Call him a poet of noir, or what you will. Author Jim Thompson (9.27.06 – 4.7.1977) was born today, 114 years ago. Regrettably, Thompson received far too little critical acclaim during his lifetime, but thankfully the work is there now for us to delve into whenever we’re eager for a trip into darkness, though it’s amazing how many bookseller and library mystery/crime fiction sections often carry no Thompson works.
Georgetown University professor Susanna Lee’s Detectives In The Shadows (2020 Johns Hopkins University Press) is subtitled “A Hard-Boiled History”, and some may quibble with that. Lee’s 216-page hardcover (the last 46 pages comprised of appendices and footnotes) is less a ‘history’ of fictional hard-boiled detectives and more a close look at how a shortlist of exemplary private eye characters from literature and broadcast media represent and echo their eras.
If you’ve been burned in the past by academics’ books, I can relate. Susanna Lee previously authored Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction And The Decline Of Moral Authority, but also Proust’s Swann’s Way and Stendahl’s The Red And The Black among other titles, and those might give anyone the willies if they’re disinterested in a return to high school and college required reading lists. (You say ‘Proust’ and I’m automatically fleeing the other way, one particularly disastrous college term paper still nagging at me to this day.)
But, fear not. Detectives In The Shadows is engaging and readable throughout, and I for one would’ve been happy with another 100 pages to devour. She selects a key hard-boiled detective to represent different periods, starting with Carroll John Daly’s Terry Mack as the start of the hard-boiled detective sub-genre, soon supplanted by that same writer’s more popular Race Williams, both of them Black Mask magazine staples. Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op and Sam Spade embody the late 1920’s and early Depression years, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe represents the 1930’s-40’s, and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer violently echoes the post-WWII Cold War era. Lee dismisses the 1960’s altogether, considering its social upheavals unfriendly to hard-boiled private eyes’ rugged individualism and quasi-vigilanteism. She jumps to the 1970’s with Robert Parker’s Spencer and his first appearance in The Godwulf Manuscript in 1973. From Parker’s Spencer, Lee switches from fiction to the screen with HBO’s The Wire and True Detective series, and lastly, Netflix’ Jessica Jones. Brief mentions of broadcast television’s The Rockford Files and David Janssen as Harry O may still leave some readers scratching their heads. Wither Kinsey Milhone and V.I. Warshawski? Lew Archer and Easy Rawlins? The roster could continue, but again I’ll point out that Susanna Lee didn’t assemble a laundry list of hard-boiled detectives, but instead, aimed to show how the uniquely American literary invention of the lone-wolf hard-boiled P.I. represents evolving periods in modern history.
Coming from a steady diet of cozies and ready to take a peek at the dark, violent world of hard-boiled detective literature? Then pick another non-fiction book to provide you with an overview, but keep Susanna Lee’s Detectives In The Shadows on hand for a later read when you want to delve deeper into what these iconic characters represent.
(Spotted at that most excellent of reference sites, Notpulpcovers.com)
Back in 1944, ‘Noir Prince’ David Goodis penned a dogfight story titled “Dusk Is For Dying” under his own name for Fighting Aces magazine. For Goodis, any time may have been a good time for dying, dusk or dawn.
But let’s assume that “The Dawn Is For Dying” (above) by Lance Kermit doesn’t deal with heroic American airmen blasting Zeroes, Messerschmitt’s or whatever else Fighting Aces magazine showcased.
Actually, “Lance Kermit” was one of several pen names David Goodis used for the pulp magazine market (though he used his own name for many stories too). Not that I’d consider Adventure magazine a prestige venue…or any of the men’s adventure or ‘sweats’ mags, for that matter. But a David Goodis story graced by an Al Rossi two-page B&W illustration is prestigious enough for me, even if Rossi’s art is pure vintage sleaze at its ‘best’…or worst, depending on your point of view.
