And I Haven’t Read A Single Story Yet.

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It’s over a month ago that I reserved a copy of Otto Penzler’s The Big Book Of Reel Murders – Stories That Inspired Great Crime Films, warned at the time that it might not arrive till mid-November. In fact, I got it almost two weeks ago and have been burrowing through this nearly 1,200-page monster of a book since.

And yet – so far, I haven’t actually read a single story.

The Big Book Of Reel Murders

Each of the 61 stories by writers like Robert Bloch, Ian Fleming, Dashiell Hammett, Dennis Lehane, Sinclair Lewis, Daphne du Maurier, W. Somerset Maugham, Budd Schulberg, Cornell Woolrich and others was the basis of a mystery/crime/noir film. Some you’d know, of course. Some, perhaps not. (I’d never heard of a few!) The movies inspired by the anthology’s tales include Woman In The Dark (1934), The Big Steal (1949), Fear In The Night (1947), Gun Crazy (1950), Tip On A Dead Jockey (1957), Mr. Dynamite (1951) and many others — some stills, publicity shots and posters for those shown here with this post.

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Many anthologies seem to be hastily put together, with little more than a brief genre celebrity preface, editor intro and — if the reader’s lucky — author bio’s. Not this book. Each of the 60+ stories are preceded by a two or three-page introduction providing author, story or publication background info, plus details and anecdotes about the film inspired by that story. Add it up: These intro’s almost form a book on their own, with the insights into familiar films being informative treats, the others being prompts to hunt up the movies as yet unseen.

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Oh, I’ll go back and read the stories, of course. The Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Allan Poe and Agatha Christie tales I already have elsewhere and have read more than once might be skipped, but there’s some choice material in this big book. And though it might seem a little weird, some of the choicest content is actually the story introductions, as much as the stories themselves.

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Nobody Move.

nobody move

We’ve been here before with writers and filmmakers like Elmore Leonard and Quentin Tarantino (quotes from both of whom lead off this novel). But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth another trip through So-Cal Neo-Noir, especially when we’re in the hands of a talented storyteller, and based on this debut novel (or so I assume it to be), that’s precisely what Philip Elliott is.

Action-filled stories like Nobody Move’s plot are hard to summarize, but I’ll give it a try: What ought to be a routine collection call by a couple of low-level enforcers goes bad, resulting in a pervy narcotics distributor and his innocent wrong-place-wrong-time mistress shot dead, their bodies none too well hidden (and promptly discovered) in the hills. And that results in the dead man’s much-more-dangerous brother arriving from Texas and out for vengeance, and a world-weary single mother homicide detective assigned to the case. Meanwhile, an enigmatic young woman shows up, hunting for the half-sister gone missing from their South Dakota Oglala Reservation home (who was the murdered mistress, of course), and the crime lord who initiated the whole affair is determined to silence everyone involved…permanently. Bottom line: Everyone’s looking for Eddie, the inept crook who stupidly pulled the trigger and set things in motion. Colorfully quirky characters provide ample cannon fodder for the sudden bursts of explosive violence that erupt on cue in Elliott’s (thankfully) straightforward linear narrative: A retired gay porn star (now pre-op trans) turning traitor, a sleazy lawyer, a strip club dancer, a Puerto Rican hitman and other assorted thugs among them. The characters’ multiple paths converge, sometimes violently, sometimes humorously, and ultimately in a harrowing daylight bank robbery and then a major shoot-out. If this is Elliott’s debut novel, then he handles a complex multi-character plot handily and keeps everything moving along at a fast-paced clip. People toss the term ‘page turner’ around a lot (myself included) but this one really was, at least for me.

If you give Nobody Move a try, I challenge you to not picture your own dream cast for each character’s role, or to constantly visualize Elliott’s well laid out scenes in the quirky, jump-cut violence-filled big screen version it ought to be. Philip Elliott is the editor in chief of the print and online literary magazine, Into The Void, and this novel is from their small press publishing operation. That suggests no literary agent was involved, but I sure hope the author has someone working overtime to drop this novel onto appropriate Hollywood producers’ desks.

Writer’s Digest’s Good News

wd - nov-dec

While it’s always a treat to discover a new issue of Writer’s Digest magazine in my mailbox, I was doubly pleased to find the November/December 2019 issue after a particularly unpleasant day-job grind this Thursday. I’ll still revisit the magazine over the weekend to read a couple articles more carefully, but the issue got a cover-to-cover browse-through over a very late dinner (Two hot dogs, in case in matters…it was gourmet night. And I put ketchup on one, but don’t tell anyone. They hang you ‘round these parts for putting ketchup on a dog.)

