From Paused To Un-Pause.

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.

Keep Moving Forward

Photos: Laura Chouette, Natalia Drepina, Janko Ferlic

Mystery Muses.

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. 

A Black Silk Dress, Tighter Than A Bandage On A Sore Finger.

Allan Anderson’s gruesome cover art for the January 1942 issue of Spicy Detective magazine corroborates the assumption that the illustrators were often cooking up ideas (or getting them from the editors) with little regard to the stories inside a particular issue. Oh, there’s all sorts of murder and mayhem in this 128-page Adventure House 2007 trade pb reprint, but nothing about a bride-to-be fending off a knife-wielding killer outside the seamstress’ fitting room. 

That the U.S. was officially in WWII by this point is apparent, though the stories were surely written and selected long before Pearl Harbor the month before. Henri St. Maur’s “Go Ahead – Shoot” deals with private op Matt Kerrigan tangling with Axis spies at a precious metals smelter, and Adolphe Barreaux’s Sally The Sleuth 8-page comic “On The Heels Of Heels” finds her infiltrating Nazi saboteurs masquerading as a quiet married suburban couple. For once, it’s someone other than Sally herself who manages to lose most of her clothes (well, mostly). 

The interior illustrations shown here (unfortunately uncredited, as usual) accompany the issue’s lead story, “A Pile of Publicity” by Justin Case. That would be pulp maestro Hugh B. Cave (1910 – 2004), a one-man story factory who sold over 800 pulp magazine tales, most of his horror, science fiction and weird menace tales penned under his real name. “Justin Case” was used for The Eel series, The Eel one of the era’s many gentleman thief anti-heroes who dabbled in private investigations. Case/Cave wrote seventeen of them between 1936 and 1942, this one the second to last. An admirer of Damon Runyon’s style, Case mimicked that same present-tense first-person format for his Eel tales. Here, The Eel’s hired by a wealthy artist to protect a just-completed full figure nude portrait to be unveiled during an elaborate gala at the painter’s Connecticut estate, and wouldn’t you know it, some folks wind up dead during the highbrow art set’s decadent shenanigans.

For anyone who’s only used to browsing the 1930’s-40’s era’s mystery/crime pulp’s covers but hasn’t given the stories themselves a try, I encourage you to do so (mystery/crime fiction writers in particular). Every hoary hard-boiled genre cliché began here, sometimes awkwardly plugged into really clunky prose, but often as not, really leaping off the page, particularly when you keep in mind they weren’t quite so cliched yet. For example, try this passage from the issue’s second-to-last story, “Two Little Rocks” by Clark Nelson, a nifty bit of nastiness dealing with murderous jewel smugglers: 

“The instant Steve Carnahan, proprietor of Carnahan Detective Agency, entered that frowsy hotel bedroom, he knew he’d led with his chin. 

A dame opened the door to his hairy-fisted knock. She was a tall, slinky redhead in a black silk dress that was tighter than a bandage on a sore finger. She had green eyes, red lips and a sardonic smile. She also had a pearl-handled .38 caliber persuader, which she proceeded to jam against Carnahan’s middle vest-button. 

“Freeze, flatfoot,” she remarked distinctly.”

A tall, slinky redhead in a black silk dress that was tighter than a bandage on a sore finger…I’ll never manage a line like that. If you can compartmentalize the wince-worthy bits of non-politically correctness, there are real genre gems to be enjoyed in those ancient pulps. I’ve still got four or five more late 30’s and early 40’s Spicy Detective issues to work through.  

The Maze Agency.

Maze 1 Adam Hughes

If Jennifer Mays of Mike W. Barr’s The Maze Agency could have lingered at one publisher, she might’ve become a more iconic “stiletto gumshoe”. But the fact is, this fun whodunit series bounced around from one company to another in its primary late 1980’s – early 1990’s years, the handoffs continuing all the way through 2009. The Maze Agency’s ‘maze’ logo, designed by Todd Klein, first appeared in 1989 at Comico Comics, where we met Jennifer Mays – she of the trademark blonde forelock – a former CIA agent who bid goodbye to boss Ashley Swift at the Swift Detective Agency to strike out on her own. Mays partners up with armchair detective and true-crime writer Gabriel Webb, and together they solve (increasingly dangerous) puzzling whodunits in mostly self-contained stories with both obvious and obscure clues sprinkled throughout to challenge readers.

