“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

See You In September.

Jeff Drew PW

See you in September? No, I’m not going anywhere.

But that is the title of a recent Publishers Weekly lead article from Vice-President, Editorial Director Jim Milliot reporting on NYC publisher surveys regarding plans on when and how their offices might reopen. Like so many businesses there and in other cities nationwide, the “Big Five” plus Abrams, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Kensington, Norton, Scholastic and others responded with cautious and flexibly phased plans, none of which involved employees returning before Labor Day. Till then, work-from home, Zoom conferencing, digital manuscripts, galleys and review copies will remain the norm.  In some cases, senior management is even reassessing long term office space needs, anticipating that some portion of their staff will continue with WFH at least in some capacity. To a degree, it may be less about reconfiguring office spaces and work schedules, and more about the logistics of getting to and from work, those challenges all too apparent to any city dweller. Bus, subway, El and train commuting are still scary prospects. Further, how will crowds navigate elevators up and down hi-rise office buildings?

The following week’s issue included the first in a series of independent publishing columns, that one by past chair of the Independent Book Publishers Association, Peter Goodman, who speculated that the pandemic’s impact will likely reshape independent, hybrid, micro-press and self-publishing with increased adoption of e-books, a regrettable but likely inevitable shakeout among indie retail bookseller accounts, and the growing influence of distributors and their print-on-demand capabilities. Myself, I’m all for that last one, a crucial component in keeping indie press and backlist titles available, particularly if retail bookstore upfront orders are publication go/no-go criteria. Goodman also acknowledges what many have fretted over or even joked about: The sheltering-in’s sudden proliferation of budding writers. “…A lot of smart, creative people who are spending more time at home will be producing more books,” Goodman states. “Is this a good thing? Not entirely, as it crowds the marketplace and may again create an unfortunate line between ‘real’ and ‘hobby’ publishing.” Will retail bookstores – indie or chain – get serious about stocking some of these self/hybrid/micro published titles, or will the nearly non-navigable and overpopulated online maze remain their only marketplace?

stef van der laan marie claire france 2015 by robert nethery

A second entry in this series the following week, this one from Ed Nawotka and Claire Kirch, reported a mixed bag of business results and planning among independent publishers. Topline: Nearly all endured a brutal March and April with drastic drop-offs in orders, though sales have steadily picked up since. Back to normal? Not exactly. Nor are independent and smaller presses racing to get back to their offices just yet, even if they aren’t in the same types of workplaces the majors are.

Along with Publishers Weekly, a number of book sites/blogs I follow have been reporting on the plight of booksellers throughout these sheltering-in months, now transitioning to updates about their slow and cautious re-openings. But the entire industry hit pause back in March or thereabouts, and if publishers and retailers aren’t up to speed, then agents won’t be either, so writers will have to make their own individual decisions about queries and submissions. Myself, I hate to think of sitting on my hands till Autumn (though Summer has always been considered a notoriously bad time for querying/submitting anyway), but I’d already concluded it might be prudent to do so, and reading reports from industry insiders simply reinforces that.

Oh well, Fall’s always been my favorite season.

Publishers Weekly cover illustration: Jeff Drew; Bookstore photo: Stef Van Der Laan by Robert Nethery, 2015.

Queriers’ Quirks.

chloe jasmine by damien lovegrove

There are all kinds of writers, from snooty intellectual types to quirky artsy-smartsy sorts, and everything in between. But among writers, or at least, those sitting on completed projects ready for submission, just how many different types of queriers are there?

You might be the hopeful type with a phone always handy, certain the A-List literary agent’s call is coming any minute, just like model Chloe Jasmine in the Damien Lovegrove photo above. But then, look closer at that pic and take note of the automatic beside her typewriter. Jasmine may not take rejection very well.

Fantasy writer Morgan Hazelwood’s site (morganhazelwood.com) recently took a peek at the different ways writers query in her post “The 10 Types Of Queriers” (link below). “Self-published authors get to skip the query trenches,” she writes, “but, for the rest of us, we all take different approaches to querying agents. What type of querier are you?”

Morgan Hazelwood Dot Com

Hazelwood provides a pretty accurate but still whimsical list of ten typical approaches, and any writer actively engaged in the querying process will smile (or wince) once they recognize their own tactics. Sure, Hazelwood’s poking some lighthearted fun at fellow writers, but anyone being honest will concede there’s a little of each of her types in us.

There’s the “I-Know-A-Guy” type who earnestly attends genre cons and writer events in order to hook-up with industry professionals, determined to query only agents met in person. Or “The Perfectionist”, a wannabe submitter who’ll finally get that query written after the manuscript’s next revision…which has been going on for years. Or, “The Eager NaNoWriMite” who banged out a first novel during NaNoWriMo and is already querying that same first draft, cocksure that a huge book deal awaits. “Oooh, Squirrel!” may be the best querier moniker, that writer managing an initial batch of queries, but quickly distracted by some new project before following up with more.

Since Morgan Hazelwood’s last ‘type’ is labeled “The Morgan”, she’ll understand if we assume that’s where she fits on the list (and for what it’s worth, “The Morgan” isn’t a bad type to be).

