As Close As I’ll Get To The Decameron…For Now.

Turn To Stone

Suckered in some time ago by a handsome faux-leather hot stamped and embossed hardcover edition of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, complete with Gustave Dore illustrations (that 19thcentury French engraver who’s still inspiring countless SF/Fantasy artists today), I took the plunge into a daunting reading experience for someone more accustomed to Mickey Spillane and mystery pulp reprints. Prudently, I had an annotated eBook edition handy at all times in order to make some sense of every second or third line.

But it was still pretty intimidating.

The Decameron

So, try another?

Maybe it’s time to dial back a couple hundred years to attempt fellow Florentine Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, perhaps in one of those nifty editions with the Rockwell Kent illustrations (and hopefully with another annotated eBook handy)?

But you know, with snow falling here since Wednesday afternoon and lake-effect snow squalls forecasted straight through Sunday, it’s much more fun to think about Eleanora Stone buzzing around the Tuscan countryside on a Vespa, with the Summer of 1963 rolling into a warm Italian Autumn. Which is precisely what Ellie Stone got to do (however briefly) in James W. Ziskin’s Turn To Stone (2020), the seventh novel in his Ellie Stone mystery series. Now, it’s not really a retelling of or necessarily a homage to The Decameron, in which seven women and three men hid from the Black Plague in a Tuscan villa, wiling away the hours by sharing 100 tales from the educational to the more ribald. Instead, Ziskin’s early 1960’s ‘girl reporter’ finds herself quarantined in a remote but opulent Florentine palazzo, with some of the reluctant guests (and Ellie herself) sharing stories after dinners — not coincidentally from The Decameron — stories the reader will study carefully to hunt through for clues to the novel’s mystery. (Not that it helped me one bit, but I’m truly awful at picking up on clues.)

Ellie Stone Series

I fell in love with Ziskin’s Ellie Stone mystery series and Eleanora Stone herself from the opening pages of the first novel, Styx And Stone (2013). Smart, savvy, assertive yet very authentically a person of her time (that book set in 1960), Ellie Stone fled Manhattan academia with strained family relationships and tragedies all part of her personal baggage, finding her way to a reporter’s job at a small-town newspaper in New Holland, New York. There she’ll solve shocking local crimes, much to the chagrin of suitably 1960’s boorish male coworkers and the law. We first encounter her doing double-duty trying to solve her own father’s assault and murder among the Columbia professorial crowd back in NYC.

Subsequent entries in the evolving series have found Ellie solving other local crimes. But author Ziskin presumably confronted the problem vexing other writers penning successful mystery/crime fiction series set in small towns: Just how many brutal murders can occur in one little burg? I mean, once the body count hits a certain number, won’t the state police or the Attorney General take notice and send in the troops? (Mind you, that would’ve been William P. Rogers in 1960 or Bobbie Kennedy by 1963, not the current office holder, who’d surely be too busy plumbing new depths of sycophancy to alert the US Marshals.) So, Ellie has also managed to stumble into trouble while on vacation in the Adirondacks, on assignment in Los Angeles, at upstate New York horse tracks and now in Turn To Stone, in Florence, Italy for a symposium honoring her late Columbia professor father.

And she’s barely unpacked before the trouble erupts: The symposium’s host has been found dead, his body floating in the Arno river. Accident? Suicide? Murder? While it casts an obvious pall over the event, a pre-arranged post-conference weekend outside Florence is still a must-attend affair, though it goes bad quick enough when the threat of a Rubella outbreak quarantines the group of students, professors and various hangers-on…one of that group quite likely a murderer. And there’s no shortage of culprits hiding secrets and personal grudges going back to the Spanish Civil War, the dark days of Mussolini’s fascist regime, entrenched anti-Semitism and the horror of the Nazi occupation, casting the shadow of guilt on fellow academics, students and relatives alike.