Now that I think about it, this April 1959 issue would’ve been on the newsstands during my own The Stiletto Gumshoe project, the hoped-for series’ first novel set in April and May of that same year. As it happens, “Sharon Gardner/Sasha Garodnowicz” (the Stiletto Gumshoe herself) inherited a soft spot for mystery fiction and true crime pulps left behind by her old man, and she’d have been sorely tempted by “The Case Of The Deadly Doll” and “Are You A Slave Of Desire?”. But I know she’d have snickered at “Land Of The Love-Captive Girls” and John Stygna’s cover art with its sword-wielding sheik and harem girls. My bet: A quick thumb-through of the rag would’ve probably found her settling in to Kermit/Goodis’ “The Dawn Is For Dying”.
Not everyone re-reads novels, but I do, returning to a few classics and cherished favorites every few years, sometimes just grabbing a previously read book purely on a whim. But it’s rare for me to re-visit a book finished less than a year ago. Nonetheless, that’s just what I did with Laura Lippman’s 2019 Lady In The Lake, even though the to-be-read pile on the writing lair’s endtable is filling up (overflowing, actually) with new books waiting to be started.
Sure, I enjoyed Lippman’s tale of Baltimore’s mid-1960’s upper middle-class Jewish homemaker Madeline ‘Maddie’ Schwartz, her abrupt decision to leave her family for a new life in an edgy part of town, finagling her way into a bottom-rung newspaper job, and her ambitious and potentially dangerous investigation into the largely ignored death of Eunetta ‘Cleo’ Sherwood, a young African-American woman. Lady in The Lake is crime fiction. It’s definitely a mystery. But it’s also a coming-of-age story, though the age in this sorta-kinda homage to Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar is Maddie Schwartz’ late-thirties, her own teenage years’ self-discovery tabled for marriage and homemaker roles.
Read the first time only months earlier, there were no new revelations to be discovered in the plot. And Lippman scores no better or worse than most writers do with the “there” – that is, immersing the reader in the place in which the story unfolds. I’ve never been to Baltimore, Maryland, and Lippman’s laundry list of stores, restaurants and street names didn’t conjure up any specific sense of place. That’s not a criticism. The fact is, having been raised on a century of Hollywood films and television shows, we all can recognize a handful of Los Angeles and New York street and neighborhood names and landmarks. But the main drags in Tulsa or Spokane? The upscale department store in Denver vs. the dime store chain in Minneapolis? The fancy dining spots in Pittsburgh and the greasy spoons in Cleveland? Of course not.
For myself, I’ve chosen not to agonize over pointless geography lessons in my own writing, confident that no reader will spot check my rendition of Chicago (much less Chicago over 60 years ago) on Google Maps to uncover a fabricated street name or question if the Rexall drug store was really on the southwest or northeast corner of an intersection. The “there” – the real sense of place – has to be conveyed via much more than a tour guide’s itinierary.
But the “then”?
Laura Lippman’s handling of the “then” in Lady of The Lake was masterfully done, and why I opted to revisit the novel, this time like a high school/college class reading assignment, taking careful note of the different ways she kept the reader firmly rooted in the Autumn of 1965 through November 1966 (with a brief coda some twenty years later). Just as a sense of place is established – and maintained – by much more than meaningless address lists, the elusive sense of “then” must first be conveyed (and then repeatedly but, hopefully, not intrusivelyreinforced) with much more than pointing out cars’ make and model years, household product brand names or some other pop culture references. In Lady In The Lake, everything really feels like it’s 1966, from the characters’ body language to the pervasive dismissiveness Maddie Schwartz constantly navigates through. Spiro T. Agnew may be running for governor, The Sandpipers playing at the theater, but those only matter if a contemporary reader even knows who Agnew was or can picture Steve McQueen on screen. Chronological cultural cues are sprinkled throughout, of course, but it’s the actions and dialog that constantly define the time, if not the place. How precisely Lippman accomplished all of this is not so easy to decipher.
