Tips For Aspiring Crime Writers Enthralled By The Classics.

The Big Sleep 1978

Deluged with articles and radio/TV news touting ways to pass the time while sheltering at home? Must-see series to binge watch, reading literary classics you skipped in high school, or perhaps reviving dormant hobbies? Sure, like I have time to start a ship in a bottle. The fact is, moving the day job from the office to the writing lair has mostly meant that everything takes twice as long to accomplish. So far, there’s no time for down time.

But one thing I promised to do is to finally catch up on an entire stash of articles and essays from Crime Reads, a fat folder of sloppy screen-caps and still-working links, some a year and half old. I was too busy to read them properly or at all when first spotted, and I mean to get through these things by the time we un-shelter.

How To Write Like Chandler

Dial back with me to July of 2018 for “How To Write Like Chandler Without Becoming A Cliché” by Owen Hill (link below), one of the editors of the amazing The Annotated Big Sleep, along with Pamela Jackson and Anthony Dean Rizzuto (well, and Raymond Chandler, of course), that jumbo 470+ page 2018 Vintage Crime/Black Lizard classic noir/crime fiction fan must-read. I’ve written about it here before. Maybe will again. But for now, it’s Owen Hill’s remarks about just how easy it is to become so enthralled by the genre’s mid-twentieth century roots that the icons, triggers and tropes can permeate our own work…and not necessarily in a good way.

The Annotated Big Sleep

Hill’s essay is subtitled “Tips For Aspiring Crime Writers Enthralled By The Classics” and he opens by listing just a few of the most obvious and iconic scenes we’d automatically associate with Raymond Chandler’s (sometimes by way of Dashiell Hammett’s) work, and he notes, “Today it’s difficult to imagine a detective novel without at least an homage to these and other Chandleresque tropes. What’s a fledgling writer to do? How to make it all seem fresh?”

Aside from avoiding the most worn out clichés and stereotypes, Hill recommends reading. And reading a lot.

Chandler? Well, sure. How can you not? Hill adds James M. Cain, Ross MacDonald and notes that Chandler himself learned second-hand by reading the pulps, especially Earle Stanley Gardner and Hammett. I’ll add in a diverse bunch of notorious characters from James Ellroy to Sandra Scoppettone, Vicki Hendricks and early Megan Abbott, Loren D. Estleman and Stuart Kaminsky, Sue Grafton and George Pellecanos, Max Allan Collins and Sara Gran, both Kanes (Henry and Frank)…and of course, Mickey Spillane. My list could go on and on. You’ll have your own to add.

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There’s a very fine line between homage and pastiche, and narrow as the distinction may be, it’s made worse by being blurry and ill-defined. What one reader/writer considers reverent, another sees as laughably hokey. I struggle with this all the time, whether working in period settings (much of my own stuff set in the late 1950’s to very early 1960’s) or in ‘the now’. Once the fellows sport suspenders and fedoras, the women wear hats and gloves, the cars have fat fenders or fins and the gumshoes plunk coins in pay phone slots, a writer’s in treacherous territory, where deadly clichés lurk around every corner.

Hill’s solution is the same one recommended by nearly every writing how-to book. Read, read and read some more…though obviously, leaving a little time for your fingers to tap dance across the keyboard. Makes sense. Only by getting a firm handle on the wide diversity of voices, settings, situations and styles a thriving genre comprises, and by seeing first-hand how those who’ve gone before us have synthesized the genre’s iconography into their own fresh perspectives can anyone possibly hope – however humbly – to put their own spin on things. It’s okay to be enthralled or even to go all fanboy/girl over genre classics, so long as we don’t become clichés ourselves.

So, you’ll indulge me if I include some pics of Robert Mitchum from the 1978 The Big Sleep in this post instead of the more revered, and obvious, Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe himself.

https://crimereads.com/how-to-write-like-chandler-without-becoming-a-cliche/

 

Taking A Moment…

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Just before shutting off the writer’s cave lights before heading to bed last night, I paused for a moment to browse one particular shelf on one of too many bookcases. Spines out, there were my Dashiell Hammett books lined up, a fancy hardcover Chatham River Press novel omnibus edition, a couple frail vintage paperbacks, and various Vintage Crime/Black Lizard trade paperbacks, the handsomest of the bunch in my opinion.

When it comes to the granddaddies of hard-boiled private-eye/crime fiction, I’ll concede here that I’m more Chandler than Hammett, more Marlowe than Spade. Still, yesterday was the anniversary of the day Dashiell Hammett passed away from lung cancer back in 1961. A moment of reverence seemed in order.

