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/

 

The Shakedown

The Shakedown 1

“Models Were The Bait For Blackmail!”

I usually don’t go for retro British crime melodramas or noir-wannabe’s, considering most a little too timid. But I’ve always loved that poster shown above, and wouldn’t mind getting my mitts on John Lemont’s 1959/1960 The Shakedown with Hazel Court, Donald Pleasence and Terry Morgan, just for a peek. The film didn’t make it to the U.S. until 1961, and mustn’t have made much of a splash then, since even bargain basement DVD companies have overlooked it.

The Shakedown 2

Just released from prison, Terry Morgan sets up a modeling agency that’s really a front for a naughty pictures racket backed up with a blackmail scheme. When the police get wise, they enlist future Hammer horror films stalwart Hazel Court to go undercover to infiltrate the operation, never anticipating that she’ll end up falling for the good-looking but sleazy blackmailer. The tawdry business wraps up once a blackmail victim’s had enough and shoots Morgan. Before the crook dies, he realizes that Hazel Court is really an undercover police officer. But there’s no talk of love or see you in the hereafter. His final words? He calls her a bitch and gasps his last, leaving Court to ponder what she let herself get mixed up in as she wanders off.

Murder, mayhem and vintage sleaze? Sounds deliciously stupid to me, but all I’ve found so far are short, ho-hum video snips. Still, I bet I’ll stumble across this sleazy gem in some DVD discount bin or risky video site someday.

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(Neon) Neo-Noir Still Lifes

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If you prop a still life photo with a vintage UK edition of Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me, Deadly, you’ll get my attention.

Photographer Maurizio di Lorio shoots commercial assignments for diverse clients including GQ, Vogue, WWD and Elle among others, and has mounted fine art photography exhibitions from Los Angeles to Venice, Italy. Most of his images are incredibly crisp macro close-ups, all of them oozing intensely saturated hues, di Lorio’s figurative work sometimes isolating facial closeups, or more famously (or notoriously) deploying models sporting black or neon-hued opaque legwear, often in surreal or provocative situations.

But it’s di Lorio’s still-life and tabletop shots that caught my eye. Propped with crime genre trinkets like smoldering cigarettes, handguns and cocktails, they’re like glimpses of decidedly non-black & white neo-noir film sets.

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Jonesing For My Paper.

horst p. horst 1943

Only three weeks into the renewal of my Sunday New York Times home delivery subscription, and there’s no paper outside. I cancelled the NYT and Chicago Tribune Sunday home deliveries back around the holidays, frustrated with only getting the paper three out of four weeks…if that. Visitors and followers here have all seen their share of old B&W movies where folks plunked down some coins for a paper. Home delivery of the Sunday NYT goes for ten buck a week now. Mind you, I’m not blaming either paper. God bless ‘em both for persevering through calamitous times for print media while combatting the crafty onslaught of ‘fake news’ accusations by those who’d love to see a free press crumble and fade.

No, it’s not the newspapers’ fault, just some schmoe driving around with bundles of papers in the back of their SUV that’s the problem. Customer service operators for both papers conceded as much about this particular area when I cancelled, and assured me it had been rectified when I renewed.

Now that I’m officially hunkered down at home, I need that damn paper. Sure, the Trib’s a pale shadow of what it once had been, with entire sections gone and others reduced in size. But the Sunday NYT is like a big fat book’s worth of reading, and both are doubly valuable in times like these. Yeah, yeah, I know: Go online. And I do, during the week. But Sunday routines demand a fresh pot of coffee, suitable morning edibles and newspapers. I don’t care if news is transmitted via implanted bio-chips by the time I’m being spoon-fed gruel in a nursing home, I’ll still want to sniff the tell-tale ink-on-newsprint aroma.

I’ll keep checking (though it’s late afternoon as I write this) but methinks I’ll have to do without my Sunday NYT this week…and the ten bucks.

Photo: Horst P. Horst, 1943

Those Weirdly Empty Streets…

misty night red

A little darker out, and it could look like a scene from a dystopian Neo-Noir out there. Well, a snowy dystopia, since that’s what it’s doing at the moment.