My own work is set in the ethnic blue collar bungalow belt of 1959 Chicago. Neighborhood borders – and ethnic/racial boundaries – are as rigid and insurmountable as real walls, and a viaduct or railroad line as formidable as the Brandenburg Gate in Cold War era Berlin. I think I’ve managed a sense of place pretty well without getting bogged down in street names and local landmarks that couldn’t resonate with readers. But that doesn’t mean that all the maps, downloaded photos, vintage magazines and hours of research were pulled together for nothing. They’ve played their part in helping me to establish – and maintain – an essential sense of the “then” as much (if not more so) as the “there”. Am I doing it as handily as Laura Lippman? I doubt it. But a re-read of her Lady In The Lake is helping to keep me on the right track.
Photo: Andrey Dubinin
There’s not much reason to be familiar with Racine, Wisconsin. Unless you’re a fan of old-time radio shows, that is, and remember Fibber McGee & Molly’s sponsor, the Johnson Wax company of Racine, Wisconsin (S.C. Johnson today, mega-corporate marketers of Windex, Pledge, Glade, Drano, Saran Wrap, Raid, Ziploc bags, Off and many other branded products probably lurking somewhere around your home). There’s a chance if you attended college anywhere from Chicago to Milwaukee that you might’ve taken a field trip to the Frank Lloyd Wright designed S.C. Johnson corporate campus for an architecture class. But that aside, Racine has been eclipsed lately by its small city/big town neighbor just a short hop down the road, Kenosha Wisconsin, which has been in the news much more than it would like.
I’ve been to Kenosha and Racine and all points in between Chicago and Milwaukee, that 100 mile+ stretch along lower Lake Michigan’s western shoreline, more or less one continuous metro area straddling two states (even been to that diesel-punk shrine S.C. Johnson campus numerous times on day job chores). But I never expected to see Racine mentioned in the pages of Mystery Scene magazine, much less to learn that one of my wordsmith heroes resided on the north side of that town for a year and half back in the mid-1960’s.
With his writing career briefly stalled, Lawrence Block (a name mentioned often enough here at The Stiletto Gumshoe) found himself relocating from Buffalo, New York to Racine, Wisconsin for a year and half, working a regular day job at Whitman Numismatic Journal (numismatics being coin collecting). The job offer was based in part on one particular 1964 article Block wrote: “Raymond Chandler And The Brasher Doubloon”. That essay (also available in Block’s collection of non-fiction pieces, Hunting Buffalo With Bent Nails, 2019), is reprinted in the latest Fall 2020 issue of Mystery Scene magazine, and it’s an intriguing read for Block fans and Raymond Chandler enthusiasts alike. Whether you know Chandler’s story from his 1942 Philip Marlowe novel The High Window or the 1947 film adaptation (the second, actually) The Brasher Doubloon with George Montgomery and Nancy Guild, do check out Block’s essay.
This Fall 2020 Mystery Scene issue is full of the usual tasty stuff, including all the new book release ads and reviews, some of which I’ve added to the orders refilling the writing lair’s to-be-read endtable. But there’s more, of course, like Pat H. Broeske’s excellent (but all too short!) “Love On The Run” article, which takes a look at some of the many Hollywood films inspired at least in part by the notorious exploits of the real-life Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, including Joseph Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1957), Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde (1967) naturally enough, Nicholas Ray’s incredible They Live By Night (1948) and others. They Live By Night is a particular fave of mine and overdue for a fresh viewing soon. It’s odd that such a noir classic is mostly seen in cheesy omnibus disk set editions found in bargain bins. If you haven’t seen this one, perhaps Italian illustrator Averardo Ciriello’s gorgeous film poster art below will send you off to find this incredible piece of doomed, dark romance with Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell. The faces Ciriello painted for that poster are truly haunting.