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Pinkerton Agency operative, US Army vet in both WWI and WWII, staunch anti-fascist, Hammett was blacklisted and even served time in federal prison for contempt during the 1950’s communist witch hunts. He published over 100 short stories, story collections and novels, created The Continental Op, Nick and Nora Charles and of course, Sam Spade, and wrote for the silver screen as well, such as the screenplay for his long-time partner Lillian Hellman’s play Watch On The Rhine (a particular favorite film of mine). And yet, he wrote his final novel at age 40, more or less turning his back on fiction decades before his death, his novel and short fiction output penned primarily in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. It was a puzzlingly brief career, but one that obviously influenced the mystery/crime fiction genre far beyond its duration.

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My to-be-read pile is disturbingly tall at the moment. No, I don’t plan to squeeze in a re-read of The Maltese Falcon right now. But then I am reading Loren D. Estleman’s new When Old Midnight Comes Along, an Amos Walker mystery, and can feel the echoes of Dashiell Hammett’s work from eighty and ninety years ago in even that beloved private eye’s story.

The Dames

pulp fiction the dames

Otto Penzler’s Pulp Fiction: The Dames is a follow-up to his previous anthologies Pulp Fiction: The Crimefighters and Pulp Fiction: The Villains. My copy shown here is a 2008 Quercus UK edition, a big fat 500+ page trade paperback which includes 22 stories plus two saucy Sally The Sleuth comic strips from 1930’s – 40’s pulp fiction magazines, including the top tier mags like Black Mask, Dime Detective and Detective Fiction Weekly, right down to the bottom rung in publications like Gun Molls, and Spicy Romantic Adventures. Penzler’s preface and Laura Lippman’s well-written introduction frame the material well. As she writes, “The pulps of the early 20thcentury will never be mistaken for proto-feminist documents…(but) there is just enough kink in these archetypes of girlfriend/hussy/sociopath to hint at broader possibilities for the female of the species.” Indeed, the roots of V.I. Washawski, Kinsey Millhone and even Lippman’s own Tess Monaghan can be traced right back here.

Pulp Fiction The Dames Back

The anthology opens with a terrific Cornell Woolrich 1937 tale, Angel Face, about a chorus girl trying to keep her wayward younger brother out of trouble, but when he’s framed for murder, she ignores the cops and does her own sleuthing to nab the mobster she’s sure did the deed. It may end abruptly and even a bit implausibly, but every sentence absolutely sings with vintage slang and retro word-smithing that’s a dark delight. That’s followed by Leslie T. White’s Chosen To Die from 1934 with husband and wife team of P.I. Duke Martindel and attorney Phyllis Martindel, the well-intended gumshoe relying on his savvy spouse to get him out of jams with the law. The book includes stories from Dashiell Hammett, a Lars Anderson’s Domino Lady tale, a T.T. Flynn Trixie Meehan story and even Raymond Chandler’s 1935 Killer In The Rain, which he cannibalized (along with material from other short stories) for The Big Sleep. Read it and see if you don’t spot some mighty familiar scenes and passages, even if the private eye isn’t named Marlowe.

‘The Dames’ from pulp fiction aren’t all snoopy reporters, private investigators or even uniformed cops (rare as those were). The bad girlz might be some of the more memorable characters in this anthology, from gun molls to gang leaders. Unlike Penzler’s recent – and enormous – The Big Book Of Female Detectives (see link below for a post on that book) this one’s strictly vintage pulp fiction. Which isn’t always literary, can sometimes be a little squirm-worthy, but is almost always entertaining, and the female private eyes, girl reporters, sleuthing secretaries and, yes — even former chorus girls – make for one terrific tale after another.

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/03/09/the-big-book-of-female-detectives/

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

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As planned, I knocked off Saturday night by 11:00 to hunker down with TCM’s weekly Noir Alley feature, hosted by ‘The Czar Of Noir’ Eddie Muller, for RKO’s 1944 Murder, My Sweet. Not unlike Warner Brothers’ 1941 classic The Maltese Falcon, many consider Murder, My Sweet a kind of ‘proto-noir’, exhibiting all the style, queues and characteristics we associate with film noir, even though it was made before the post-WWII period some scholarly types prefer to pinpoint as the noir era.

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Directed by noir-maestro Edward Dmytryk, the film’s a pretty faithful adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely, which had already been done without the Phillip Marlowe character as part of the Falcon film series in 1942’s The Flacon Takes Over. A few things are changed, some plot points downplayed or eliminated due to production code limitations, such as the key character’s obvious homosexuality (which remains hinted at none too subtly), and a narcotics operation. Early on when private eye Marlowe reluctantly starts his search for missing nightclub songbird Velma Valento, the bar is no longer a segregated African American club. Even Los Angeles’ infamous offshore gambling boat scene is discarded, not due to any censorship, but only because the studio didn’t want to offend the real-life gangsters in charge or the bigwigs who patronized them.

