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.
When I first spotted Close Up (2020) on more than one of the too-many mystery/crime fiction and book sites I follow, I was expecting “Casey, Crime Photographer” in heels, and scheduled it for a bookstore curbside pickup. I’ve been making it a point lately to try big name authors whose books I’ve bypassed, partly to see what I’ve been missing and partly to find out what I can learn for my own writing.
Amanda Quick is well-known Seattle, Washington author Jayne Krentz. With over fifty NYT bestsellers to her credit, Krentz writes ‘romantic suspense’, with her ‘Amanda Quick’ pen name reserved for historical romantic suspense (which apparently just recently transitioned to more recent history, like Close Up, which is set in the 1930’s), and works as ‘Jayne Castle’ (oddly enough, the author’s real name) for paranormal romantic suspense. From this I’ll glean that the latter isn’t horror as such, the Quick books aren’t quite ‘noir’ or crime fiction, and the Krentz novels not quite thrillers. These are romance novels however you want to label them, not that this is a bad thing.
In Close Up, Vivien Brazier flees a pampered but claustrophobic heiress’ life in San Francisco to pursue a career as a fine arts photographer in Los Angeles. She pays the bills by moonlighting as a crime scene photographer, following police radio calls at night and elbowing the boys club aside at fires, auto accidents and murder scenes, spending her days working on a provocative series of male nudes with a steady stream of Muscle Beach buff-boys lined up outside her beachfront home studio. Smarter and more observant than the rest of the camera jockeys, Vivien helps the police I.D. a high-profile serial killer only a few chapters into the novel. But this spins off into a more puzzling murder mystery, and pairs her with dapper but troubled private (and apparently psychic) investigator Nick Sundridge and his loyal dog Rex. An elaborate if ill-conceived scheme to ensnare this new and even more diabolical killer takes them to the upscale oceanfront resort town of Burning Cove, where romance blossoms even as they to elude – then uncover – the murderer.
A snippy critic might complain that the plot takes some mighty implausible turns, the characters continually do incredibly improbable things and the entire business is rife with an endless list of writerly no-no’s that would guarantee an agent’s or editor’s swift and dismissive rejection for any unknown. But with a looong list of successful books to her credit, I don’t think Quick/Krentz/Castle needs to worry about any of that, and just aims to tell a good story in her own way.
Still, I’ll confess that I kind of wished the author trusted the nifty setup she initially created and left intriguing, no-nonsense Vivien Brazier right where she was when the book began: prowling the means streets of 1930’s Los Angeles on the hunt for grisly crime scenes with her big Speed Graphic camera in tow, bantering with the cops and the lensmen, and living the Boho life by day as a fine arts photographer, even though she has to endure the gallery elite’s sneers at her figure study photos. But Quick/Krentz/Castle knows what she’s doing, even when she chose to hightail it out of that intriguing milieu for a remote movie star hideaway resort and something more like a Golden Age drawing room mystery (albeit one laced with some sex). Bottom line: What the hell do I know? When I have fifty NYT bestsellers under my belt, I’ll make suggestions.
Whether you only enjoy its beginnings or stay on board for the rest of the ride, I bet you’ll agree that Quick’s Close Up is a fun read. I just hope some other writer picks up where Amanda Quick began and brings us an engaging, no-nonsense ‘girl crime photographer’ in a retro urban setting…Close Up was really onto something there. Hey, don’t look at me. I’m already wrestling with my own no-nonsense ‘stiletto gumshoe’ in a retro urban setting. You give it a try.
Happy to see the July/August 2019 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine in my mailbox this past weekend. I’ve heard no further news about WD parent company F+W Media’s financial woes or the bankruptcy announced back in March, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed that management will find a way to reorganize and pay all creditors while keeping this vital writers’ resource going. I think 2020 is Writer’s Digest’s 100th anniversary, so it’d be tragic for the publication to vanish now.
July/August is billed as “The Villains Issue” and like many theme issues, it’s stretching things a bit to make some articles’ fit the theme. But that’s okay, since I found nearly everything in this issue interesting or useful. But my favorite was “Packing The Punch” by Carla Hoch, author of Fight Write: How To Write Believable Fight Scenes from WD Books.
