Sex & Crime (Not Sex-Crimes).

A panel of writers discussing the subject of sex in crime fiction could easily drift into arguments about gender politics or pontificating about the genre’s persistent reliance on sexualized violence. Now, don’t get me wrong: Those are vitally important topics that writers, readers and critics will continue to grapple with. But in Lisa Levy’s two-part Crime Reads piece (links below), you’ll feel more like you’ve been squeezed in between Robyn Harding, Alex Segura, P.J. Vernon, Kelly J. Ford, Layne Fargo, and Laura Lippman – each a mystery/crime fiction scribe who, to one degree or another, has wrestled with sexual content in their own work – and wonder if you’re the only person at the table who didn’t knock back a few before the fast-paced conversation commenced. There’s precious little pontificating here.

Part One is titled “Let’s Talk About Sex In Crime Fiction: A Roundtable Discussion”. But Levy acknowledges in the first paragraph, “Let’s talk about why we don’t talk about sex in crime fiction”. As she and her roundtable members concede, the plain fact is that many (if not even most) mystery and crime fiction novels tend to steer clear of sex, and I’m not only pointing to cozies.

But let’s be clear: When talking about “sex” in crime fiction, the panel’s not talking about the voyeuristic and sexified violence that permeates so many suspense thrillers and serial killer novels. Whether you think it’s good, bad, puzzingly creepy or downright repellant, many thrillers rely on sexualized stalking, torture, rape and murder. Writers crank ‘em out and readers continue to devour them. But that’s not at all what these writers are addressing. They’re simply talking about sex. Characters who are driven by sex, think about sex or engage in sex…novels that may require sex scenes of whatever duration, detail and level of decadence from vanilla to…well, decadent.

Part Two is “What Are The Sexiest Books In Contemporary Crime Fiction?”. Here the panel tosses out a wide array of very different writers and novels that might be considered ‘sexy’ or at least include scenes in which the protagonists engage in sex. As to why mystery/crime fiction novels frequently seem to sidestep sex? Well, read Levy’s piece at Crime Reads yourself to see what these writers think. Is it because crime fiction typically deals with really awful things – crimes, after all, which often as not include murder – so that sex scenes would seem out of place, intrusive and gratingly gratuitous? Is it because so many mystery and crime fiction novels still feature middle aged white guy private eyes (with no shortage of recovering alcoholics and other troubled souls) whose bedroom antics may not provide for much sizzle? Could the continuing evolution and expansion of the genre comfortably embrace more – and more diverse – sexual content? And even if it could, should it? 

Long before I typed the first sentence for my own current project (The Stiletto Gumshoe, no surprise) and the character was still forming in my head, I knew that there would indeed be sexual content. It was a crucial part of illustrating just who the protagonist was and would help to define her in context of her environment: an insular ethnic blue-collar neighborhood in the late 1950’s/early 1960’s, when enormous social changes were still a few years away. She’d be chastised by her nosy landlady, teased by her friends, completely misunderstood by men and finally forced to do a little soul searching about her behavior (this is 1959, after all) including how some unwise decisions of the romantic (or lusty) variety got her mixed up with blackmailers, thugs with badges and murder in the first place.

But, that’s my project. In a lot of other writers’ work, the same thing might not apply, and what goes on behind the protagonist’s closed bedroom door might well be completely out of place.

Levy and crew don’t really provide answers so much as share questions about sex in crime fiction (while providing a fertile list of writers and novels worth discovering or revisiting). And whether you’re a mystery/crime fiction reader, or a writer agonizing over some sexual content in your projects – and if doing so, then precisely how and how much – this two-part roundtable will give you something to think about. On the fun side, it’ll probably ignite a chuckle or two along the way. Levy’s Crime Reads panel had some fun with this one!

A Trip Into Darkness.

Call him a poet of noir, or what you will. Author Jim Thompson (9.27.06 – 4.7.1977) was born today, 114 years ago. Regrettably, Thompson received far too little critical acclaim during his lifetime, but thankfully the work is there now for us to delve into whenever we’re eager for a trip into darkness, though it’s amazing how many bookseller and library mystery/crime fiction sections often carry no Thompson works.  

In The Study With A Typewriter.

