Name Your Poison.

Robert Stanley

“Name Your Poison,” the intro to the 1955 anthology Dangerous Dames instructs the reader. “Or maybe you don’t care for poison. Maybe you’d rather be shot full of holes, or tossed over a high balcony, or ripped apart by dogs…there are twelve dames in this book, and they supply a lot more in the way of sex, savagery and surprises than a man usually bargains for.”

It’s pretty rare for to find a vintage paperback (or retro pulp magazine or even many Golden Age comics) with a credit for the cover artist inside, but “Cover Painting By Robert Stanley” is right there at the bottom of the copyright page of Dangerous Dames, edited by Brett Halliday (David Dresser), though the cover says “Selected by Mike Shayne”. (Non-nod, wink-wink).

In the anthology’s foreword, Halliday shares a pretend conversation he had with his own fictional hard-boiled hero, private-eye Mike Shayne, about choosing the dozen stories for this book, which date from 1936 through 1955 and include work from Bruno Fischer, Anthony Boucher, Harold Q. Masur and Day Keene (Gunard Hjertstedt 1904 – 1969). Keene’s “A Better Mantrap” from 1947 opens the anthology, and aside from a few period anachronisms, you’d think it was a newly written domestic noir. When a wife’s had it with years of subtle and not so subtle abuse from a boorish husband, there are all kinds of ways to get rid of him. It’s a treat, and if it’s any indication of the quality of the tales in Dangerous Dames, one of the first books to begin replenishing my previously empty to-be-read spot on the writing lair’s endtable, then my shelter-at-home reading drought is over.

Dangerous Dames

Arseniy’s Toying With Me…

Arseniy Semyonov

Consider it a story prompt: This photo by Arseniy Semyonov could spark at least a dozen different tales, each scenario deliciously dark and probably deadly.

A private eye’s just been handed that photo by his secretary? Or a meeting with a classic femme fatale of a client has just wrapped up, the gumshoe assigned to hunt for her (most likely dead) lover? Heck, that fellow could be a pulp scribe holed up in a grungy motel room to complete his hard-boiled masterpiece, the silhouette of a curvy vision in the doorway no more than a figment of his liquor and cigarette fueled imagination.

Damn, I love/hate when pictures set me off like this…

Murder For Profit.

The Writer's DIG

George Dyer, writing for Writer’s Digest magazine, compares crafting a mystery tale to a chess game, with the pieces replaced by human characters, the individual moves being the plot (and presumably, its mysterious twists). The writer? The writer’s both a player and a judge, though still operating within various parameters. Dyer points to things like suddenly revealing ‘deux ex machina’ an all-new character in the closing scene to solve ‘the crime’, or implausibly arming a gangster with poison or a refined society girl with a Tommy gun as plainly breaking the rules..

What makes all of this particularly interesting for me is that George Dyer wrote it back in 1931. But we can read it now at the Writer’s Digest magazine website (link below), with a second installment to follow next week.

Writer's Digest

As the venerable writer’s resource celebrates its 100thanniversary, there’s a vast archive of guidance and info (like Dyer’s essay) to tap into. Consider a 1997 interview with David Baldacci, whose 1994 overnight success Absolute Power sold for a then unheard of $5 million advance…that ‘overnight success’ coming after an estimated 10,000 discarded pages from 11 years of writing. That’s in the April 2020 print magazine, which showed up in my mailbox on Wednesday, and just in time to help restock the to-be-read pile on my writing lair’s endtable. Though still working through “The Small Press Issue”, it’s a good one, and I have to say, I’m liking the modest shift in content seen in Writer’s Digest’s recent issues. And I’ll be looking for Part Two of George Dyer’s take on mystery story techniques next week. Kinda want to see if his words of writerly wisdom from 89 years ago still hold up.