Right upfront editor-in-chief Ericka McIntyre’s column announced WD’s June 2019 acquisition by California-based Active Interest Media, a multi-division lifestyle, outdoors and special interest magazine group. So readers can rest easy after some worrisome silence following the bankruptcy of WD’s former parent company, F+W Media. AIM is promoting Writer’s Digest magazine and writersdigest.com on its site, so let’s assume the venerable publication will be around to celebrate its upcoming 100th anniversary. Unclear if AIM also acquired Writer’s Digest Books, publishers of numerous writers’ how-to titles and annual directories. Ads for WD books were noticeably absent from this November/December 2019 issue.

“The Truth Issue” is solid throughout, and while it may just be my imagination, I detected a more serious editorial tone, right down to the Amy Jones interview with author Amor Towles (Rules of Civility and A Gentleman In Moscow). Well, real or only perceived, evolving tone or not, I was just pleased to hear all will be well for Writer’s Digest, it being hard to imagine a writer’s world without it.

The Secrets We Kept

via laraprescott dot com

Though she was profiled in this week’s Sunday New York Times Book Review, I had no idea that Reese Witherspoon hosted her own book club. Worse: I didn’t even notice the “Reese’s Book Club” icon on the front cover of Lara Prescott’s The Secrets We Kept, and once I did, wasn’t even sure what it was. Guess I have to bone up what’s going on in the media and entertainment world. But why, when I can be immersed in incredible novels like Prescott’s debut instead?

The Secets We Kept Lara Prescott

Spanning a period from 1949 to 1961, The Secrets We Kept by the aptly named Lara Prescott provides an intriguing look at post-WWII era young women armed with formidable educations and noteworthy skills, but shunted off to steno pools and typist jobs, their comparably equipped male counterparts now their supervisors, ripe with all of that period’s dismissiveness and even blatant abuse. For these portions of Prescott’s complex multi-POV novel, you may be reminded of Renee Rosen’s Park Avenue Summer and White Collar Girls, or Fiona Davis’ The Dollhouse and The Chelsea Girls. But then mix it up with Ian Fleming. No, check that. More like Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series, or Jane Thynne’s Clara Vine novels. The Secrets We Kept isn’t about underwater spear gun battles, no one brandishes a Walther PPK, and it’s no simple espionage thriller.

It’s really about three women: Irina, a typist, Sally, a receptionist, both at the Cold War era CIA. And then there’s Olga, the mistress of famed Russian poet and novelist Boris Pasternak. But the receptionist is really a glamorous international spy. The typist is recruited to become one, while Pasternak’s ever loyal lover endures torture in Lubyanka prison and then the Gulags to protect the writer. The unfolding story is actually about the smuggling of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago manuscript out of Soviet era Russia, its publication in Europe, and once finally translated into English, smuggling copies back into Russia so his countrymen could actually read the Nobel Prize winning but banned novel. And like Zhivago and Lara in Pasternak’s epic novel, love can sometimes feel utterly doomed in Prescott’s book, with Olga suffering unimaginable horrors while forced to share her beloved with the novelist’s pragmatic but shrewish wife, while Irina and Sally fall in love, but in a time and place that simply won’t tolerate their relationship.

Sharing a first name with Pasternak’s iconic Lara, Prescott may have been destined to write this novel. It’s a thick, rich 350-page book, but I devoured it in two days, unable to put it down and admittedly enthralled from the first page. At first it took a little getting used to the author’s shifting points of view from one chapter to another, but it was well worth the effort. It’s quite a debut, and it looks like Prescott’s book is already on the bestseller lists, so let’s just guess that we can anticipate a movie version in a year or two. I just hope Hollywood doesn’t find some way to muck up this intimate and intriguing tale of three women by stuffing it full of out-of-place action. Explosions and super-villains won’t be needed. “Lara’s Theme” from David Lean’s 1965 movie version of Doctor Zhivago wouldn’t hurt, though.

lara prescott by travor palhaus

http://www.laraprescott.com/

Author photo: Trevor Palhaus

Mosley’s New One.

elements of fiction

When a writer’s first published novel is a literate hard-boiled masterpiece like Devil In A Blue Dress (1990), that’s a person with something to tell us and we all ought to listen, writers and readers alike.