Many writers insist that sex scenes are the most difficult to write, and they may be right. Finding a comfort zone between steamy and merely icky can be challenging, particularly since every writer knows that readers will identify the roles and activities with the writer and the writer’s own ‘proclivities’. Maybe you don’t care, but you might if you’re a grammar school teacher or town council member writing lurid kink-filled scenes in your downtime.
But I’ll suggest that fight scenes – like any action scenes – can be every bit as difficult to craft as the squirmiest sex scene, if not more so. Both types of scenes have multiple participants (well, usually), there’s a lot of movement and action that must be choreographed, and then accurately attributed so the reader won’t be hopelessly lost. Who’s punching who? Who pulled the trigger, and who got hit? A sense of place has to be defined, pain has to be described and so much more, but unlike a sex scene, this has to be accomplished with an economy of words. Perhaps it’s fine to indulge in flowery prose and a languid pace for lovemaking. Fight scenes demand a finger-snapping staccato rhythm, moving fast but with pinpoint accuracy to keep the reader speeding through the words while still comprehending precisely what’s what. That’s a mighty tall order for pro’s and budding talents alike. As Carla Hoch says, “Sometimes, there’s nothing better than a good long sentence, pulsating with verbs and sutured with commas to grab your reader by the collar and drag them to the scene, because you will give them no other choice and there’s no leaving until you throw in the towel.”
Some suggest that a writer should try to hear an imaginary musical soundtrack behind their words in order to guide their pace. (You know, that might even work well with reading?) Sex scenes? If all soft-focused slow-mo stuff, the soundtrack might be a romantic Debussy piece or a soft pop ballad. More rambunctious romps might demand club tunes with a relentless pulsing beat you can feel right in your belly (or lower). Depends on what kind of frolicking the fun-lovers are up to. What kind of soundtrack sets the pace for a fight scene? Well, it’s unlikely to be a waltz. A thrash metal song, maybe. Some bust-loose jazz jam or an AOR guitar-god head banger. Hell, it could be a pompous Wagnerian thing if the fight involved axes and chain mail. In my work, it’s most likely bare knuckles on skin, slugs flying from a .45 automatic, or when the Stiletto Gumshoe’s caught unarmed, there’s still a spike heel rammed down doubly hard on a thug’s wingtips.
Thanks to Writer’s Digest magazine once again for helpful how-to’s like Carla Hoch’s terrific piece. I’ll be watching my mailbox with my fingers crossed that the issues keep coming.
(No credits available for the found art illustrations above, but the photos are by Bert Hardy above and Richard Avedon below.)
I stumbled onto my first Renee Rosen novel a few years ago and have been hooked since. Just finished her latest, Park Avenue Summer, a few weeks ago.
Rosen’s Dollface from 2013 is where I started, her first novel, I think. No surprise that it caught my eye, being set in Prohibition era Chicago, and telling Vera Abramowitz’ story in which romance with a suave bootlegger goes bad once he’s in the clink and she has to take over. Writer Rosen’s from Ohio but relocated to Chicago, seems to have acquired a very genuine feel for the city, and obviously does her homework on each period she writes about. That first book set a tone for the subsequent novels: A young woman navigating her way through an overwhelmingly male dominated world in eras when things were evolving, but only a bit. A very little bit.
I missed her second novel from 2014 but kept up with the next three: White Collar Girl from 2015, about young Jordan Walsh struggling to make it as a reporter in the boys club newsroom of the Chicago Tribune back in 1955. Next came Windy City Blues in 2017, once again set in Chicago and merging 1950’s-60’s fact and fiction with a young Jewish girl in the vibrant R&B music scene and tumultuous race relations while at Chicago’s legendary Chess Records.
Rosen’s latest, Park Avenue Summer, left her adopted home town for mid-1960’s New York City, where aspiring photographer Alice Weiss takes a job as Helen Gurley Brown’s secretary just as the iconic editor and author of the then-scandalous Sex And The Single Girl was about to turn the publishing world on its ear with the relaunch of Cosmopolitan magazine. I saw one review calling this novel “Mad Men Meets The Devil Wears Prada”, and that’s not an entirely bad description, at least as far as describing the milieu goes.
