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.

The Big Sleep 1978 - 2

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/

 

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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