Flatlands Noir: Krysten Ritter’s Bonfire

Bonfire by Krysten Ritter

This week’s announcement that Netflix cancelled Marvel’s Jessica Jones starring Krysten Ritter was bitter news for many loyal fans. But I’m certain we’ll see Ritter in other projects. That is, if she has the time for acting. I mean, it’s not enough to be a successful model turned actor turned cult icon? She has to be a writer too? (And clearly a damn good one.)

Krysten Ritter’s 2017 debut novel Bonfire was an impressive debut, and like many reviewers said, I ‘burned’ through it. Sorry, but that’s not an exaggeration. I really couldn’t put it down.

I’m going to label Bonfire ‘flatlands noir’ — not set among cornfields, pastures or picturesque farm houses, but the small town Midwest, multiple states filled with unknown burgs that have been bypassed by the interstates and left largely jobless when their local lifeblood factories shuttered in the early 2000’s. They’re too far from the city to be a suburb or even ‘exurban’, devolving into a bleak world of main streets lined with empty storefronts, Walmarts and Dollar Stores lurking on the outskirts of town where lonely two lane highways might seem like routes to something better, but only vanish into empty horizons. Author Ritter’s bio tells us she grew up on a farm before being discovered in a shopping mall and packed off to New York to start a successful modeling career. I sense that she adhered to that time-honored writer’s advice to ‘write what you know’ with her debut novel. The book feels authentic throughout with the author offering what may well be firsthand experience of small town life. Krysten Ritter’s Barrens, Indiana setting felt as real to me as countless off-the-highway towns that are sprinkled across the maps of Illinois, Wisconsin or Ohio and that I’ve driven through on business or en route to getaways and vacations.

Krysten Ritter

Flatlands Noir? Well, suffice to say that bad things can happen anywhere, and you don’t need to be in the dark back alleys of New York or the neon-lit streets of Los Angeles to find trouble. Trouble will find you. Even in Barrens, Indiana, which is where Bonfire’s heroine, Abby Williams, finds herself. But Abby’s no stranger to aptly named Barrens. It’s where she grew up, or more correctly, where she fled from, to a new life as an environmental attorney in Chicago, complete with a hipsterville office and a sleek apartment where she can indulge in an array of meaningless one night stands. Investigating an industrial pollution class action suit involving one-industry Barrens’ leading employer, Abby’s met with suspicion by some, hostility by others, and even old friends are hiding secrets about scandals from Abby’s youth. Ritter deftly interweaves multiple story threads dealing with Abby’s strained relationship with her father, dangerous corporate intrigue, a years-old tragedy and even murder. You can enjoy Ritter’s Bonfire as a conventional page-turning mystery or as a harsh look at contemporary small town USA. Either way, I suspect that, like me, you’ll be eager to see another book from Krysten Ritter, and I’m betting she has another in her. Watching the way she took seemingly unrelated plot lines and deftly wove them all together as the novel plowed through to its climax was truly impressive.

Acting? Hell, table that for a bit and get to work on another novel, Krysten, if you’re not already.

And, More Manhunt.

Manhunt 6

See the preceding post…

As mentioned in the prior post, I’m eagerly waiting for (and have already pre-ordered) The Best of Manhunt – A Collection Of The Best Of Manhunt Magazine, a forthcoming book due out this summer. But till then, enjoy a few more cover scene shots culled from here and there, and dig the list of authors the magazine showcased. Impressive!

Manhunt 7Manhunt 8Manhunt 5 April 1953

 

 

Manhunt

The Best of Manhunt

I think it’s great that publishers promote forthcoming titles in advance. But I don’t know how the hell I’m supposed to wait until late July for The Best Of Manhunt. Subtitled: “A Collection Of The Best of Manhunt Magazine”, the book is edited by Jeff Vorzimmer, with a foreword by writer Lawrence Block and an afterword by Barry Malzberg, and collects 39 stories from the pages of mid-1950’s pulp magazine that many rightly regard as one of the very best of mystery/crime fiction magazines.

Manhunt 1

The pulp magazine era had mostly died by the time Manhunt magazine debuted in 1952. Mystery and crime fiction migrated to the new and booming paperback market in the postwar era, their garish, spicy covers replaced on the newsstands by countless ‘true crime’ magazines, many of which soon switched to increasingly explicit photo covers and ‘fact-based’ stories full of gruesome and period-sexy photographs.

Manhunt 2

But Manhunt magazine continued to offer monthly doses of hard-boiled short stories and serialized novels from the era’s best writers. Just look at the covers of a few issues…they read like a who’s who of postwar mystery/crime fiction masters: James Cain, Harlan Ellison, Bruno Fischer, Fletcher Flora, David Goodis, Brett Haillday, Evan Hunter, Frank Kane, Henry Kane, Richard Prather, Mickey Spillane, Jack Webb and others. In fact, the magazine even did it’s own ‘best of’ as a Perma Books paperback (see image below) with 13 stories from its pages.

The Best From Manhunt

I may get a real kick out of vintage crime fiction, particularly of the postwar hard-boiled variety, and have bought a number of 1930’s-40’s pulp reprints and trade paperback collections. Doing so has taught me that a lot of the content didn’t quite meet the expectations of the cover art, and was, in fact, kind of dreary. I’m acquisitive, but fortunately, no collector, and unwilling to hand over serious cash for seventy-year-old magazines with questionable contents.

Manhunt 3

One nearby used bookstore occasionally shelves vintage magazines and had a few copies of Manhunt for sale ($25 to $40 each as I recall) and though I didn’t buy, I was allowed to browse, and can say that Manhunt at least looked a cut above the hurried cut-n-paste hack jobs that many of its ‘true crime’ contemporaries really were. But I know from reading about it at many a blog, site and mystery/crime fiction book that Manhunt was considered the one postwar pulp title that gathered together some of the era’s very best talents.