Maze 2

The Maze Agency was a Will Eisner Award nominee for best new series in 1989, but soon enough Comico went under with only seven issues released. The title migrated to Innovation Comics for a longer 16 issue run (plus two specials) through 1991, then was published by various outfits including Alpha Productions, Caliber Comics, IDW and finally Moonstone in 2009. Originally drawn by UK artist Alan Davis (with inks by Paul Neary) for a six-page spec story, the series’ art was mostly done by a young Adam Hughes, one of his first full-time series (I think).

Maze 4

Individual issues seem pretty scarce in shops ‘round these parts, but are easy enough to source online. The 1990 Innovation Annual is a good place to start if you want to find out more about Jennifer Mays, her sidekick Gabriel and their law enforcement link, NYPD detective Roberta Bliss. The series captures some of the then-innovative hard-boiled female private eye vibe that had been unleashed only a few years earlier by Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone and, in the comics scene, Max Allan Collins’ (along with Terry Beatty) Ms. Tree. But the real treat is the way Mike W. Barr’s storytelling honors mid-twentieth century pulpy whodunits with real mysteries and perplexing clues, the result being edgy and even a bit hard-boiled without sidestepping the fun factor.

Maze 5 Jerry Bingham

Redemption’s Where You Find It.

Clandestine

“Three out of five ain’t bad”, I wrote a few days back, referencing the to-be-read pile on my writing lair’s endtable. The first two of five books stacked there turned out to be duds, but the remaining three more than made up for that. The last, a 1999 Avon Twilight trade pb edition of James Ellroy’s 1982 novel Clandestine, was a risky choice right now. Like many, I’ve got the blues these days, whether it’s from the pandemic, or politics, or just every damn thing. An Ellroy novel, while sure to be a crime fiction masterpiece, is unlikely to lift anyone’s spirits.

Just goes to show ya…

Young uniformed LAPD cop Fred Underhill has a skeleton or two in his closet but is brimming with as much ambition as cynicism. He’s buddied with a loveable lush of a partner, spending his nights in an endless series of cocktail lounge pickups and seeking some vague something (which he calls the ‘wonder’). But the partner dies in a bloody holdup shootout. Then Underhill falls hard for beautiful, accomplished but broken prosecutor, Lorna Weinberg. The seamless monotony of Underhill’s daily life is unraveling. Skirting the rules to solve a possible serial killer’s rampage, he’s soon in plain clothes and in pretty heady company, and his attempts at leverage and manipulation are ruthlessly squashed by real department pro’s. When the prime suspect he fed to a rogue detective squad turns out to be innocent (discovered only after the culprit kills himself in his cell), Underhill’s career is destroyed, his marriage crumbles, his entire life seems over. Years pass, the ex-cop’s obsession with the murders still simmering, when events send him far from the familiar glitter and grime of Ellroy’s mid-twentieth century Los Angeles to the seemingly pristine pastures and small towns of America’s Dairyland. There Fred Underhill uncovers scandals and crimes that are almost too vile for the underbelly of Hollywood at its worst.

Cladestine Group Shot

Clandestine surprised me in two ways. First: This was, I believe, Ellroy’s second published novel, and the very familiar creative wordsmithing and staccato rhythm prose that readers cherish from his masterful L.A. Quartet (1987 – 1992) and the in-progress second L.A. Quartet (214 – 2019) is nowhere to be found. Ellroy’s writing’s is very straightforward here (though no less darkly poetic). Second: The novel’s closing pages provided a very unexpected balm to my blues. No one should seek redemption in James Ellroy’s bleak world, but there it was in the conclusion of Clandestine. The “R” word even lurks in the novel’s final sentence. After 320+ pages of Ellroy’s trademark cynicism, corruption and violence, there was a glimmer of hope after all.