The day job’s workplace is obsolete (but recently welcomed) private offices with few outside visitors and mostly network/intercom communication. We’d joked all week that we felt safer and more quarantined at work than at home. Nonetheless, on Thursday we finally voted to transition to work-at-home, and just in time. On Friday afternoon, the Governor issued a stay-at-home order through April 9th, which was to take effect at 5:00 PM Saturday. I spent most of that day setting things up in the writing lair, testing VPN’s, offsite access and group communications in order to be as close to normal come Monday morning.

Though hardly working in anything that could be considered an essential industry, I volunteered to venture out on work assignments Monday. There’ll be no face-to-face contact with anyone, and I figure it’d be nice to still have a job once this is all over (which I’m certain won’t be April 9th). Clients will leave packaged prototypes outside their offices, which I can pick up, then drop off at coworkers’ doors to be worked on. I don’t imagine I’ll have to wrestle with any traffic jams Monday AM, or risk the State Police pulling me over, and plan to hunker down back in the writing lair – make that the home office, now – once I’m done.

Firing up the jalopy on Saturday to run some pre-sheltering errands, I had the run of the roads. The streets were already eerily empty, but that may only be because everyone was jammed into the grocery store parking lots. Don’t hoard? Sure, that admonishment will be heeded in the land of 24-7 sports, Breitbart News and brain-draining reality TV. I hoped to grab a gallon of skim milk, but had to hit four stores to find any milk, eventually doing my best to social-distance in line behind people dragging two and even three over-stuffed grocery carts, as if they were stocking up fallout shelters.

Snicker at me if you like, but I’m one of those dopes who can get teary-eyed at a Memorial Day commemoration or when I hear the national anthem done well. I really do love this country, pre-pandemic tribal insanity and all. But sometimes it’s hard to feel warm-n-fuzzy towards your fellow citizens while watching them wrestle over frozen pizzas.

Stay well, one and all!

Lorenz Hideyoshi Ruwwe Noir Detective

Images: Barry Yanowitz and Lorenz Hideyoshi Ruwwe

Elaine And John Duillo, Continued…

john duillo 2

More about the husband and wife team of 20th century illustrators, Elaine and John Duillo:

Meanwhile, husband John was an in-demand illustrator for PBO’s as well, known most for westerns and doing some 500+ covers during the 1950’s and 60’s. It’s estimated that his Zane Grey, Max Brand and Louis L’Amour books sold over 100 million copies. Late in his commercial career, Duillo also did numerous covers and interior illustrations for the men’s adventure and so-called men’s sweats market, including a number of notorious women-in-peril pieces typical for that market (and the kind we’ll skip here). He retired from commercial illustration in the mid-1970s to focus on western art and historical Civil War painting and etchings. John was a President of The Society Of American Historical Artists.

See a prior post for art and info from Elaine Duillo.

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Elaine And John Duillo

elaine duillo 1

I posted about artist and illustrator John Duillo some time back (at the main site, not Tumblr) but never pointed out that Duillo was but one half of a powerhouse commercial illustration duo along with his wife, renowned romance novel illustrator Elaine Duillo.

Elaine Duillo 3

Both Elaine and John were born in 1928. They met while attending the Manhattan High School of Music and Art, later marrying in 1949. From her start with Balcourt Art Service in 1959 through her retirement in 2003 (the year John Duillo sadly passed away), Elaine painted a broad range of magazine and paperback book covers, from mystery/crime fiction to science fiction and racy ‘sleaze’ titles, though she was most widely recognized as one of the premier romance novel artists, initially for gothic novels and later for Regencies and so-called bodice rippers. Duillo’s style was so popular it became known in the industry simply as “Elaines”. She sold her first cover for $150. At her peak, Elaine Duillo covers typically went for $8,000 or more. Elaine Duillo is an Illustrators Hall Of Fame inductee.