Oh, I’m pre-ordering this book, you can bet on that, five months to wait or not. Till then, enjoy some retro mayhem from the covers of Manhunt magazine, here and in the following post.

Manhunt 4

 

 

The Big Blowdown

The Big Blowdown - Richie Fahey Cover art

There’s a long list of George Pelecanos’ projects that I adore: Novels, short stories, television scripts.

But my favorite remains The Big Blowdown, his 1999 tale of two Washington DC friends (including Nick Stefanos, the Pelecanos character who’s crossed-over into more than one project) set in a post-WWII world of realistically drawn blue-collar Greek neighborhoods filled with rich renderings of everyday people who live and work alongside the small-time mobsters who really run things. Some have compared Pelecanos’ early novels to James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet, and I won’t argue. They share a spare yet darkly poetic writing style and focus on a specific time, place and cast of characters. How he continues to create excellent books while concurrently working as a writer/producer for high-visibility projects like The Wire, The Pacific and The Deuce among others is beyond me. A person can only do so much. Somehow, Pelecanos does still more.

For me, this particular novel has been a kind of tutorial on how a master wordsmith handles an ethnic milieu, something I’m working with (different ethnicity, but still) in my own projects. Obviously, Pelecanos does it better than many, and better than anything I could ever hope for.

The Big Blowdown will get a careful re-read someday. I’ll just need to give it some time so I can forget the specifics and discover it all anew. As an aside, the nifty Richie Fahey cover art on my well-worn trade pb edition shown above doesn’t hurt.

Primal Spillane

Primal Spillane

Some dismiss him, some revere him, and some 1950’s-60’ literary critics actually reviled Mickey Spillane, certain that he represented the end of American arts & letters. But nearly 250 million book buyers apparently thought otherwise. I’ll proudly admit to being among the adoring faction, having read all of his novels and re-reading a couple faves more than once. Sure, some of his later work can’t hold a candle to his first few Mike Hammer novels. So what? The man’s a hard-boiled genre icon. I’m glad that Iowa mystery writer Max Allan Collins forged a relationship with Spillane in the golden age great’s latter years, assigned to sort through his papers following Spillane’s demise, and authorized to complete several of Mickey Spillane’s unfinished novels (which I’ve enjoyed as well).

Primal Spillane is a collection of ‘short-shorts’ the emerging writer penned as filler material for comics back when he was starting out before his WII service. There are over 40 short pieces here, covering a lot of ground – not Mike Hammer stories so much as adventure stories, war stories along with some crime stories. Pretty uniformly, they employ those trademark Spillane gotcha endings and make the most of ultra-short word counts, which is a lesson in economy for any writer. There’s a good intro written by Collins, and the book was compiled with the able assistance of his researcher, Lynne Meyers.

Devils In Blue Dresses

Devil In A Blue Dress 1st

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.

Devil In A Blue Dress - Multiple

Tiptoeing ‘Round The Templates

Tiptoeing-Templates 1

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.

Tiptoeing-Templates 2

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.

Tiptoeing-Templates 4

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.

Tiptoeing-Templates 3Even 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.

The Dame Was Trouble

The Dame Was Trouble

I like to juggle two books at once: A ‘main read’ kept at home for long sessions in the evening and on the weekend, but also another kept in my briefcase or in the car to nibble away at with on-the-go morning coffee stops, waiting for appointments during the workday or even occasional (and indulgent) on-the-way-home coffee stops. And though I don’t really read all that many anthologies and story collections, the fact is they’re ideal for the portable reads, a better alternative, perhaps to all-too-frequently disappointing Kindle ‘commuter’ reads.

An anthology in the car right now is The Dame Was Trouble – A Collection Of The Best Female Crime Writers Of Canada from Coffin Hop Press, edited by Sarah L. Johnson with Halli Liburn and Cat MacDonald. I read about this book at shekillslit.com and looked for it right away. It’s a handsome trade paperback, just shy of 400 pages with stories from sixteen Canadian women writers, including NYT best-selling author Kelly Armstrong, who kicks the anthology off with an absolutely delightful period private eye tale done with a twist, “Indispensible”, which reminded me of Linda L. Richards’ Kitty Panghorne series (see a previous post here about her novel Death Was The Other Woman). Hermine Robinson’s “A Cure For The Common Girl” was a terrific and trashy Calgary-set contemporary ‘ex-urban’ noir. What’s your pleasure? This anthology has lethal ladies from law enforcement as well as the law-breakers, dangerous dames both young and old, straight and not, and in Canadian settings as well as locales that could be…well, anywhere. I’ve only completed four stories so far, looking forward to a fifth in the early-AM coffee-to-go darkness en route to work tomorrow, but the first fourth of the book sure has been a treat. Check it out.

Sign Me Up.

1949

Hey, I want some ‘solid evenings of first-rate entertainment’ too. A one-year subscription to the pulp magazine Two Complete Detective Books for only $1.75? Sounds like a bargain, till we start adjusting for inflation, perhaps. But with magazines shrinking (when they’re not vanishing altogether) today into what can seem like little more than pamphlets, two-bits an issue was a pretty good deal. (Do the math, though. Unlike current magazine subscriptions, it’d be cheaper to buy 6 issues at the newsstand for a buck-fifty total.) Guessing from the artist’s signature that this ad showcases an illustration by George Gross, who shared a Tribeca studio with another well-known pulp and paperback cover artist, Mort Kunstler, for a while in the 1950’s.

two complete detective books

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