Gun play? Car chases? Thrills and chills? Well, aside from a close call with a wild boar (you read that right), this novel steers clear of conventional crime fiction tricks and many common mystery tropes, though prior books in the series have had their share of excitement. No, I get the feeling this particular novel was a result of the author’s passionate love affair with the region’s culture, language, cuisine and troubled history, Ziskin degreed in Romance languages and literature, a prior director of New York University’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimo, collaborating with Italian writers and academics on cultural events. (Write what you know, writers are often told.) But for all the references to Renaissance art, literature and troubled 20thcentury tragedies – and there are many – you somehow also come away with some breezier visions of 1950’s-60’s thrillers and Continental rom-com films, easy to picture Suzanne Pleshette astride a motor-scooter or Tony Franciosa climbing out of a red Italian sports car. That is, with a horrible sense of dread hanging over everything the entire time.

I was busy as all hell with my day job when I got my hands-on Turn To Stone, leisurely reading time at a premium, and this chunky trade pb a whisker shy of 350 pages. But I blew through it in three evenings (with all too brief pre-dawn pre-work coffee-to-go in my car time added in). It doesn’t take gangsters with snub-noses, thugs with badges or scheming femmes fatales to make a mystery a page-turner, and Turn To Stone’s elegant writing and wonderfully complex story hooked me from the first page when Ellie boards the Pan Am 707 for Rome, and kept me hooked till she was on her way back to New Holland, where she might just have been the catalyst that ignited Beatlemania in upstate New York (you’ll have to read it to get that).

Yes, I was already a fan, but I betcha James W. Ziskin gets to you too. But as for The Decameron? I still have to think about that…

Like Christmas In January.

Turn To Stone

I may have to vanish for a week, or at least play hooky from the day job, it being like Christmas in late January for me.

Just got my mitts on James W. Ziskin’s new Ellie Stone mystery, Turn To Stone, (a bit beefier than the preceding six books at nearly 350 pages) with the NYC-via-upstate New York small town newspaper reporter jetting off to Italy in 1963. Ziskin’s savvy and engaging Eleanora Stone played a part in nudging me to get to work on my own projects, validating the notion of a female mystery/crime fiction protagonist in a setting other than the much more common Roaring Twenties, Depression era 1930’s, WWII and postwar late 40’s/early 1950’s…or today, for that matter.

The Words I Never Wrote

But the Christmas In January stocking holds more than just Ellie Stone. I now also have Jane Thynne’s new The Words I Never Wrote. How bittersweet to flip to her author bio on the dustjacket’s back flap to read “…the widow of the author Philip Kerr”. I’m still grieving Kerr’s loss and the thought of never reading another new Bernie Gunther novel again. I devoured each of Thynne’s excellent Clara Vine series books, and am eager to see what this non-series novel will be.

More to say about these once done, though I know I’ll be completely humbled both masters’ work.

Long Ago And Far Away…Not.

Crime ReadsI’m deep in James Ellroy’s 2019 This Storm, but expect to be wallowing in the underbelly of 1942 Los Angeles’ dark side for days to come, the meaty novel just shy of 600 pages. Loving (worshipping?) Ellroy as I do, I wouldn’t dream of skimming a single passage, preferring to relish every syncopated jazz-rhythmic sentence, almost wishing I could read it all out loud.

The novel, the second book in Ellroy’s epic second ‘L.A. Quartet’, opens on New Year’s Eve 1941 and continues into the Spring of 1942, right in the middle of the periods we often associate most closely with classic mystery/crime fiction and film: The Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression and Golden Age Hollywood, Word War II, the tumultuous postwar years and the Red Scare and Cold War era of the 1950’s. These are the decades of the sleazy crime pulps, the rise of hard-boiled detective paperback original series, classic crime melodramas and film noir, banned crime comics and even the earliest TV detective series. The visuals – the clothes, the cars, the city streets, the diners, bars and buildings – all trigger associations with a classic crime and mystery milieu that’s firmly ingrained in pop culture.

In “The Art Of Setting Your Crime Novel In A Not-So-Distant Past”, a 7.24.19 Crime Reads essay (link below), New York writer (and NYT bestselling author, to be precise) Wendy Corsi Staub talks about growing up in the 1960’s, smitten with bygone eras which seemed so much more intriguing than her everyday world of bell bottoms and The Brady Bunch, unaware that all too soon that ticky-tack Melmac dinnerware and avocado applianced world would itself become ‘history’. Maybe not fog-shrouded Victorian London, Colonial Boston or Medieval Europe, but history nonetheless.