I’m betting they will.

https://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/vintage-wd-murder-for-profit-mystery-story-techniques-part-1

Lonely No More…

Lonely No More

Most people have quickly grown desperate for some human contact during this sudden sheltering-at-home. But some have entirely different adjustments to make.

One woman diligently plowed through her novel’s revisions a half hour at a time during her daily work commute’s El ride to and from the north edge of the city into the Loop. But now she’s trying to work at home full-time, while maintaining some semblance of normalcy for her second-grade daughter. Another writer had been deep in research for a biography on Martin Luther King Jr.’s life in 1957 Alabama, quite content to scroll through old newspaper archives without interruption. Now? Every knock on the door will probably be one of his two kids needing attention.

Writing for the 3.30.20 Chicago Sun-Times (link below) Stefano Esposito explains “For writers, who depend on isolation, the coronavirus presents a new challenge: Too much noise at home”.  Who’d have thought? Some folks might actually miss all the alone time, and Esposito’s article introduces the reader to several novelists and non-fiction writers adjusting to households suddenly filled with spouses and kids.

A lot of writers are probably eager to return to their preferred coffee house, settle down at their favorite public library desk, or simply wave goodbye to their housemates, heading off to work in the morning. While most folks are going batty without daily interaction with friends and coworkers, those already working at home are now adjusting to husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends — and kids — and all the normal noise and interruptions that comes with company ‘round the house…24/7. If you’ve been accustomed to banging out a chapter or two in your jammies (or not even those) before bothering to brush your teeth, or like to pound the keys till dawn with a fifth of something or other and an overflowing ashtray for companions…well, for many, those days are gone. At least for a while.

Nobody’s complaining about it, least of all the writers profiled in Stefano Esposito’s article, but it’s a topsy-turvy take on the abrupt isolation we’re all learning to grapple with.

https://chicago.suntimes.com/coronavirus/2020/3/30/21199929/writers-work-from-home-coronavirus-new-challenge-noise

Dangerous Dames Are Heading My Way.

Dangerous Dames Ordered

The to-be-read pile on the writing lair’s endtable is usually stacked high, but I’d been whittling it down the past week or two, and got caught empty-handed just as we were all directed to burrow into our shelters. No libraries. No local indies or Barnes & Noble, no Half Price Books, no comix shops…nothin’.

So, I spent some weekend time burning through my credit limit for items from multiple sites from small press publishers to Amazon, for curbside bookstore pickup and elsewhere. First up: Some nifty noir-ish and pulpy anthologies spotted at The New Thrilling Detective Web Site with handy links to Amazon for these (presumably) used OOP gems.

“Twelve Lively Ladies…Twelve Deadly Dolls!” it says up above on the cover of 1955’s Dangerous Dames.  Okay, I’m in, even if it’s a pretty fair assumption that ‘Mike Shayne’ had no hand in the selection process. I’d have probably gone for The Dark End Of The Street based on the cover alone, and I’m kinda miffed that I missed that one before. “New Stories Of Sex And Crime” sounds like a nice mix of the noir and the naughty, and who couldn’t use that when we’re all so social-distanced?

Dark At The End Of The Street Ordered

I know I’ve seen Otto Penzler’s Murder For Love but don’t know why it’s not in my bookcases.

Murder For Love Ordered

Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins may seem like a puzzling duo to some, but thank goodness the scribe from Iowa befriended everyone’s hard-boiled hero while Spillane was still among us. I definitely did not know about this particular anthology, and very much want to see how those two managed to narrow things down to only twelve “hard-boiled, hard-hitting women writers”.

Vengeance Is Hers

Last up, an oldie from the Martin Greenberg anthology factory, which put out some terrific as well as some been-there-done-that anthologies in its heyday. But then, who knows how long the great sheltering may last…apparently past Easter Sunday, contrary to some hare-brained podium bluster. I’m betting I’ll find something I like in a book titled Tough Guys And Dangerous Dames.