As for Mystery Scene magazine, go get your own copy of the Fall 2020 Mystery Scene now…
Never a member of ‘Team Edward’ or ‘Team Jacob’, I’m just not much of an expert on Stefenie Meyer’s Twilight series. Or much of a fan, to be honest. I skimmed a few pages of the first Twilight novel in a bookstore years ago, and have only seen random snips of the movies while channel surfing. But maybe I should say thanks to Stefenie Meyer. Well, more accurately, I do owe Rachelle Hampton for her funny 9.2.20 piece at Salon, “All 349 ‘Murmurs’ in the Twilight Saga, Charted And Ranked”. (link below)
According to Rachelle Hampton, Stefenie Meyer seems to be “unconditionally and irrevocably in love with the word murmur…there are hopeful murmurs and bleak murmurs, warm murmurs and tense murmurs, low murmurs and…well, even lower murmurs”. She went so far as to assemble an Excel spreadsheet charting Meyer’s use of the word murmur, discovering that the new Midnight Sun sequel/prequel included 67 murmurs, while the original Twilight series novels tallied 349 (which is a lot of murmuring). For the record, Breaking Dawn boasted the most, coming in at 111 murmurs.
While I may not be particularly interested in vampires that sparkle, moody teenagers or the Pacific Northwest, Rachelle Hampton’s analysis of Stefenie Meyer’s wordsmithing (and the gentle way she’s poking fun) prompted me to give the MS Word Advanced Find And Replace tool a go in my own work, something I probably should’ve been doing all along.
I was relieved to learn that I’d only used murmur twice in the completed Stiletto Gumshoe manuscript currently being queried – one murmured and one murmuring to be precise, and those over 200 manuscript pages apart. So far, no one murmurs even once in the in-progress follow-up novel, that one about halfway complete.
Still, that double-check prompted me to do similar word search/counts on all kinds of other words and phrases, terrified I’d discover that I employed word crutches or writerly ‘darlings’, those awful go-to words and phrases writers of all sorts turn to in a crunch or type almost by default. The result? Relief, once again, though just to play safe, I did change a word or two just to have something to show for the effort.
As an avid reader of postwar PBO mysteries, crime fiction and private eye series (some of which boast eye-catching covers but pretty awful insides) I can verify that many writers – particularly those of the pre-computer ‘first draft is the only draft’ school – beat some words and phrases to death. And no, I’m not going to assemble an Excel spreadsheet for you in order to prove this. Just take my word for it. At the very least, there were some very popular P.I. series wordsmiths sharing more or less the very same descriptions for every slinky female client, femme fatale and damsel in distress encountered, and using those again and again.
Not too much murmuring going on in a lot of those novels, though.
Right or wrong, I suppose that I lump Stefenie Meyer’s Twilight series in with the notorious E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey series: Mega-selling publishing phenomena that spawned super-successful film franchises, presumably leaving both writers more than comfortable for life. As well as their heirs. And their heirs. The two series seem to go hand in hand, appropriate since the Grey books began as Twilight fanfic. While some might grimace at the writing itself, there’s no denying that the novels caught on with the book buying and movie-going public, so any griping about their success just comes off as sour grapes. There’ll be no griping here, only gratitude to Rachelle Hampton, Stefenie Meyer (and maybe E.L. James, too) for reminding me to watch out for those word darlings and to double-check every so often in case things have gotten out of hand. I imagine I’ll automatically picture a sullen Kristen Stewart the next time my fingers start typing murmur.
Photo: Vincenzo Centrone
Don’t let a noir protagonist’s quirky name fool you. Will Christopher Baer’s Phineas Poe is not Auguste Dupin or Hercule Poirot. Hell, he’s not even Mike Hammer or Jessica Jones. The mean streets of Manhattan or L.A. have nothing on Phineas Poe’s darkest nightmares. If you want to read something uplifting – or at least reassuring – move on. The closest familiar comparison I can offer you to Baer’s three Phineas Poe novels would be Peter Medak’s unrelentingly dark (and almost surreal) 1993 neo-noir thriller Romeo Is Bleeding, scripted by Hilary Henkin.