Again, it just goes to show ya…

Clandestine is considered a standalone book in the Ellroy bibliography, but it actually nestles quite comfortably alongside the L.A. Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz), with familiar faces making cameo appearances and the long shadow of dastardly Dudley Smith looming over all.

37911831z

Ellroy experts (and I’m not one, only an avid reader) will know better, but Clandestine also seems to point towards his 1996 true crime/memoir My Dark Places, or so it seemed to me. But whether it does or not, Clandestine is an amazing novel on its own, and whatever I reach for next will have to be mighty good to stand up to any comparisons. But the fact is, the writing lair’s endtable is empty now, the to-be-read pile sorely in need of replenishing. There’s a stack of Adventure House 1930’s-40’s Spicy Detective pulp reprints on my bookshelves that are still unread, and they’ll have to do for now…

Three Out Of Five Ain’t Bad: Lansdale’s More Better Deals.

More Better Deals

The to-be-read pile on the writing lair’s endtable was five books-high when my first two choices turned out to be real stinkers, one a painfully indulgent bit of rambling and plotless literary fiction, the other presumably mis-shelved in a bookstore’s mystery section, revealing itself as a pretty distasteful bit of crime-free erotica (I swear, the cover art made it look like a neo-noir thriller).

But, as the post’s title says, three out of five ain’t bad, particularly when those three were welcome treats after back-to-back (but un-named here) disappointments. First up:

Think of a James M. Cain novel seething with adultery and deceit, but filtered through someone like Orrie Hitt. Then think of that being fully reimagined by expert storyteller and wordsmith Joe R. Lansdale, and that’s what his More Better Deals (2020 Mulholland/Hatchette) is. Oh sure, you’ve been down this road before. But, always remember that it’s about the journey, not the destination.

In a vaguely early 1960’s nameless East Texas locale, Ed Edwards unloads overpriced junkers at Smiling Dave’s used car lot, his boss, customers – everyone in town, actually – unaware he’s the light-skinned son of a long-gone African-American father and a white trailer-trash alcoholic mother. Half-heartedly trying to help his similarly light-skinned younger sister while pointlessly daydreaming about something better than his own humdrum life, Ed meets trouble in a short black dress and heels — aiming a twelve gauge his way — when he attempts to repossess her boorish and abusive husband’s Cadillac.

Mrs. Nancy Craig’s a classic femme fatale fashioned from the long literary and cinematic history of desirable but deadly women who’ve manipulated foolish men with sex and the promise of money to share, so it’s no surprise when Ed Edwards is soon in deep: Plotting murder ala Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice, reluctantly turned into a kidnapper when murder fails to pay off, and even stirring up trouble that puts years of ‘passing’ at risk.

Taking advantage of a slow Summer workday, I left the day job early this past Friday, started More Better Deals ‘round mid-afternoon and continued to devour this novel straight through dinner and deep into the wee hours, unable to put it down.  ‘It’s a real page-turner’ and all that…oh, that it is. With frustrating memories of that plotless bit of literary fiction still fresh in my head, it was pure joy to dive into a novel that took me by the hand right from page one and introduced engaging (if downright awful) characters descending deeper and deeper into a cesspool of lust laced with suspicion, double-dealing that leads to death. That Lansdale accomplishes this with an economy of words (yet never failing to paint a fully rendered picture of each locale) merely testifies to his skill. I challenge a reader to point out any paragraph, sentence, phrase or word that could be dispensed with. It’s the kind of writing I might aspire to but simply lack the talent to match (but I can keep on hoping…right?).

Call it “desert noir” or “rural noir” if you like, but More Better Deals is “Noir” at its purest, gifting readers with sizzle and violence, but ultimately grappling with much sadder, darker and woefully inevitable doom.

So, if I haven’t made my point yet, go get the damn book and read it.

