Detectives In The Shadows.

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.

These Women.

these women

If you’re overwhelmed by the daily deluge of plagues, protests and politics, I’m not sure that Ivy Pochoda’s These Women (Ecco/HarperCollins 2020) is the book I’d recommend right now. But you should read it. In fact, I can think of no better way to do so than to grab it right after finishing any one of the zillion ‘thrillers’ crowding bookstore shelves with their cast of creepy serial killers abducting/torturing/murdering women in puzzlingly twisted voyeuristic descriptions.

I never got to see where These Women will be shelved at retail, having ordered the book ahead of time for a pickup. I suspect some stores will place it in Fiction & Literature while others will stick it in Mystery/Crime Fiction, where I’m sure the book will squirm in agony, flanked by a whodunit and a police procedural. These Women certainly deals with crime. A serial killer, in fact, and on all too familiar turf: contemporary Los Angeles. But Pochoda’s novel (more or less) ignores the culprit, the crimes and the chase to focus on several women, including former prostitute Feelea who survived the serial killer’s attack back in 1999, and Dorian, the grieving mother of the killer’s last of thirteen victims. There’s Julianna, AKA Jujubee, a strip club worker and hobby photographer, and performance artist Marella along with her aspirational mother Anneke, and finally, L.A. detective Essie Perry who uncovers disturbing details about the decades old unsolved serial killer case, and suspects the murderer may be at work once again. The women’s lives all intersect, Dorian being the cook at a fish shack frequented by streetwalkers, Essie the cop who’s saddled with Dorian’s reports that’s she’s being stalked, and so on.

In lesser hands – or at least, a writer with simpler ambitions – this cast of characters would hover on the sidelines while the reader spends way too much time inside the twisted mind of a creepy killer, periodically witnessing gruesome murders and cheering along while the detective overcomes bureaucratic interference and routine male coworker misogyny to finally take down the killer. But Pochoda’s not interested in telling yet another serial killer tale. She’s writing a book about the women impacted by brutal tragedy and living in violent horror on a daily basis. The killer, the crimes, the hunt…they’re almost incidental.

Stepping out of formulaic genre fiction comfort zones into the literary fiction arena can be daunting. Here, art supersedes narrative, so if a reader accustomed to straightforward plotting and a familiar balance of character vs. storytelling suddenly feels the author is merrily flipping them off, it’s no surprise. Art can be self-indulgent, and writerly cardinal sins that would be ruthlessly purged by agents and editors in more formulaic and genre projects are not only allowed here but encouraged. Now I’m not saying Pochoda’s flipping off book buyers! I’m only noting that hip-hopping between different times and multiple character POV’s while probing sense-of-place minutiae takes some getting used to. But it’s well worth the effort, in the case of Ivy Pochoda’s These Women.

Writer’s Digest: Villains & Violence

 

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.

Writers Digest July-August 2019

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.”

By Bert Hardy

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.) 

By Richard Avedon

 

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