Baer’s Phineas Poe is a former cop and drug addict fresh from the psych ward and promptly mixed up with Jude, a classic noir femme fatale who abandons him (and I won’t tell you precisely what he discovers has occurred when he awakes to find her gone), and his tortuous, violence filled quest to find her – to reunite, to rescue her or to seek revenge – takes Poe on a dark journey through drug induced dreams and violent episodes populated by two-bit crooks, Goths, hackers, sociopaths and killers. It all plays out in a nightmare landscape that may be Denver, Colorado and desert-noir Texas, but is more like Dante’s nine circles of hell. Sound like fun?
It is. Oh, it really, really is.
There are three Phineas Poe novels: Kiss me, Judas (1998), Hell’s Half Acre (2000) and Penny Dreadful (2004), each readily available individually both new and used and also conveniently offered in three-novel omnibus editions. The reader may take a while to adjust to Baer’s writing style, its rapid-paced yet surreal language and almost bratty taunting with ‘normal’ structure, punctuation and grammar. But a few pages in, Baer’s dark poetry will have you hooked, and structural norms largely forgotten.
I was shocked to discover Baer’s Phineas Poe books (individual editions and one omnibus…I’m not a collector but always acquisitive) missing from the writing lair’s too-many and overstuffed bookcases, presumably squeezed out by new additions at some point in recent years. Shame on me. But that’s a mistake that’s easily rectified. I have Greg Levin’s Criminal Element article “12 Neo-Noir Authors Too Good Not To Be Crazy Famous” (see the preceding post) to thank for prompting me to look for my Baer books and to order new ones right away. There’ll be other new books ahead of Baer’s Phineas Poe trilogy, but now I can’t wait to get really weirded out all over again.
The to-be-read pile on the writing lair’s endtable looked ready to topple over by late August, mystery/crime fiction titles strangely absent in the imposing stack. Though I expected late Summer to be short on reading time (due to day job and daily life stuff rudely intruding) I’ve managed to work through most of the heap, from a depressing list of current events/politics titles to Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste – The Origins Of Our Discontents, and winding up with a real change of pace for me, Lisa Morton and Leslie Klinger’s new anthology Weird Women – Classic Supernatural Fiction By Groundbreaking Female Writers 1852 – 1923. But even while I whittled the pile down, I’d phoned in over a dozen new books to the local indie for curbside pickups, ordered a few more direct from their specialty press publishers, and still more – ‘pre-owned’ books and POD-only editions – from the Seattle behemoth. Some of these are showing up quicker than expected, the to-be-read pile re-growing quickly.
‘Course, that doesn’t mean I can’t always make room for more…
Linked via Crime Reads, Greg Levin’s 9.9.20 “12 Neo-Noir Authors Too Good Not To Be Crazy Famous” at Criminal Element (link below) was just what I needed to help with the replenishing. Levin looks at a dozen edgy contemporary noir writers, like Sara Gran, one of my faves, though as much as I love her Claire DeWitt series, her third novel Dope (2006) eclipses even those for me and remains one of my all-time beloved books. Craig Clevenger, Lindsay Hunter, Holly Goddard Jones and others have spent time on that same to-be-read pile in the past, and Levin’s article prompted me to add a couple of them to my current book ordering frenzy (have to get ready for Autumn, don’t I?) even if they’ll be re-reads. But in particular, Levin prompted me to look at Will Christopher Baer, maybe the darkest on his neo-noir list, and for me, way overdue for a re-read. More about Baer’s magnificent Phineas Poe novels in the next post…
I’ve been more or less on ‘pause’ with my own writing projects since late March. Specifically, the outreach/submission chores have been on hold, for good or bad, waiting till Labor Day before ‘un-pausing’.
Queries previously circulated for the completed The Stiletto Gumshoe novel (that’s actually not it’s title) while I continued work on its follow-up for a hoped-for mystery/crime fiction series. But with NYC the epicenter of all-things-bad back in the Spring, it seemed sensible to halt any further outreach. Considering the frustrating ratio of replies (even when they’re ‘thanks-but-no-thanks’) to so-called NORMANS (no reply means a no), why send things out to empty workstations and unopened inboxes? Offices had emptied out, folks were huddling in their homes and apartments, and we all had bigger things on our minds than genre fiction queries.
