Ullman made line-debugging pretty damn interesting, thrilling, even, in The Bug.

I've been reading King's On Writing off and on (it's my current e-book), and while I don't necessarily agree with everything he says, I think he makes a good point about plot being something that takes care of itself when you have interesting characters in an interesting situation. Make the characters in the project-management SF novella people that we want to know about, and it becomes universally appealing by default.

For whatever that's worth. What do I know? I can get writer's block by sneezing while typing. ("Wait--what was I writing? This sucks! YEARRRGHHH!")

Janiece said...

I'm pretty sure Deaver is an attorney, too...

Eric said...

Aha! If Deaver is an attorney, maybe he had the same idea I did when I was reading Nathan's rant: the Location Scout Mystery Series is payback for all those awful lawyer movies!

Soon, Pellam will become a movie director, because he'll have been a location scout on three movies and will get promoted! Then, in the seventh or eighth book, he'll have directed enough movies to be promoted to actor! Every book will be deliberately crammed with misinformation about the movie industry, until counselor Deaver has exacted his revenge for all of Hollywood's goofy legal thrillers!

Well played, Mr. Deaver. Well played, sir!

Nathan said...


Bad stuff's gonna happen to you if you keep talking like that.

Tom said...

Yay! I'm a "Best of". Even such fleeting fame is more than I can stand. (swoons)

John the Scientist said...

Oh my, Nathan, I'm going to have to read this turd just to take a whack at the Pharma angle.

I'm laid up with something nasty I caught overseas, and am just in the right frame of mind to do it, too.

Nathan said...

Welcome back John. Sorry you got the sicks.