The “There” And The “Then”.

Not everyone re-reads novels, but I do, returning to a few classics and cherished favorites every few years, sometimes just grabbing a previously read book purely on a whim. But it’s rare for me to re-visit a book finished less than a year ago. Nonetheless, that’s just what I did with Laura Lippman’s 2019 Lady In The Lake, even though the to-be-read pile on the writing lair’s endtable is filling up (overflowing, actually) with new books waiting to be started.

Sure, I enjoyed Lippman’s tale of Baltimore’s mid-1960’s upper middle-class Jewish homemaker Madeline ‘Maddie’ Schwartz, her abrupt decision to leave her family for a new life in an edgy part of town, finagling her way into a bottom-rung newspaper job, and her ambitious and potentially dangerous investigation into the largely ignored death of Eunetta ‘Cleo’ Sherwood, a young African-American woman. Lady in The Lake is crime fiction. It’s definitely a mystery. But it’s also a coming-of-age story, though the age in this sorta-kinda homage to Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar is Maddie Schwartz’ late-thirties, her own teenage years’ self-discovery tabled for marriage and homemaker roles. 

Read the first time only months earlier, there were no new revelations to be discovered in the plot. And Lippman scores no better or worse than most writers do with the “there” – that is, immersing the reader in the place in which the story unfolds. I’ve never been to Baltimore, Maryland, and Lippman’s laundry list of stores, restaurants and street names didn’t conjure up any specific sense of place. That’s not a criticism. The fact is, having been raised on a century of Hollywood films and television shows, we all can recognize a handful of Los Angeles and New York street and neighborhood names and landmarks. But the main drags in Tulsa or Spokane? The upscale department store in Denver vs. the dime store chain in Minneapolis? The fancy dining spots in Pittsburgh and the greasy spoons in Cleveland? Of course not. 

For myself, I’ve chosen not to agonize over pointless geography lessons in my own writing, confident that no reader will spot check my rendition of Chicago (much less Chicago over 60 years ago) on Google Maps to uncover a fabricated street name or question if the Rexall drug store was really on the southwest or northeast corner of an intersection. The “there” – the real sense of place – has to be conveyed via much more than a tour guide’s itinierary.

But the “then”? 

Laura Lippman’s handling of the “then” in Lady of The Lake was masterfully done, and why I opted to revisit the novel, this time like a high school/college class reading assignment, taking careful note of the different ways she kept the reader firmly rooted in the Autumn of 1965 through November 1966 (with a brief coda some twenty years later). Just as a sense of place is established – and maintained – by much more than meaningless address lists, the elusive sense of “then” must first be conveyed (and then repeatedly but, hopefully, not intrusivelyreinforced) with much more than pointing out cars’ make and model years, household product brand names or some other pop culture references. In Lady In The Lake, everything really feels like it’s 1966, from the characters’ body language to the pervasive dismissiveness Maddie Schwartz constantly navigates through. Spiro T. Agnew may be running for governor, The Sandpipers playing at the theater, but those only matter if a contemporary reader even knows who Agnew was or can picture Steve McQueen on screen. Chronological cultural cues are sprinkled throughout, of course, but it’s the actions and dialog that constantly define the time, if not the place. How precisely Lippman accomplished all of this is not so easy to decipher.

My own work is set in the ethnic blue collar bungalow belt of 1959 Chicago. Neighborhood borders – and ethnic/racial boundaries – are as rigid and insurmountable as real walls, and a viaduct or railroad line as formidable as the Brandenburg Gate in Cold War era Berlin. I think I’ve managed a sense of place pretty well without getting bogged down in street names and local landmarks that couldn’t resonate with readers. But that doesn’t mean that all the maps, downloaded photos, vintage magazines and hours of research were pulled together for nothing. They’ve played their part in helping me to establish – and maintain – an essential sense of the “then” as much (if not more so) as the “there”. Am I doing it as handily as Laura Lippman? I doubt it. But a re-read of her Lady In The Lake is helping to keep me on the right track.