(BTW: I’ve scanned my hardcover twice now, but it keeps showing up in red. The book’s really a two-color hot orange and brown design, in case you’re looking for it.) 

Darkness And Light: Trouble The Saints

Trouble The Saints

Whether I’m a purist or simply have bland taste, I’m not sure. I just know that I tend to favor things straightforward and unadorned. I have a wardrobe of solid color clothing, prefer my cars without dealer-added doodads, and if I was more of a drinker (I’m really not) I suppose I’d go for bourbon straight or on the rocks, leaving fancy cocktails for the more adventurous. And when it comes to my reading material, I usually don’t go for genre bending projects, and enjoy pretty linear narratives the best.

But then, masterful writers can always change my mind.

You could consider Alaya Dawn Johnson’s Trouble The Saints (2020 Tor-Tom Doherty Associates) traditional crime fiction in a mid-twentieth century setting, if you like, or a dreamy dark fantasy, or literary fiction. Each of those labels apply. Johnson’s novel is set in the early 1940’s New York underworld, specifically in Harlem nightclubs and the numbers racket, where light-skinned Phyllis Green (AKA Phyllis Leblanc, AKA “Pea”) is one of the so-called “Saints”, blessed — or afflicted — with the JuJu curse of magic hands that can read people, foresee the future in puzzling dreams and, in her case, make her a deadly assassin, her arsenal a holster of lethal blades hidden in her garter. Employed by a vicious Russian mobster, Pea believes she’s ridding the world of evil people, and that’s how she justifies too many bloody deaths to even count. Till she discovers that she’s been played all along, that is, and learns that no one really is who they seem to be, not even her lover Dev, who the discovers is an undercover cop.

Partly set in Harlem, partly in a small town in upstate New York, the novel is told through Pea’s perspective, then Dev’s, and even Pea’s pal, decadent cabaret dancer Tamara. This is all done in lyrical prose that might take some getting used to for fans of more straightforward narrative genre storytelling, and that’s partly why the multiple labels apply. Crime fiction? Dark fantasy? Literary fiction? I still haven’t decided, only concluding that Johnson skillfully interweaved classic underworld gangster intrigue with Southern mysticism and doomed love while confronting institutionalized racism, and her darkly poetic novel had me completely in its spell.

Saints - Crime Reads

If you haven’t read Trouble The Saints yet, but plan to, I recommend Alaya Dawn Johnson’s 7.31.20 essay at Crime Reads (link below): “Finding Room For Black Hope, Black Justice, And Black Love In Noir Fiction”. The author grapples with a portion of a topic that’s vexed me for some time (and pops up here often enough), specifically, how to process noir, mystery and crime fiction classics – whether the iconic novels, pulp stories or films – that as products of their eras are usually awash in ethnic, racial and gender stereotypes, dismissiveness and misogyny. For my part, I’ve opted to ‘compartmentalize’ so many classic and not-so-classic works, refusing to digest them through contemporary filters and acknowledging their often-dreadful anachronistic flaws (even while cherishing them). Johnson struggled with classic noir’s rampant racism, pointing to Raymond Chandler and Farewell, My Lovely in particular. But she also notes, “…noir is not only a genre about darkness, but about light. Not only about corruption, but about a desperate, often failed search for justice. Noir was the perfect genre for the story I wanted to tell, not in spite of its white and racist history, but because of it.” For her, noir is part of a genre “whose very premise undermined the racist conclusions of its most popular writers”.

Come to think of it, reading Johnson’s piece before starting her novel might not hurt.

https://crimereads.com/finding-room-for-black-hope-black-justice-and-black-love-in-noir-fiction/

The Master’s Birthday: Raymond Chandler

Chandler penguin 3

I’m still merrily working through Barry Day’s 2014 The World of Raymond Chandler – In His Own Words (scroll back a couple posts) as the master’s birthday rolls around: July 23, 1888 – March 26, 1959…and born right here in “the jewel on the lake”, no less.