In The Study With A Typewriter

The 8.3.20 issue of Publisher’s Weekly (which I didn’t get till ten days later, for some reason) includes an 8-page tribute commemorating the 100th anniversary of the publication of Agatha Christie’s debut, “The Mysterious Affair At Styles”, which introduced Hercule Poirot. The writer’s prodigious output (66 novels under her own name, 6 more under a pen name, 14 story collections, plays, etc.) make her the world’s best-selling and most translated author according to Guinesss World Records, with well over 7,000 translations of her work, more than a billion copies of her books sold in English, and another billion in other languages. Liz Scheier provides a 4-page article in PW, “In The Study With A Typewriter”, followed by her 4-page “And Then There Were More” where mystery writers discuss the debt owed to the Queen of Crime.

Visitors and followers here can safely guess that my own tastes might run a bit more hard-boiled than a lot of the cozier British (and U.S.) material written in the golden age of detective fiction. But I’d never have discovered the subsets of mystery/crime fiction that I love without Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie…heck, even Nancy Drew mysteries. “Mystery tropes that now seem inextricably baked into the category first became popular in Christie’s books,” Scheier writes. And unlike the noir-ish material I gravitate towards, there’s a lot of comfort to be found in cozies, soft mysteries and the wealth of material that traces back to Agatha Christie…particularly the sense of justice and closure her books offer. Maybe there’s not a ‘happy ending’ for everyone, but there are no loose ends and the bad guys are brought to justice. Scheier quotes author Hannah Dennison: “(Christie’s) dealing with evil in the world, but at the end, goodness always comes through. It gives you the sense that even though the world, especially now, is so full of injustice and darkness, things will always come right.”

It looks like the articles are accessible at PW’s site: www.publishersweekly.com.

“Scotch, Smokes, Pills And Women”: Lawrence Block Remembers Henry Kane.

Martinis And Murder

Prolific pulp and paperback original mystery/crime fiction writer Henry Kane was much more than a couple of ‘stiletto gumshoe’ novels like 1959’s Private Eyeful and its sorta-not-quite sequel Kisses Of Death from 1962.

Best known for his Peter Chambers NYC private eye novels (about 30 of those, I think), he also penned more than two dozen other books, including the Inspector McGregor series and numerous standalone novels published between 1950 and 1982. He wrote a short-lived radio series in 1954, and many assume that Blake Edwards’ Peter Gunn TV series was based on Kane’s Peter Chambers. In fact, Kane wrote the TV show’s one tie-in paperback novel.  Like Erle Stanley Gardner, John Grisham, Scott Turow (and others, I bet), Henry Kane was a lawyer, but much preferred writing to trials, contracts and briefs.

Mystery Scene - Block Kane

The fact is, however popular Henry Kane may have been in the postwar era pulp fiction (e.g. Manhunt magazine) and paperback crime fiction marketplace, he’s not very well known any longer, his books rarely appearing on shelf even at used booksellers that specialize in vintage paperbacks. It’s pointless for me to try to assemble a bio when an excellent anecdotal homage already exists: MWA Grandmaster Lawrence Block’s “Remembering Henry Kane” from the Summer 2010 Mystery Scene magazine is still at the mag’s site. Like anecdotes? Count on Block, whose own publishing history goes back a bit and is always good for a few (and always reliably well told). Follow the link below for a much better and even chuckle-worthy remembrance of the private eye and crime fiction wordsmith with a uniquely smart-assed style and rhythm, Henry Kane.

Death Is The Last LoverMy Darlin Evangeline

https://www.mysteryscenemag.com/article/65-articles/murders-in-memory-lane/2537-the-murders-in-memory-lane-remembering-henry-kane?showall=1

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/

Armchair-ing.

Writers Digest August

Magazines are planned months ahead of time, so Writer’s Digest can be forgiven for putting out its July/August 2020 “Travel Writing Issue” when few are. Traveling, that is.

Who could have foreseen where we’d be right now? A reluctant traveler even in normal times, I’ll admit to skimming some of the feature articles this month. But the magazine still had a lot to offer, particularly the excellent WD Interview with author Robert Dugoni by Larry Brooks. And even while we’re still mostly sheltering in, ‘armchair travel’ is a perfectly suitable pastime (now more than ever, actually) so hopefully a lot of budding travel writers are studying this issue carefully.

Compare & Contrast.

dead girl blues

“Compare and contrast.” I heard that often enough in college art history classes when a huge screen lit up with slides of some old master painting paired side by side with an impressionist, abstract or expressionist work dealing with a similar subject. “Compare and contrast,” we were instructed to do, awkwardly standing up in a packed auditorium and, in my case, terrified that I’d butcher the artists’ names when forced to say them out loud.