I’m calling Rosen’s novels ‘guilty pleasures’, but not to suggest that they’re lighthearted fluff. Far from it. Her novels have been a treat, helped locales and era come vibrantly alive for me, and each has been a pleasant diversion from the mysteries and crime fiction I normally devour. Three in a row all situated in 1950’s-60’s settings? That’s just a bonus for me. I don’t know where Renee Rosen is headed next: Back to Chicago, and if so, in what decade? Wherever and whenever it is, I can guarantee I’ll be going along for the trip.
White Butterfly (1992) was the third entry in Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series, though actually the second one that I read. I confess: I’d heard of Mosley but knew little about him or his work, and saw the 1995 film adaptation of Mosley’s first published novel, Devil With A Blue Dress with Denzel Washington and Jennifer Beals on TV or a rental at some point. Before I read the book, that is. I literally raced out to get it then, was completely enthralled when I read it, and hungered for more Mosley once done. I have two independent bookstores nearby, one close to home, one close to work, both charming operations, but both allocating just a little too much floor space to trinkets and knickknacks instead of books. So I walked out of one with White Butterfly, the third in the Easy Rawlins series, but the second I ended up reading, it being the only Walter Mosely novel on shelf at that time. For some reason, I’ve ended up working through more of Walter Mosley’s books in much the same way: totally out of sequence.
No matter. I adored White Butterfly, with Easy Rawlins settled into domestic life but keeping secrets from his spouse. A girl’s murder in the Los Angeles ghetto doesn’t have the cops in arms. Another murder – this time a white girl, so now they’re interested – finds the police blackmailing Easy to assist them, or his old pal Mouse (who turns out to be something less than a pal) who’s in jail may never get out of the clink.
Like much of the very best in noir fiction and film, Rawlins’ novels give us a hero with his share of flaws who is sucked into a maelstrom of darkness and danger where temptation abounds, and is forced to combat powerful forces, be they unscrupulous cops, syndicate gangsters or crooked politicians…everything dialed up a few notches in Easy Rawlins’ world of rampant racism. I’m not going to say that Walter Mosley effectively captures the postwar Los Angeles African American milieu, only because I’m not African American, not from Los Angeles and wasn’t around then. I will say that he conveys the time, place, people and culture, does it with power and with a richness that tumbles off every page without ever feeling like a travelogue or history lesson. Not one Walter Mosley novel has ever disappointed me, and his Easy Rawlins books are among my favorites.
Maybe one way to judge the importance of a book is by the number of editions. A continually popular book, an important book – and Walter Mosley’s first published novel and the first in the Easy Rawlins series, Devil In A Blue Dress from 1990, has never been out of print to my knowledge – is available in multiple countries (rightly so), print and audio, and has been re-issued in various editions. Up top is what I believe is the original first edition (which I don’t have, my copy only a lowly paperback re-issue). Below, a sampling of other editions. Mind you, these aren’t all, by any means, just the first few I screen-grabbed out of curiosity in a quick search. Mighty impressive.
Whether as a reader or even as a writer, there’s much to be said for a ‘comfort zone’, that familiar territory of a particular genre’s or category’s reliable template. Familiarity doesn’t have to mean boring or redundant. Each book will have an author’s individual spin. It’s like a really good breakfast from a neighborhood diner where the short order cook (likely visible and hunched over the grill behind the counter) feels no compunction to stir in fancy imported cheeses, the toast won’t come from a vegan bakery, the heap of hash browns are grilled, greasy and just right and the coffee’s served sans-cinnamon or caramel but refilled frequently. Nothing nouvelle, no surprises, but still something to be savored.
When you crack open a traditional ‘whodunit’ mystery novel, it’s safe to expect that a body will be discovered by the end of chapter one and the rest of the book will be spent working through a list of suspects and red herrings to uncover just who committed the crime. Though every writer will put their own individual spin on the template, that reliable formula is almost as comfy as your apres-workday sweater or your reading chair. Naturally, reading nothing but books that rigidly adhere to some pre-ordained genre format would eventually become dreary. It’s fun to be surprised or even challenged, yet we’ll still return to the comfort zone again and again.