Chandler penguin 1

It’s a good thing I’m not really a collector (though admittedly acquisitive) or I’d definitely go broke tracking down the many, many different editions, both domestic and foreign, of Chandler’s works, such as these cleanly simple but handsome Penguin Australia book covers that I stumbled across when snooping for visuals for this birthday post.

Chandler penguin 2Chandler penguin 4

In His Own Words.

Chandler

The World of Raymond Chandler – In His Own Words, edited by Barry Day, is a profusely illustrated (200+ images) 2014 hardcover I stumbled across in my first return visit to a favored used bookstore just a few days ago. Things were rearranged for more open space (which runs contrary to the typical used bookstore ambience, doesn’t it?) with masks required, limited occupancy, one person per aisle/cubicle and they’re only buying books by appointment, no walk-ins. But it was an odd time of day, I was one of only two customers, and it sure was nice to leisurely browse after being away since early March.

In addition to the one James Ellroy novel I don’t have (Clandestine, 1982) I found this Chandler book tucked away in the Memoirs section, and what a treasure it is. Though not a biography, it runs chronologically, the writer’s early years covered mostly through his own correspondence from that period, while his key novel, pulp and screenwriting years are addressed via a mix of excerpts from his own work, juxtaposed with more correspondence and miscellany. Chandler’s thoughts on the art and craft of writing (most of those quite cynical) and fellow mystery/hard-boiled wordsmiths are some of the best parts of this book.

Browse backwards at “The Stiletto Gumshoe” and you’ll understand what a find this book is for me. I honor both of the U.S. hard-boiled mystery granddads, i.e. Hammett and Chandler, but favor Chandler by far, indulging myself with multiple rereads. I don’t turn to him for plotting guidance, Chandler’s plots puzzlingly mixed up at best, but for the music of the language, the endless array of Chandler-esque bon mots and his ability to somehow be gritty and poetic at the same time (something I desperately wish I could succeed at).

Yes, I’m well aware that Raymond Chandler and a host of mid-twentieth century writers have undergone some well-deserved scrutiny and inevitable reassessment of late. But, for good or bad, I’ve chosen to compartmentalize them along with the bulk of sixty to ninety-year-old films, pulp fiction, comics and vintage paperbacks, digesting the material in context of its own time, reluctant to evaluate the work through a 2020 lens. After all, while I can benefit from easy access to reams of modern scholarship, that doesn’t mean I’ll look at Rembrandt, Dante, Michelangelo or Shakespeare through contemporary filters either. For more about that, just follow the link below to an old January 2019 post about Raymond Chandler, The Annotated Big Sleep, Megan Abbott and more. But while you do, I’ll just continue to savor some of the master’s own words.

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/01/03/the-annotated-big-sleep-and-uneasy-feelings-of-complicity/

Classic? Yes. Pulp? Well, No.

classic pulp comic

I finally set foot in a comic book store the day before Independence Day. Masked, distanced, limited occupancy (not usually an issue in this particular shop anyway), things weren’t quite back to normal, but on the way, at least. Aside from the current Diamond Previews, I didn’t end up getting anything band new, mostly hauling recent and back issues to the register. Quite a bunch, as it turned out.

I don’t know if this 2020 Source Point Press J. Werner Presents Classic Pulp comic is a standalone or part of a series, but it reprints three 8 to 10 page 1940’s The Adventures of Ellery Queen comics, the first credited to R.S. Callender (writer, I’m guessing), the rest uncredited. Classic? Definitely. “Pulp”? Well, no…they’re comics. And while contemporary comics typically dole out one act of a larger story arc per issue (that arc often as not something cataclysmic), here the stories are succinct self-contained whodunits. Each tale pauses two-thirds through to quiz the reader: Have they caught the clues so far in order to solve the crime? I thought that was cute, but for the record: No, I did not catch the clues in any one of the tales. Some gumshoe, huh?

That’s a Norman Saunders cover illustration – obviously more pulp than comics – courtesy of David Saunders.

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