Photo: Andrey Dubinin

Meyer’s Murmurs And Me.

Never a member of ‘Team Edward’ or ‘Team Jacob’, I’m just not much of an expert on Stefenie Meyer’s Twilight series. Or much of a fan, to be honest. I skimmed a few pages of the first Twilight novel in a bookstore years ago, and have only seen random snips of the movies while channel surfing. But maybe I should say thanks to Stefenie Meyer. Well, more accurately, I do owe Rachelle Hampton for her funny 9.2.20 piece at Salon, “All 349 ‘Murmurs’ in the Twilight Saga, Charted And Ranked”. (link below)

According to Rachelle Hampton, Stefenie Meyer seems to be “unconditionally and irrevocably in love with the word murmur…there are hopeful murmurs and bleak murmurs, warm murmurs and tense murmurs, low murmurs and…well, even lower murmurs”. She went so far as to assemble an Excel spreadsheet charting Meyer’s use of the word murmur, discovering that the new Midnight Sun sequel/prequel included 67 murmurs, while the original Twilight series novels tallied 349 (which is a lot of murmuring). For the record, Breaking Dawn boasted the most, coming in at 111 murmurs.

While I may not be particularly interested in vampires that sparkle, moody teenagers or the Pacific Northwest, Rachelle Hampton’s analysis of Stefenie Meyer’s wordsmithing (and the gentle way she’s poking fun) prompted me to give the MS Word Advanced Find And Replace tool a go in my own work, something I probably should’ve been doing all along.

I was relieved to learn that I’d only used murmur twice in the completed Stiletto Gumshoe manuscript currently being queried – one murmured and one murmuring to be precise, and those over 200 manuscript pages apart. So far, no one murmurs even once in the in-progress follow-up novel, that one about halfway complete. 

Still, that double-check prompted me to do similar word search/counts on all kinds of other words and phrases, terrified I’d discover that I employed word crutches or writerly ‘darlings’, those awful go-to words and phrases writers of all sorts turn to in a crunch or type almost by default. The result? Relief, once again, though just to play safe, I did change a word or two just to have something to show for the effort.

As an avid reader of postwar PBO mysteries, crime fiction and private eye series (some of which boast eye-catching covers but pretty awful insides) I can verify that many writers – particularly those of the pre-computer ‘first draft is the only draft’ school – beat some words and phrases to death. And no, I’m not going to assemble an Excel spreadsheet for you in order to prove this. Just take my word for it. At the very least, there were some very popular P.I. series wordsmiths sharing more or less the very same descriptions for every slinky female client, femme fatale and damsel in distress encountered, and using those again and again. 

Not too much murmuring going on in a lot of those novels, though.

Right or wrong, I suppose that I lump Stefenie Meyer’s Twilight series in with the notorious E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey series: Mega-selling publishing phenomena that spawned super-successful film franchises, presumably leaving both writers more than comfortable for life. As well as their heirs. And their heirs. The two series seem to go hand in hand, appropriate since the Grey books began as Twilight fanfic. While some might grimace at the writing itself, there’s no denying that the novels caught on with the book buying and movie-going public, so any griping about their success just comes off as sour grapes. There’ll be no griping here, only gratitude to Rachelle Hampton, Stefenie Meyer (and maybe E.L. James, too) for reminding me to watch out for those word darlings and to double-check every so often in case things have gotten out of hand. I imagine I’ll automatically picture a sullen Kristen Stewart the next time my fingers start typing murmur.

Photo: Vincenzo Centrone

https://slate.com/culture/2020/09/twilight-murmur-analysis-stephenie-meyer-midnight-sun.html

From Paused To Un-Pause.

I’ve been more or less on ‘pause’ with my own writing projects since late March. Specifically, the outreach/submission chores have been on hold, for good or bad, waiting till Labor Day before ‘un-pausing’.