Touch Guys And Dangerous Dames Ordered

I tried for Dolls Are Murder, a 1957 pocketbook from The Mystery Writers Of America, but someone else got there first and it was no longer available.

More books are en route from elsewhere and via pickup, and the writing lair’s to-be-read endtable shouldn’t look quite so forlorn pretty soon.

Thrilled About Thrilling Detective.

Thrilling Detective - Anthos

I’ve visited Kevin Burton Smith’s excellent Thrilling Detective site in the past, but was kinda giddy to see it migrate to WordPress as “The New Thrilling Detective Web Site” so I could more easily follow along. And doing so paid off nicely this weekend when I was jotting down lists of books to order – for curbside pickup at the local indie, direct from the publisher, from Bud Plant, and from the behemoth in Seattle. The Thrilling Detective site ran two posts sharing long lists of mystery/crime fiction anthologies with links for most (or all?) right to Amazon, many being OOP titles.  I tried for six, but got a bounce-back on one later, it being no longer available. But five’s a start, and my to-be-read endtable is woefully empty, having foolishly not stocked up before the great sheltering commenced. The Amazon items may take longer than usual to arrive, but the others look like they’re speeding my way now, and the indie pickup books should be in hand tomorrow and are desperately needed.

If you find things that interest you here at The Stiletto Gumshoe’s lair, then you’re going to find many more and much better items of interest at The Thrilling Detective site. The link’s right below…use it now. And more about the gems I nabbed via Smith’s site will follow in another post…

https://thrillingdetective.wordpress.com/

The Gun In The Lingerie Drawer.

Edmund OBrien

Still working through my overstuffed folder of unread Crime Reads articles and essays…

Poll some fiction writers and I’ll wager they’ll all agree that sex may be the most challenging thing to write about. Oh, choreographing action and violence is tough, no question. But sex? Many writers’ fingers freeze over the keyboard when their plot demands a sex scene.

We routinely sit through shocking and even grisly TV and movie violence without flinching, even though our boyfriend/girlfriend, spouse, parents, siblings or friends are right beside us. But let the clothes come off and the more-than-smooching commence, and suddenly we’re squirming in our seats. Doubly so here in the U.S., where violence as entertainment has long been tolerated and even encouraged, while sex has been sanitized, compartmentalized, crudely packaged in exclusively male-gaze slide-shows and for decades, hidden altogether.

Crime Reads - Sex-Violence

Novelist Amanda Robson’s June, 2018 essay at Crime Reads, “Why Is Sex So Much Harder To Write Than Violence?” (link below) points out that while most people do have sex, most do not experience violence (at least, not the sort that fills mysteries, crime fiction and thrillers). Sex, while personal and intimate, is something most writers, readers and viewers can relate to on a first-hand basis. Violence, less likely so.

Have I experienced violence? Not really. I’ve been in car accidents. I’ve wrestled, been hit and thrown a punch. Who hasn’t, at least as a kid? I’ve cleaned a fish, so I guess I’ve plunged a knife into a living creature. I’ve shot a firearm, but only at targets, and I’ll be fine with never touching a gun again. But I’ve never even seen someone get stabbed or shot, much less been wounded myself. Whatever I write is entirely made up, cherry-picked from and authenticated by our collective TV/Comics/Movies/Novels archive and its vocabulary.

Helen Diaz Prophoto Nut 2

As for sex? Hmmmm…none of your business. Whether it’s straight/gay/other, vanilla or weirdsville, time to gleefully don the frillies and lay out the sashes and toys, or once-a-week obligatory marital bed dreariness, writers might understandably assume (or fear) that readers will identify the writer with the sex scene. Amanda Robson writes, “Most novelists write from the power of their imagination. However, when a novelist writes about sex, people imagine they are writing from their personal experience.  Or, at least, from their sexual fantasies. Because my debut novel Obsession contained a few raunchy scenes, I have been subjected to a barrage of comments – some funny, some lewd, some insulting – including an increase in men hitting on me at parties.” But she goes on to wonder why, as a crime novelist, no one assumed she had a lethal weapon in her pocket.