I reserved a copy of Walter Mosley’s new Elements of Fiction last week, due in on the 17th or 18th along with some other books I ordered at the same time. But there it was calling out to me from the new releases shelf during a library stop last weekend. Oh, what the hell.

Elements of Fiction is a short book, though not necessarily a quick read. Mosley calls it a monograph. The dustjacket labels it a treatise. To me it felt as if I’d signed up for an intimate lecture series with the crime fiction master. This isn’t at all like his previous This Year You Write Your Novel, or most other writer’s how-to books, for that matter. No bullet points, infographics, charts and tables, so some might think it’s targeted to experienced writers and the aloof MFA program crowd more than a newcomer. I’d disagree. Newbie or pro, there’s rich and endless inspiration and guidance here, focusing on process, showing how to channel your thinking when it comes to plot, dialog, character and all the other fundamentals. And after all, isn’t helping others to learn how to think what most good teaching is really all about?

Well, I plowed through the short 115-page hardcover on Sunday, and back to the library it’ll go this weekend. Yes, I still got my own copy mid-week when my multi-book order arrived at a local bookseller, and yes, I’ll read it once again and soon. A man who can come up with Easy Rawlins is a man to heed. Walter Mosley’s Elements of Fiction will be sitting out by my work area for a while, I suspect, ready to turn to when the mood strikes or the writing goes bad. Perhaps it’ll be like reading The Bible for the religiously inclined…flip it open anywhere and darn near any page will offer something inspirational.

 

The N-Word In The Writers’ Room.

Walter Mosley

I’ve been away for a few days, a mix of offsite day job chores, personal work and routine R&R, but feeling disconnected and nearly off the grid in a spot where broadband is a foreign word. On the plus side, I was insulated from the daily tweetstorm from Pennsylvania Avenue, though it was a ten-mile trek just to buy a Sunday newspaper.

You may not be able to link to Walter Mosley’s Sunday 9.8.19 New York Times editorial section piece, “Why I Quit The Writer’s Room” (link below) since the NYT, like most newspapers, needs to encourage you to subscribe, so sometimes articles don’t open, and I get that. So, if you have any problem linking, you can also get to it via Crime Reads (crimereads.com). But do get to it, however you like, because Mosley’s piece is well worth the effort.

If you visit or follow here, then there’s no way you could be unfamiliar with Edgar Award winner and Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Walter Mosley, the prolific novelist who’s made up for lost time (he started writing in his mid-thirties) with over 40 novels, plus non-fiction books, plays and screenwriting credits. Mosley’s perhaps best known for his magnificent Easy Rawlins series, which includes his first published novel, Devil In A Blue Dress from 1990, later made into the 1995 film by the same name starring Denzel Washington and Jennifer Beals. His latest non-fiction writer’s book, Elements of Fiction just came out last week.

Mosley’s op-ed piece held the top space of the NYT’s Op-Ed section back page, and finds him at work in his current show’s writers’ room when he received a call from the network’s Human Resources Department. “Mr. Mosley, it’s been reported that you used the N-Word in the writers’ room,” the H.R. staffer said. Incredulous, I assume, Mosley replied, “I am the N-Word in the writers’ room.” And then he quit. There’s much more to it than this shorthand description, of course, but why read about it from me when you ought to get it firsthand from Walter Mosley himself? It’s a thought-provoking piece, crafted as only Mosley could.

As for me, I’ll be looking forward to seeing what I can learn in Mosley’s Elements of Fiction, my copy due in the local bookstore Tuesday.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/06/opinion/sunday/walter-mosley.html

It’s C.J. (Not that it really matters).

C.J. THomas

I was pleased as could be a couple weeks back to see The Stiletto Gumshoe site mentioned with a link at J. Kingston Pierce’s essential The Rap Sheet blog (8.9.19). It was only later that I realized that my still new-ish blog was referred to as “the anonymously composed blog”.

Certain that I’d introduced myself early on, I scrolled all the way back through December 2018 posts to double check. Uhm…ooops. No such post. But remembering that The Stiletto Gumshoe was originally launched at Tumblr and only lingering there for a few weeks before migrating over to WordPress (though now cross-posting back to Tumblr, with WordPress and Tumblr soon to be some sort of siblings anyway), I did introduce myself in one of the original Tumblr blog’s first posts. But not every Tumblr post made it intact to WordPress when I relaunched things here.