Elaine Duillo 2

The mark she made on the romance genre is unquestioned. Still, you indulge me if I wish she’d squeezed in a few more crime fiction covers here and there, being certain that she’d have given that market’s greats some real competition.

See a following post for art and info on John Duillo…

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Joan Mason – Reporter

Joan Mason 1

Joan Mason – Reporter from Victor Fox’ Fox Features Syndicate appeared in about 16 Blue Beetle comics as an on-again off-again girlfriend and sometimes foil of the superhero, eventually getting her own feature stories. Yet, for all of her investigative reporting and sleuthing skills, Joan never managed to figure out that Dan Garrett was actually the Blue Beetle.

Mason worked for various newspapers, depending on what the writers (or even the letterers) came up with, oddly enough, even the Daily Planet in some stories, though it’s not intended to be Clark Kent and Lois Lane’s paper (or to tempt fate with DC Comics’ lawyers). Most often depicted in a stylish red suit and hat with long blonde hair, Joan Mason suddenly had a mid-1940’s makeover in a new (and much better) artist’s hands, briefly sporting a black bob, though still sticking with the bright red suit.

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The Joan Mason Reporter Treasury shown at the top is another Gwandanaland Comics POD book (they seem to be pumping them out nearby in Monee, Illinois), 126 pages with 18 stories, most from 1944 – 1950 Blue Beetle comics. Writers? Artists? You got me — nothing’s credited, and the book’s intro is only a brief paragraph. But, some online sources list Charles Nicholas as Joan’s creator. Actually, most of the writing and art aren’t exactly the best, and only one story in this book, “Joan Mason Reporter In The Wandering Atomic Bomb” is done by someone who can really wield a pencil and sable brush, with a style somewhere between a Bill Ward and a Matt Baker’s look.

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Mason’s usually assigned to look into (or just stumbles upon) a corny mystery, gets caught by the crooks, rescued by the cops and solves the crime in the last panel or two. Many are only six-pagers. Still, for someone determined to poke around mid-twentieth century pulps, PBO’s and comics to uncover the era’s ‘stiletto gumshoes’ (few as there may have been), these Joan Mason stories are interesting artifacts.

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The Man That Got Away.

The Man That Got Away

 

In Lynne Truss’ 2019 The Man That Got Away, young seaside resort town Constable Twitten is largely dismissed by his colleagues and superiors even though he knows Brighton’s infested with criminals of every sort, most likely led by the police station’s own unassuming cleaning woman, who keeps the uniform cops and inspectors preoccupied with tea and delectable dainties while she eavesdrops on police matters and plots elaborate schemes of her own.

It’s 1957, and we’re still a few years away from the near-riots between rampaging gangs of Mods and Rockers on Brighton’s streets and beaches. The town fathers are more focused on the newly formed troop of Brighton Belles: attractive, uniformed young women roaming the resort town to act as guides and steer tourists to fee-based attractions. A pair of those very Belles may be the best witnesses to a bloody murder which will lead young Constable Twitten on a merry chase probing a seedy nightclub, a kitschy wax museum, a pair of young lovers’ failed elopement and a notorious con artist’s latest scheme, all the while playing cat and mouse with the police station’s kindly cleaning woman, who only Twitten knows as Brighton’s reigning crime lord.

I challenge you to classify this novel. There’s nothing remotely hard-boiled or noir-ish about it, yet it’s certainly not what you’d call a ‘cozy’. Now, this comes from a Yank, and a Midwesterner at that (which is about as blandly American as one can get) but I’d have to say this was the most thoroughly British novel I’ve read in a long time. Imagine a Fawlty Towers episode or an extended Monty Python sketch, brimming with quirky characters and all told in a loopy narrative which frequently detours into chatty bits of backstory. At times, the plot had my head spinning. But once finished, I admit that I still wanted more. Which is fine, since The Man That Got Away is actually Truss’ second Constable Twitten book. Sidestepping my usual diet of dark, brooding gumshoes and femmes fatales is a healthy thing, so I’ll be looking for her first one, 2018’s A Shot In The Dark on my next bookstore or library trip.

A ShotIn The Dark

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