While we look back nostalgically through rose-colored glasses to the 1930’s – 1950’s for so much classic crime/mystery, the real people who lived in that era similarly looked back 60 – 80 years earlier, though in their case it led them to the Wild West, which may account in part for the popularity of Westerns in film, pulps, comics and television shows from the 1930’s till they abruptly vanished altogether in the late 1960’s.

Wendy Corsi Staub points out that the decades of our own youth – Boomer, Gen-X or Millennial as the case may be – are already (or soon will be) history every bit as much as Philip Marlowe roaming 1930’s/40’s Los Angeles or Mike Hammer pounding perps in 1950’s Manhattan. But writing about (and reading about) the recent past can be challenging. Writers themselves may be surprised to discover how much they don’t know (or don’t remember) about periods that aren’t so far gone. Staub checks in with several novelists including Alyson Gaylin and Laura Lippman who’ve recently released books set in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I was particularly pleased to see a personal favorite of mine included, Anthony award finalist James W. Ziskin, whose Ellie Stone mystery series (now at six novels) is set in the very early sixties. It would just be sheer hubris to suggest that ‘great minds think alike’, but I felt reassured when these writers explained how they may have relied on everyday magazines more than Google – ads, recipes and all – to build their arsenal of period-correct details and get a feel for the times. Spending a bundle at Ebay equipped me with loads of period mags to browse, highlight and scan, and were much more fertile sources than even the novels or TV series reruns from the same years. James Ziskin echoed what drew me to the specific years in which I’ve set my own current projects. The Stiletto Gumshoe opens in the Spring of 1959. The in-progress sequel takes place only a few months later. If I’m lucky enough to sell this darn thing and turn it into a series (which I realize is a lot like spending your Lottery jackpot before buying a ticket) I’d forecast the timeline up to the mid-sixties, before so many sudden and sweeping political, cultural and social changes erupted. Why? Precisely as Ziskin states, those years are “on the cusp” of change. But it hasn’t quite happened yet. For me working in 1959, one foot’s firmly rooted in the older mid-twentieth century world, while the other very hesitantly tip-toes a bit towards what’s still to come.

You don’t have to sell me on the appeal of the ‘classic crime and noir’ decades: The enormous fat-fendered cars, fellows in their double-breasted suits with the wide-brimmed fedoras pulled low over the eyes. The women sporting silly truffles atop their freshly set do’s, shapely in tailor pencil skirts, their stocking seams straight. Boat-sized Yellow taxis and elevator operators, newsstands and nightclubs with tiny tables, each with a little shaded lamp in the center. And everyone smokes. Everyone. It all seems so much more glamorous, more dangerous and more intriguing than the ‘now’. Or even the recent ‘now’, whether that’s mods in mini-skirts or disco divas in Danskin wrap dresses, shopping mall cliques ogling MTV or hackers with their noses glued to smartphone screens. The familiarity of our youth – the recent past – can make it seem bland. But it’s not. And the details of those years – the essential bits and pieces and subtle cues writers need to sprinkle throughout their material – may even take some research to get right. Even if it’s very recent.  And the fact is, there’s richness in the recent past that can equal all the imagined romance of earlier eras.

Yes, even the fashion disaster that was the 1970’s.

Mystery/crime fiction writer or reader, check out Wendy Corsi Staub’s essay at Crime Reads:

https://crimereads.com/the-art-of-setting-your-crime-novel-in-a-not-so-distant-past/

 

Mosley, Ziskin & More In Strand Magazine

strand magazine feb - may

Short fiction by hard-boiled maestro Walter Mosley (not that short, actually), plus a terrific interview with neo-noir author Don Winslow, who James Ellroy has labeled “the master of the dope war novel”.

And more: A short and dark delight by one of my absolute favorites, James W. Ziskin, author of the incredible Ellie Stone mystery series. I humbly confess that Ziskin’s series triggered (or perhaps validated) some of my initial thinking for my own ‘Stiletto Gumshoe’ work, suggesting that a female protagonist in the late 50’s/early 60’s could be every bit as intriguing as the more often deployed Roaring Twenties, Depression-era Thirties, Postwar Forties and early Fifties…and thank you Mr. Ziskin for that!

All that and more is in the new February – May 2019 issue of Strand Magazine, which I just picked up after work Monday.

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