Part of what separates the writing pro’s from mere wannabe’s may be an ability to anticipate reader’s expectations. In traditional ‘whodunits’, that business about ‘discovering the body by the end of chapter one’ ( a gross over-simplification, obviously) may be a reader’s reasonable expectation, and therefore, the writer’s implicit obligation, or so some agents and editors are likely to point out.
But the mystery genre – at least as a retail bookstore merchandising label – covers more than only traditional whodunits and includes all sorts of thrillers, crime fiction, noirs and much, much more, where the rules often are bent, twisted or turned completely upside-down. Clearly some writers aren’t merely tiptoeing around the category’s templates, but merrily stomping over them. That said, I’m not sure I’ve earned the cred to do any foot stomping on genre conventions just yet.
Charles Finch’s front piece on “Winter Thrillers” in this past Sunday’s New York Times opened with: ”Who knew a thriller could be this boring! Felonies, hush money, Russian agents, dogged journalists – in real time, it turns out, all that stuff moves like molasses, with none of the subtle internal coherence you find in a good novel of suspense. We may have to concede that while truth is indeed stranger than fiction, fiction is substantially better arranged. On the other hand, we don’t know the ending yet. There are great books that begin slowly, the authors talking themselves uncertainly toward their material before suddenly they find it and the intensity increases, the options narrow, the risk heightens: The final report comes in.” Finch then goes on to review an Australian author’s new thriller which apparently takes its sweet time to get moving, but ultimately turns out to be, as he notes, “all at once enthralling”.
(Of course we know perfectly well what thriller Finch was really talking about in his introduction, since most of us watch in disbelief as it plays out on our TV and phone screens newsfeeds every night.)
At the moment, I’m tiptoeing ‘round the templates myself, reluctantly conceding that attempts to ignore sensible genre conventions traded well-intentioned creativity for dreadful pacing.
With the completed manuscript for my noir-ish period crime novel The Stiletto Gumshoe deep in the un-fun querying process, I’d been hard at work and roughly halfway through the first draft of its follow-up. But I recently halted work on the in-progress sequel in order to revisit the first novel, which is now midway through a fairly substantial rework that’ll slice an entire hunk off the front and redistribute essential info throughout the manuscript. I was reluctant to do so at first. (Horrified is more like it.) But with a couple nearly identical ‘thanks-but-no-thanks’ query replies in hand – quite complimentary but sternly reminding me that not all genre conventions are bad just because they’re familiar – I sucked it up and got to work killing all those ‘precious darlings’ writers are warned to watch for. Once the first novel’s updates are done, I can restart the querying process while I concurrently start over at the very beginning of the follow-up book to slice, dice and purge the same sort of artsy-smartsy opening portions that cluttered up the first. Un-planned, time-consumptive and frustrating? You betcha. But the first book is already better for it, and the follow-up will be too once updated and back underway. Like Charles Finch said in his NYT Book Review piece, it ought to ‘increase the intensity, narrow the options and heighten the risks’ and do so all that much quicker for the reader.
Sure, some will say I’m a weenie for kowtowing to some agents’ comments (agents who may have relayed nice remarks, but no offers of representation, mind you). Well, then a weenie I am. Consider: If a painter proudly unveiled a portrait in progress only to be told “Nice, but the nose is crooked”, then that painter should grab a brush and fix the bent schnoz.
Even though I happily embrace novels that defy genre conventions and turn category formats upside-down while I work through stacks of comfortably familiar books, I don’t expect I’ll be on the vanguard of redefining literature. I’ll be content with telling a good story that I really want to share, hopefully doing so with the pacing and narrative flow publishing professionals approve of (as opposed to beta readers who are all too often neighbors, coworkers and drinking buddies). So for now I’m just fine with adopting a wobbly and precarious pose between writer’s how-to books’ rigid guidelines and the natural storytelling creativity struggling to cut loose, and just tiptoe ‘round the templates.