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.
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.
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.
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.