So, not that it ought to matter much to anyone, but the name’s C.J. Thomas (as the visual above suggests). It’s only a pen name, but if it’s good enough at the top of a manuscript or signed to the bottom of a query, it’s good enough here. You’ll understand if I daydream about seeing it emblazoned in 72 pt. type across a book’s front cover.

Pen Name Infographic Screen Cap

Some writers wouldn’t dream of publishing under their own name, while others can’t understand what all the fuss is about. I got a kick out of Scott McCormick’s recent piece at the Book Baby blog, seen via Chris The Story Reading Ape’s Blog, a pretty reliable daily read for all things writerly. (Links below.) McCormick’s “Pen Names: How And Why To Use Them” covered familiar ground for many writers, listing famous scribes who’ve employed pen names and providing some guidance on how to come up with one of your own. I’m intrigued by writers who’ve adopted pen names simply because they considered their own names too long or too foreign for the English language market, as illustrated by the cute pen name infographic included in McCormicks piece, which highlighted some well-known writers’ names going back to the 1700’s. Not that I considered Isak Dinesen’s name that easy to pronounce (I’d just as soon not say it out loud and have some smarmy literary type correct me with a snicker), but seeing as how her real name was Karen Christence Dinesen, Baroness Blixen-Finecke, I kinda get it.

Naturally the church’s choirmaster will want a pen name for her sizzling Kindle erotica shorts, and a school board member might feel a little queasy putting her real name on a blood-soaked cops-n-robbers shoot ‘em up series making the rounds. Sometimes it’s just a handy way to keep the day job and ‘real life’ separate from writing endeavors – in-progress or published — and sometimes it’s as simple as a do-over on a long, clunky or perpetually mispronounced name. For the record, my own is only one syllable, yet people have been butchering it since grade school. Go figure.

Nonetheless, hello from C.J. Thomas, host of The Stiletto Gumshoe, and hopefully the name that’ll appear in jumbo type on the front cover of a book by the same name. Well, someday.

https://thestoryreadingapeblog.com/2019/08/29/pen-names-how-and-why-to-use-them-by-scott-mccormick/

https://blog.bookbaby.com/2019/08/pen-names-how-and-why-to-use-them/

 

At The Rap Sheet

The Rap Sheet

Thanks to J. Kingston Pierce’s always excellent The Rap Sheet blog (link below) for a mention and link to The Stiletto Gumshoe site and my recent post on James Ellroy’s This Storm. If you already follow The Rap Sheet, you know what a treasure it is. If you don’t, then why the hell not? The emailed updates are always welcome in my inbox and likely to send me foraging online through endlessly intriguing articles and sites. So be warned: A quick peek at The Rap Sheet will inevitably lure you into some well-spent time delving deeper into that site and many others.

Sweet Cheat, 1959 - ernest chiriacka cover

Seemed fitting that on the day The Rap Sheet included a mention of The Stiletto Gumshoe, it led off with a pic of Peter Duncan’s Sweet Cheat (“She Was The Nicest Bad Girl In Town”) with its gorgeous Ernest Chiriaka cover, that paperback from 1959, the very same year The Stiletto Gumshoe’s hoped-for noirish crime fiction series is set in. Serendipitous indeed! The Duncan novel’s a link to a 2010 page from the great Bill Crider’s (1941- 2018) own blog — Bill Crider’s Pop Culture Magazine (link below), which ran for sixteen years, is yet another incredibly informative and entertaining site you can get lost in, and is sorely missed by many.

https://therapsheet.blogspot.com

http://billcrider.crider.blogspot.com/

The Los Angeles Epic.

this storm

Epic? Horror fans (or at least the vampire enthusiasts among them) might point to Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles books. Heroic fantasy readers would naturally hold up J.R.R. Tolkien’sThe Lord Of The Rings trilogy and all of its many, many prefaces and repackaged source materials. I don’t know if mystery/crime fiction readers and critics expect the genre to spawn anything that ought to be called ‘epic’, but I’ll nominate James Ellroy’s original L.A. Quartet and now the new L.A. Quartet, including 2019’s This Storm.

This book’s been sitting on my to-be-read end table since its release, the huge red swastika emblazoned on its cover doubly eerie in light of current events. I wanted to clear the deck of other reading and projects to devote a few days to This Storm. For me, no skimming’s allowed with Ellroy. I won’t speed-read through a passage to jump to the next ‘good part’. Every single word is a ‘good part’. I couldn’t imagine trimming random notes from a Beethoven symphony and I can’t conceive of skipping a single sentence, phrase or word in an Ellroy novel. At just under 600 pages, This Storm is not a quick read. The plot’s incredibly complex, the cast of characters enormous (there’s actually a six page Dramatis Personae appendix to guide you…and you’ll need it), and when you crack the book open, you just assume that you’ll be living with it for a few days.