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The title change makes sense in hindsight. This film would re-launch actor Dick Powell’s career, and following an initial Minneapolis test screening under the novel’s Farewell, My Lovely title, it was decided that audiences would rightly expect a lightweight musical or romantic comedy with Powell’s name on the marquee. Powell (real name, born 1904) had been a very successful pretty boy singer/dancer throughout the 1930’s, but at age 40, it was time to reinvent his image. He’d actively campaigned for – and lost – the Fred MacMurray role in Double Indemnity. This was his big chance to start a whole new phase, and he acquitted himself well here, going on to star in a number of high-profile film noir classics and 1950’s crime melodramas, as well as taking over in the director’s chair.

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Murder, My Sweet was also intended to reinvigorate Claire Trevor’s stalled career. Trevor (born Claire Wemlinger in 1910) had recently been relegated to B-movies and westerns, and not always in the lead. But her performance here as the lusty trophy wife of a quirky but wealthy old codger pretty much steams up the screen. Even so, some say she was upstaged by former child star Anne Shirley (born Dawn Evelyeen Paria in 1918) as Trevor’s spoiled but feisty stepdaughter. Shirley sizzles in this film, which sadly was her last, choosing to retire at a young 26. But what a way to bow out.

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Dymtryk, later one of the infamous Hollywood Ten in the Red Scare era, is the brilliant director of films like Crossfire, The Caine Mutiny and Walk On The Wild Side. Here he deploys a bag of B-movie tricks to squeeze out every ounce of irony, sass and stunning visuals from the locations, sets and each actor’s performance. There are just so many memorable shots and sequences in this film, my own favorite coming early on when flashing neon sign lights make hulking thug Moose Malloy’s threatening reflection appear and disappear in the private eye Phillip Marlowe’s office window.

Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely was made again in 1975 with the real title, this time starring a world-weary Robert Mitchum as Phillip Marlowe, along with Charlotte Rampling and Sylvia Miles, and even a young pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone in a small part as a lovesick brothel thug.

Holiday Fare: A Farewell.

lady in the lake 1

I’m writing this on the 5th, so technically it’s still the holiday season and we’re good till the Feast of The Epiphany on January 6th, right? It’s supposed to be the twelve days of Christmas, or so the song says.

But I guess it’s time for fellows to hang up their Rudolph ties with the illuminated noses and to toss out their wilted mistletoe boutonnieres whether they got any laughs or kisses or not. The gals will stuff their snowflake pattern tights into the back of the sock drawer and drop the unworn spangly club dress off at the dry cleaners. The tree will get unplugged, even if the ornaments aren’t boxed up just yet. All the good Christmas gift Godiva’s have been eaten, so only the really weird ones are left in the fancy gold box, the half full bottles of syrupy sweet holiday wine should probably be spilled out. And, yes: It’s time to concede that it really is too late to mail the Christmas cards.

Once again, December sped by without enough time set aside to re-watch some cherished Christmas favorites, and I don’t mean the 24-7 merry-marathon of saccharine seasonal romances on The Hallmark Channel. Normally I squeeze in a couple nights for Shane Black’s brilliant Kiss Kiss Bang Bang or even the first Lethal Weapon movie. Better yet, Harold Ramis’ 2005 The Ice Harvest (a particular favorite of mine) and actor/director Robert Montgomery’s 1947 Lady In The Lake.

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Montgomery’s directorial debut isn’t dripping in holly and mistletoe and, in fact, was originally intended to be set in mid-summer, using a script penned by the source novel’s author, Raymond Chandler himself. It was some two years later that MGM finally went into production, by then using a briefer (by nearly a third) script by Steve Fisher, which switched things to Christmastime. The holiday setting aside, the story bears little resemblance to Chandler’s novel. Still, there’s a generous bit of vintage 1940’s B&W Christmasy-ness evident throughout, including the film’s opening credits, flipping through a series of Christmas cards that conceal a gun.

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You know this flick, of course, because of actor/director Montgomery decision to mimic Chandler’s (and so many other hard-boiled crime novels) first person narrative approach by shooting nearly the entire film from private eye Philip Marlowe’s POV. We only see what he (Montgomery) sees. It feels a little gimmicky at first and takes some getting used to, but applause to Montgomery for some brave artistry. (Then again, please note that this was his last film with MGM after an 18 year relationship.)

lady in the lake

Audrey Totter is terrific but then she always was. As for Lloyd Nolan, I prefer him as a tough-talkin’ good guy – or at least a sort of good guy. Robert Montgomery may not be most readers’ vision of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, anymore than Dick Powell was, but both contemporaries acquitted themselves well, IMHO. The story? Well, it’s a little convoluted, but most adaptations of Chandler’s novels were, and lets face it, Chandler’s novels themselves were pretty convoluted. We don’t read them for neatly crafted whodunits. But the movie’s a lot of fun and suitable seasonal viewing for any classic noir and mystery fan, so I’ll earmark Lady In The Lake for the next Christmas and be more diligent about setting out the syrupy wine and edible gifted Godiva’s for a movie night in 2019.