Things loosened up a little in some parts of the country (New York in particular) while we drifted into Summer, a time of year considered by many (though not all) as the publishing marketplace’s down-time. Though ‘real’ Summer’s still with us for another two weeks-plus, Labor Day’s the traditional end of the season, and I’m ready – even eager – to get going again. So, just to get back in the groove, I pulled the untouched-for-months manuscript out and gave it another once-over…what writer can forego making another tweak or two?
As for the in-progress sequel? It hasn’t progressed as much as I’d like, not for lack of inspiration or due to writer’s block, but simply a matter of time. I never could’ve foreseen how the day job would change once everything went haywire back in late March: Staff working from home, me on-site, access to assets, info and more from Brazil, Germany, the UK and other faraway places all delayed. Bottom line: Everything takes half again longer than usual to complete. Mind you, there’ll be no whining here. I’m working. So many still are not.
Writing, publishing and bookselling sites, blogs and the trade press provide a mixed bag of news and opinions on what’s-what in the marketplaces. The good news: Print unit sales have been up, by more than anyone foresaw, and the numbers seem to show some staying power. On the other hand, book production’s been disrupted, not only by pandemic related issues but supply-chain and other problems with the main book printing mega-companies. Still, new titles are coming out. Deals are being made. All eyes may be on the latest political tell-all hardcover right now, but we assume that’ll fade sometime soon. So, while pressing pause when the pandemic first swept over the country and everything initially shut down seemed prudent, lingering in neutral for too long can only lead to inertia. Time to get back to work.
Literary Agent Jessica Faust’s excellent Bookends Literary Agency blog (link below) recently posted “Keep Moving Forward”, recounting the ups and downs (mostly ups) of the scary days in the Spring, and offers, “My tip for my clients is the same as I gave my agents. Keep moving forward…Keep submitting, even if it’s summer or a pandemic or the world looks bleak. Keep moving forward and controlling the one thing you can control: What you’re doing.” Makes sense to me. Whatever the ‘new normal’ is or will ultimately be, there’s no point sitting on the sidelines with a wait-n-see attitude. So next week I’ll reopen that buzzkill of a query/submission spreadsheet, revisit my continually-added-to literary agent lists, revise and refresh my queries and get back to work.
Y’know, I’m getting revved up already.
Photos: Laura Chouette, Natalia Drepina, Janko Ferlic
Filling and then whittling down my writing lair’s to-be-read endtable yields a lot of books, some few keepers finding their way onto already over-stuffed bookshelves, the rest crammed into cartons headed for the used booksellers. This time it took two trips to turn in three hefty cartons, most of those the non-keepers from my sheltering-in reading. No point in grousing about the out-of-pocket spending for those boxes-o-books vs. what I got back. Reading isn’t a business, after all. Usually all that fresh cash is burning a hole in my pocket before I can leave the store anyway. This time I behaved, more or less, and only walked out with one book (hard to believe).
Jim Huang and Austin Lugar’s 2006 Mystery Muses – 100 Classics That Inspire Today’s Mystery Writers is a follow up to their 100 Favorite Mysteries Of The Century and They Died In Vain: Overlooked, Underappreciated And Forgotten Mystery Novels. Huang and Lugar are just the editors, letting 100 mystery writers ranging from the well known to some newcomers (newcomers fifteen years ago, that is) comment on classic mystery novels that inspired or played a seminal role in their own mystery and crime fiction careers. This 224-page trade pb was a quick read, though I’ll need to revisit it again, this time with a pen and notepad handy. I’m embarrassed to admit that there were quite a few classics I still haven’t read (and a few I’d never heard of!) but also, the participating writers included a number of names I wasn’t familiar with and, in some cases, now want to know more about.