If you love James Ellroy, you loved (or will love) This Storm. But I recognize that not everyone is quite so enamored with the writer as I am. The rhythmic syncopated jazz score that is an Ellroy manuscript is off-putting to some. The dense, complex plotting, the sheer bleakness of his milieus and the relentless greed, duplicity and violence his characters exhibit can almost be too much to bear. In James Ellroy’s world, no one’s ‘good’ and everyone has an agenda, which often as not is an evil one. Sometimes it’s on a grand scale. Just as often, it’s a vapid, banal evil that’s somehow even more disturbing.

Ellroy’s original L.A. Quartet comprised four books: The Black Dahlia (1987), The Big Nowhere (1988), L.A. Confidential (1900) and White Jazz (1992), all of which dealt with an intricately intertwined group of post-WWII LAPD detectives, criminals, bureaucrats, wives, girlfriends, crime victims and not-so-innocent bystanders spanning 1947 through 1958. Over twenty years later, Ellroy launched his second L.A. Quartet with Perfidia (2014), revisiting some of the very same characters a few years earlier at the very outset of the U.S. involvement in WWII.

This Storm opens on New Year’s Eve 1941 and continues through early May 1942, just before the tide began to turn in the Pacific War with the Battle Of The Coral Sea and the more decisive Battle Of Midway. But in the early months of 1942, news from the front was not good. War hysteria has the entire west coast on edge. This is the time of the Japanese internment and rampant fear of saboteurs, Nazi spies and Russian fifth columnists. But crime can still flourish during war time, and the line between simple crooks, the merely corrupt and the downright traitorous is a blurry one.

La Confidential 1LA Confidential 2

Two of Ellroy’s original L.A. Quartet novels have been made into films, one a double-Oscar winning masterpiece, L.A. Confidential in 1997, and the other a dismal failure: The Black Dahlia, 2006. Familiar characters from those films populate This Storm, including Dudley Smith (James Cromwell in L.A. Confidential), Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) and relegated to bit parts here, Lee Blanchard, ‘Buzz’ Meeks and others. L.A. Confidential is a magnificent film which does an impressive job of condensing a sprawling, complex novel into a taut feature film. Why The Black Dahlia didn’t work, considering the talent assembled with visual stylist Brian DePalma directing Hillary Swank, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhardt and Mia Kishner, is more of a mystery. I hope Johansson and Kishner consider another period noir role some day, the critical and box office failure of The Black Dahlia notwithstanding. Kirshner in particular garnered her share of rave reviews, even if the film didn’t.

Black Dahila 2Black Dahlia 1

A plot summary of This Storm is impossible. Paring down the labyrinthian story to its fundamentals finds cops and crooks alike conspiring to pit the right against the left, the schemers unaware that the two sides are already working hand in hand, their political ideologies only empty rhetoric, their quests driven by short term greed and for more far reaching postwar power. In This Storm, run of the mill blackmailers, pimps, pornographers, perverts, thieves and murderers mix it up with closet fascists, the German Bund, Mexican paramilitary police, Imperial Japanese spies and NKVD agents, some orchestrated by and some manipulated by corrupt LAPD detectives and bureaucrats. Here, life is cheap. Sex is currency, fists and bullets fly with impunity, the thugs with badges often more violent than the worst of the criminals. Aside from a particularly horrid lead character getting a bit of a comeuppance (though only a bit, and only a temporary one at that), there’s little to console you at This Storm’s conclusion, and that includes the fact that it’ll be a long wait for the third novel in James Ellroy’s second L.A. Quartet.

Elmore Leonard wrote that “reading (James Ellroy’s) The Black Dahlia aloud would shatter wine glasses”. I don’t doubt it. In fact, I truly wish I could read all of Ellroy’s novels out loud in order to fully appreciate the staccato rhythm and musicality of the rapid-fire prose. Books like This Storm leave me humbled, and almost feeling presumptuously arrogant for having the impudence to aim my own fingers at a keyboard to try my hand at crime fiction. So…epic? I don’t think that’s hyperbole. This Storm and James Ellroy’s original and second L.A. Quartets really are, to me at least, crime fiction’s epics.

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