The Annotated Big Sleep…and uneasy feelings of complicity.

The Annotated Big Sleep

The Annotated Big Sleep by Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson and Anthony Dean Rizutto (and, of course, by Raymond Chandler) with a foreword by Jonathan Lethem, came out in Summer 2018. I got my copy in early Autumn, but intentionally put the big 450+ page book aside at the time. Eager as I was to plunge back into one of my all-time favorite works from the classic era of mystery/hard-boiled crime fiction — now with the added delight of countless footnotes, annotations and period details explained along with accompanying photos — I concluded that it’d be better to linger over this gem and savor every annotated anecdote in cozy armchair comfort during the soon-to-arrive long winter nights. Now with January here, the holiday hubbub behind us and the bleakest stretch of frigid weather ahead, that plush chair and Chandler’s 1939 The Big Sleep beckons. So I’ve just plunged in.

But as I begin, I’m reminded of author Megan Abbott’s July, 2018 Slate.com essay, “The Big Sleep – Reading Raymond Chandler In The Age Of #MeToo”.

Megan Abbott begins with: “In April, the New Yorker’s Katy Waldman, writing about male authors who objectify or diminish women, marveled over the many women she knows who remain ‘open to verbal entrancement’ by such men. As an example, she cited those who ‘sustain complicated and admiring relationships with lodestars like Raymond Chandler.’ Reading those words, I felt found out. Exposed.”

Slate - Megan Abbott-Raymond Chandler

Abbott relates how she first discovered Chandler as a child through Howard Hawks’ 1946 film adaption of The Big Sleep, then started what became her first novel in order to actually write herself into sardonic, world-weary Philip Marlowe’s world. Dial forward to Summer 2018 when, like many (myself included), Abbott eagerly waited for the release of the first ever annotated edition of The Big Sleep and Chandler’s “lushly rendered world of afternoon highballs, blackjacks hidden behind trench coats, and cunning women with teeth like knives”. But with the book in hand, she realized that “…like most women I know, I’ve been squinting hard at my attachment to certain male writers and artists, from Jim Thompson to Norman Mailer, with problematic or troubling views of women. The word complicity knocks around my brain…”

I suppose that word must knock around in most mystery/crime fiction writers’ heads. And if it doesn’t, perhaps it ought to.

It’s one thing to read mid-twentieth century favorites contextually, ever mindful that the stories were written in different times and a vastly different social and cultural landscape. And I for one think it’s dangerous to interpret such material through contemporary filters, seeing themes and subtexts lurking there that most likely never occurred to the writers themselves. So I choose not to feel any guilt when I enjoy Raymond Chandler, any more than I do when I read Mickey Spillane, Ross MacDonald or even Frank Kane’s Johnny Liddel novels. But as Abbott notes, “If you want to understand toxic white male masculinity , you could learn a lot by looking at noir.” The noir world – films, novels, pulp stories, comics and more – is a darkly retro place, dialed decades back to a time when gender roles are quite different. Women characters are relegated to eye candy or the occasional femme fatale…either props or fundamentally evil. Further, as mystery/crime fiction readers and fans, we delight in all the murder and mayhem. And as writers, we actually create it.

In contemporary crime fiction and thrillers, female characters are often a kind of cannon fodder, anonymous and included only to be stalked, abused, tortured or murdered. Disproportionately, women are the victims of violence that’s all too often catalogued in gruesomely fetishistic detail, frequently less as ‘crime’ and instead some kind of perversely voyeuristic titillation. So, when we relish these creepy chills as readers, or craft them as writers, are we merely compounding decades-old problems?

Hey, don’t look for answers here. If a brilliant writer like Megan Abbott struggles with complicity, I can’t expect to do any more.

But I suspect that I’ll raise this topic again in the future. This notion of complicity, that is. My own current projects are set in 1959, right on the cusp of sweeping social changes, but not quite there yet. It’s difficult to settle into a 1959 mindset and attempt to make characters, situations and dialog ring true. Sometimes succeeding can almost make me cringe. But the times were what they were.

None of that will make Hill’s, Jackson’s and Rizutto’s (and, once again, Raymond Chandler’s) The Annotated Big Sleep any less enjoyable for me. It’ll give me something to keep in mind, though. Slogging home from work through slush and ice will be almost bearable knowing that hefty book is on the end table beside a cushy chair, and at least for a few evenings I’ll be comfortably ensconced in southern California. But when I reluctantly set it aside to return to my keyboard and get back to work on my own projects, that complicity thing will be knocking around in my head, the same as it seems to do in Megan Abbott’s. And that’s a good thing… that I’m wrestling with it, that is. And we all should.

https://slate.com/culture/2018/07/raymond-chandler-in-the-age-of-metoo.html

 

 

 

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