Compare and contrast: I’d just tucked away my copy of Ivy Pochoda’s These Women, knowing what I was in for when I pre-ordered the book and still mulling it over days later when Lawrence Block’s 2020 Dead Girl Blues came in for a pickup. Pochoda’s novel might end up mis-shelved in the mystery or thriller section in some stores, but really it’s neither, instead being a much more harrowing look at the overlooked and ignored in an all-too-familiar setup – a serial killer preying on prostitutes in South Central L.A. Pochoda’s take on this, its literary structure and wordsmithing throw down a gauntlet to challenge countless contemporary thriller writers who celebrate violence, sexualized torture and death for entertainment, her novel zeroing in not on yet another psycho killer, the law enforcement chase or voyeuristic peeks at the victims’ suffering, but instead, on the victims’ friends, parents and even the neighborhood that was the scene of the crimes.

these women

Now I’ve sung Lawrence Block’s praises here before, being one of a select group of writers I revere and who could retype an old phone directory and still sell it to me. With a career that goes back to the 1950’s, there’s a mountain of Block work to digest, so I won’t claim to have read everything he’s done. Well…yet.

Compare and contrast: Pochoda’s These Women goes after the sometimes squirm-worthy serial killer/thriller conventions with a radically different voice, points-of-view and tone that defiantly challenge readers to rethink genre tropes…and more. So, what was Lawrence Block’s intent with Dead Girl Blues, clearly a very personal and eerily unsettling book that also defies many/most genre conventions, though in a very different way? Hey, don’t ask me. All I know is he wrote one hell of a disturbing book which, in its way (and an entirely different way) also insists that the reader rethink the often icky serial killer/murder/thriller conventions. I suppose it would take someone with Block’s resume to dare to put out this book. Sure, a trendy l’enfant terrible might disingenuously try it just to snag some short-lived buzz. But Lawrence Bock has nothing to prove and no need to court trendyville.

Don’t look for shoot-outs, car chases or fetishistic sexual violence-as-entertainment. I’m not sure anything is resolved when you reach the end of the last page, but you’ll be riveted from the opening, “A man walks into a bar”, and wrongly presume that you’ve been down this road before…maybe too many times.

Oh, but you haven’t.

Block’s about to take you somewhere you don’t expect to go, following the unassuming fellow beside you at the bar, next to you in the front seat of the car, behind the store counter, across the dinner table, maybe in bed with you. Hell, he could be your coworker, your boss, your neighbor or even your lover. He might be the James Thompson you think you know, or he might just be “Buddy”, and he’s done something very, very bad. Horribly, sickeningly bad. Maybe he’ll do it again. Maybe not.

There’s not a superfluous word to be found in this novel, the wordsmithing so crisp that Joe R. Lansdale called it “prose as lean as a starving model”. It’s a relatively short work that ought to have any mystery/crime fiction reader thoroughly riveted, but more so, should compel any avid reader of the oh-so-many bestselling sex-n-violence serial killer thrillers to pause and think about what they like to read – and why. Maybe that’s what Ivy Pochoda aimed to do with These Women. Maybe it’s what Block had in mind. Maybe not. But maybe it’s something we all need to ponder when we think about our reading and viewing choices.

Ivy Pochoda’s These Women. Lawrence Block’s Dead Girl Blues. Compare and contrast? I can’t, I suppose, other than having read them back-to-back. Two radically different works from two radically different writers, yet both challenge genre tropes and conventions in their own very powerful ways. So all I can say, is read these books…read them both.

www.lawrenceblock.com

Why Bother?

raica oliviera by fulvio maiani

As explained in prior posts, I’ve reluctantly pressed the pause button on my querying and writing outreach activity, hoping things will settle back into something like normal come September (summer being a notoriously bad time for pestering agents anyway, or so we often hear). The fact is, my last query went out way back in mid-March and it was a straggler at that.

So, I was surprised to receive a query response this week. Even more so since I’d sent that particular query five months ago. I’d already flagged it as a “NORMAN” (No Reply Means A No) long ago. I’m not sure what’s more dismissive: No reply at all, or one sent five months later.

I mean, seriously…at that point, why bother?

 

Photo: Raica Oliviera by Fulvio Maiani

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