I’m as guilty as the next wordsmith. Sure, I’ve revised and rewritten chases, gunplay and fight scenes, struggling to get the action onto the page while still maintaining the proper pace and level of excitement. But sex? Good Lord, I revise and rewrite and prune and tweak till my computer’s ready to melt, and not because the scene’s so sizzling hot, only because I keep changing things. First it seems too pervy, then it sounds too flowery, then too specific, then too vague, then too clinical, and then…well, on and on and on. Compound this with writers’ discomfort when trying to adopt a character’s persona: A woman writing from a man’s POV or vice-versa. Writing gay, lesbian or trans, desperate to make the text ring true, but once done, wondering if readers will start to make assumptions. We shouldn’t care. But we’re uptight, fragile, human and we just do. Yet, I’ve never wasted a second worrying that readers will think I can handle a .45 automatic or know what it feels like when a bullet grazes my shoulder and the blood starts to flow.

ilya rashap

Amanda Robson doesn’t provide solutions for writers so much as analyze the situation. I’ll suggest there are no solutions. We’ll continue to peek at the author’s photo on the rear dustjacket flap and imagine them having the raucous orgies meticulously described in Chapter Six, but won’t for a moment presume they personally pack a pistol, blade or brass knuckles. And writers will continue to agonize over one page of eroticism even while they merrily plow through chapter after chapter of crime scenes, gunshots, explosions and fist-fights.

Mystery/crime fiction writer or reader, follow the link and read for yourself what Amanda Robson had to say about all this.

Photos: Edmond O’Brien, Helen Diaz/ProPhotonut, Ilya Rashap

https://crimereads.com/why-is-sex-so-much-harder-to-write-than-violence/

 

Stuck At Home? Then Go To Noir City.

Noir City 1It’s not like I didn’t see it coming: Shelter-at-home, non-essential businesses closed temporarily, etc. It’s just that the day job was in its normal busy time of year, well underway prior to the shutdowns and continuing during the transition to work-at-home. I may have been prepared with groceries in the fridge and a full tank of gas (should I just skip the thing about the cigarette carton stash?), but I hadn’t been to the library, hadn’t been in a bookstore and hadn’t even done a quick online order of any books – new or old – in the days leading up to the sudden switch to hermit status. The to-be-read stack on the writing lair’s endtable had whittled down some. It’s not like I don’t have shelves of beloved treasures that could do with a re-read, but still…

So, it was a double delight to see the new Spring 20202 Noir City e-magazine Number 28 appear in my in-box.

Noir City 3

Now I’m not kidding about being busy with the day job. Even routine tasks seem to take twice as long as they do in-office, where simple face-to-face questions and approvals take no more than a moment, but now require email barrages. No complaints, mind you. When the news is filled with startling stats like 1 in 10 Americans filing for Unemployment last week and even 1 in 4 laid-off, furloughed or weathering hours cutbacks, I’m thrilled to be working. But with time at a premium, I haven’t read a single word of this new Noir City issue yet. Still, a quick scroll through the pages (drooling the entire time) assured me this is another terrific issue from Vince Keenan and Steve Kronenberg, and as always, a visual treat from Art Director Michael Kronenberg.

Noir City 2

Craving some dark delights in the midst of endless dismal news? Get thee to the Film Noir Foundation’s site (link below) to find out more, become a contributor and to get your mitts on the Noir City e-magazine. Just try to visit there and not end up wanting something: Back issues, festival posters, whatever. Hey, if we can’t spend money in stores right now, we can unload a few bucks on something of real value for noir culture enthusiasts…and I know there are more than a few of you reading this.

http://www.filmnoirfoundation.org/home.html

http://www.filmnoirfoundation.org/aboutnoircity.html

Tips For Aspiring Crime Writers Enthralled By The Classics.