I’m not sure I could spot myself among her ten types, or at least, not precisely, more likely sharing both good and bad habits of various queriers. And the fact is, right now, C.J. Thomas is no type of querier, having decided to put the entire process on hold till things get back to normal. Well…normal-ish. My last batch of three queries went out in mid-February with one straggler sent in mid-March, just days before the ‘sheltering-in’ commenced ‘round here. None of those received a reply. In fact, the only recent response received came the first of May in reply to a January 2020 query (not a form letter, but still a no).

Any naïve notions I may have had that agents stuck at home (particularly in beleaguered Manhattan) might have time to catch up on query responses was precisely that: Woefully naïve.

I couldn’t come up with cute titles like Morgan Hazelwood did, and could only label myself as A) Patient and B) Focused on who’s selling books, not merely open to looking at my type of material. Naturally, I refer to the usual online and print resources and directories, but my ‘Bible’ has been the mystery/crime fiction reviews in Publishers Weekly, which usually list the books’ agents. Yes, I like to know which agents are open to queries. But I also want to know which agents actually sell their clients’ projects and how often. PW comes in handy when you want to see who closed deals, even in so-called genre fiction. After all, that is what this query/submission process is all about.

Things will begin to get back to normal soon enough, even if only in cautious baby steps at first. Then I’ll be querying again, perhaps sometime this Summer. I’ll reassess how I fit into Morgan Hazelwood’s list of ten types of queriers once I restart. For now, if you’re a writer, take a peek at her site and this particular post to see how you fit in. It’s a fun read.

https://morganhazelwood.com/2020/04/16/the-10-types-of-queriers/

https://morganhazelwood.com/

Get Your Uniform On.

fred mcdarrah

While most folks are sheltering-in, and many are (hopefully) working their day jobs from home in pajamas (tossing on a blazer for a Zoom staff meeting, if needed), writers already accustomed to working alone probably don’t give much thought to what they’re wearing at the keyboard.

Or, so you’d think.

Blonde Write More Dot Com

Lucy Mitchell’s Blonde Write More site took a look at this in a 4.12.20 post, “How To Dress Like A Writer – 5 Key Writer Looks” (link below), lightheartedly teasing those who “dreamed about becoming a writer and want to master that writer look”. She lists five basics like the ‘Tweed Writer Look’, the ‘Geeky Writer Look’ and so on. Check it out.

Natalia Vodianova Elle Denmark

My own reignited writing endeavors have been solo and safely hidden in my writing lair with little need to worry about ‘writerly’ attire. But, when I was still a socially engaged writer taking community college night classes, attending a monthly writer’s group open mike live reading session (held in a bar to stoke shy writers’ courage so someone would actually read their works-in-progress), trekking to regional or national genre events, or even dialing way back to college days and immediately after, I’d have concurred with Ms. Mitchell that there definitely are ‘writer looks’ (or more specifically, a writer look, as in singular) adopted by the legit scribes, the wannabes and the poseurs alike.

Taylor Lashae

I never actually spotted the tweed jacket or professorial corduroy blazer/sweater vest types, cliché that they may be. I saw a stray Boho or two looking more like refugees from Green Party rallies or Grateful Dead cassette swap meets. But mostly the writers, soon-to-be’s and just-acting-the-part folks uniformly wore head-to-toe black. Intended or not, the 50’s/60’s Beat Scene revival (or what we imagined it to be) was channeled through a Millennial monotony of black Levi’s, black leggings, black tights, black sweaters, black hoodies, black flats, black work boots, black Converse, black scarves, black t-shirts, black knit dresses, black leathers, black ripped sheers, black gloves (big on the fingerless ones) and – surprisingly – black hats aplenty: Porkpies, newsboys, tams, trilbies and the old reliable, black berets. Well, you get the picture, dark as it is. And shame on me for showing up in regular Levi blue jeans with non-black work boots (from Kmart, no less), black pullover notwithstanding (a lesson learned and never repeated after enduring all the derisive glances).

Esther Canadas Peter Lindbergh Vogue Italia 3

Say what you want about monotony, but black-on-black-on-black simplifies things when rolling out of bed still bleary-eyed, whether for class or breakfast with your fellow keyboard dancers.

I’m sure there are romance novelists in billowy Laura Ashley prints, YA vampire epic masterminds in 90’s Goth gear, and committed hard-boiled crime writers in fedoras with filterless Luckies dangling from their lips (surely looking down their nose at the rest of our laptops as they muscle the keys on their manual typewriters). But I’ve only seen those at costume parties,

Esther Canadas Peter Lindbergh Vogue Italia 2

Lucy Mitchell’s Blonde Write More post was well-timed. Y’know, this sheltering-in isn’t going to last forever. Whether it’s in June or not till the Fall, we’ll all be creeping back into the bars, coffeehouses, in-person classes and all-night bitch sessions at friends’ apartments. Soon enough, it’ll be time to stow the PJ’s, yoga pants and torn t-shirts salvaged from the rag bin. I’m just kidding about all of this. (Well, sort of.) Maybe the real point is: Lets not get too used to the new reality. This too will end, even if still socially distanced, and we’ll all have to get our uniforms out of mothballs.

Esther Canadas Peter Lindbergh Vogue Italia

Photos: Fred McDarrah, Natalia Vodianova for Elle Denmark, Taylor Lashae, Esther Canadas by Peter Lindbergh

How to Dress Like a Writer – 5 Key Writer Looks. #WritersLife

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