The Big Sleep 1978

Deluged with articles and radio/TV news touting ways to pass the time while sheltering at home? Must-see series to binge watch, reading literary classics you skipped in high school, or perhaps reviving dormant hobbies? Sure, like I have time to start a ship in a bottle. The fact is, moving the day job from the office to the writing lair has mostly meant that everything takes twice as long to accomplish. So far, there’s no time for down time.

But one thing I promised to do is to finally catch up on an entire stash of articles and essays from Crime Reads, a fat folder of sloppy screen-caps and still-working links, some a year and half old. I was too busy to read them properly or at all when first spotted, and I mean to get through these things by the time we un-shelter.

How To Write Like Chandler

Dial back with me to July of 2018 for “How To Write Like Chandler Without Becoming A Cliché” by Owen Hill (link below), one of the editors of the amazing The Annotated Big Sleep, along with Pamela Jackson and Anthony Dean Rizzuto (well, and Raymond Chandler, of course), that jumbo 470+ page 2018 Vintage Crime/Black Lizard classic noir/crime fiction fan must-read. I’ve written about it here before. Maybe will again. But for now, it’s Owen Hill’s remarks about just how easy it is to become so enthralled by the genre’s mid-twentieth century roots that the icons, triggers and tropes can permeate our own work…and not necessarily in a good way.

The Annotated Big Sleep

Hill’s essay is subtitled “Tips For Aspiring Crime Writers Enthralled By The Classics” and he opens by listing just a few of the most obvious and iconic scenes we’d automatically associate with Raymond Chandler’s (sometimes by way of Dashiell Hammett’s) work, and he notes, “Today it’s difficult to imagine a detective novel without at least an homage to these and other Chandleresque tropes. What’s a fledgling writer to do? How to make it all seem fresh?”

Aside from avoiding the most worn out clichés and stereotypes, Hill recommends reading. And reading a lot.

Chandler? Well, sure. How can you not? Hill adds James M. Cain, Ross MacDonald and notes that Chandler himself learned second-hand by reading the pulps, especially Earle Stanley Gardner and Hammett. I’ll add in a diverse bunch of notorious characters from James Ellroy to Sandra Scoppettone, Vicki Hendricks and early Megan Abbott, Loren D. Estleman and Stuart Kaminsky, Sue Grafton and George Pellecanos, Max Allan Collins and Sara Gran, both Kanes (Henry and Frank)…and of course, Mickey Spillane. My list could go on and on. You’ll have your own to add.

The Big Sleep 1978 - 2

There’s a very fine line between homage and pastiche, and narrow as the distinction may be, it’s made worse by being blurry and ill-defined. What one reader/writer considers reverent, another sees as laughably hokey. I struggle with this all the time, whether working in period settings (much of my own stuff set in the late 1950’s to very early 1960’s) or in ‘the now’. Once the fellows sport suspenders and fedoras, the women wear hats and gloves, the cars have fat fenders or fins and the gumshoes plunk coins in pay phone slots, a writer’s in treacherous territory, where deadly clichés lurk around every corner.

Hill’s solution is the same one recommended by nearly every writing how-to book. Read, read and read some more…though obviously, leaving a little time for your fingers to tap dance across the keyboard. Makes sense. Only by getting a firm handle on the wide diversity of voices, settings, situations and styles a thriving genre comprises, and by seeing first-hand how those who’ve gone before us have synthesized the genre’s iconography into their own fresh perspectives can anyone possibly hope – however humbly – to put their own spin on things. It’s okay to be enthralled or even to go all fanboy/girl over genre classics, so long as we don’t become clichés ourselves.

So, you’ll indulge me if I include some pics of Robert Mitchum from the 1978 The Big Sleep in this post instead of the more revered, and obvious, Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe himself.

https://crimereads.com/how-to-write-like-chandler-without-becoming-a-cliche/

 

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