Queries previously circulated for the completed The Stiletto Gumshoe novel (that’s actually not it’s title) while I continued work on its follow-up for a hoped-for mystery/crime fiction series. But with NYC the epicenter of all-things-bad back in the Spring, it seemed sensible to halt any further outreach. Considering the frustrating ratio of replies (even when they’re ‘thanks-but-no-thanks’) to so-called NORMANS (no reply means a no), why send things out to empty workstations and unopened inboxes? Offices had emptied out, folks were huddling in their homes and apartments, and we all had bigger things on our minds than genre fiction queries.

Things loosened up a little in some parts of the country (New York in particular) while we drifted into Summer, a time of year considered by many (though not all) as the publishing marketplace’s down-time. Though ‘real’ Summer’s still with us for another two weeks-plus, Labor Day’s the traditional end of the season, and I’m ready – even eager – to get going again. So, just to get back in the groove, I pulled the untouched-for-months manuscript out and gave it another once-over…what writer can forego making another tweak or two? 

As for the in-progress sequel? It hasn’t progressed as much as I’d like, not for lack of inspiration or due to writer’s block, but simply a matter of time. I never could’ve foreseen how the day job would change once everything went haywire back in late March: Staff working from home, me on-site, access to assets, info and more from Brazil, Germany, the UK and other faraway places all delayed. Bottom line: Everything takes half again longer than usual to complete. Mind you, there’ll be no whining here. I’m working. So many still are not. 

Writing, publishing and bookselling sites, blogs and the trade press provide a mixed bag of news and opinions on what’s-what in the marketplaces. The good news: Print unit sales have been up, by more than anyone foresaw, and the numbers seem to show some staying power. On the other hand, book production’s been disrupted, not only by pandemic related issues but supply-chain and other problems with the main book printing mega-companies. Still, new titles are coming out. Deals are being made. All eyes may be on the latest political tell-all hardcover right now, but we assume that’ll fade sometime soon. So, while pressing pause when the pandemic first swept over the country and everything initially shut down seemed prudent, lingering in neutral for too long can only lead to inertia. Time to get back to work.

Literary Agent Jessica Faust’s excellent Bookends Literary Agency blog (link below) recently posted “Keep Moving Forward”, recounting the ups and downs (mostly ups) of the scary days in the Spring, and offers, “My tip for my clients is the same as I gave my agents. Keep moving forward…Keep submitting, even if it’s summer or a pandemic or the world looks bleak. Keep moving forward and controlling the one thing you can control: What you’re doing.”  Makes sense to me. Whatever the ‘new normal’ is or will ultimately be, there’s no point sitting on the sidelines with a wait-n-see attitude. So next week I’ll reopen that buzzkill of a query/submission spreadsheet, revisit my continually-added-to literary agent lists, revise and refresh my queries and get back to work. 

Y’know, I’m getting revved up already.

Keep Moving Forward

Photos: Laura Chouette, Natalia Drepina, Janko Ferlic

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/

Maritta Wolff’s Night Shift

night shift

A month or so ago I commented on Whistle Stop, a 1946 Nero Films production that was part soap opera and part crime melodrama with a mismatched George Raft and very young Ava Gardner. Rife with steamy small-town adultery and intrigue, the film included just enough criminal mischief and shadowy scenes to qualify for the Movies! network’s Thursday and Sunday night film noir showcases (which, based on many of the flicks chosen, doesn’t take too much qualifying). But it wasn’t the movie that caught my attention as much as the source material: Maritta Wolff’s 1942 novel by the same name, her debut, and written while she was still in college, no less. That was enough to put me on the hunt, and though I’ll have to get my copy of Whistle Stop used and online (the local bookstore unable to deliver with the promised copy I ordered), I did get a new copy of her second novel Night Shift for a quick curbside pickup, and what an intriguing read it was.

During the early days of WWII in a small and unnamed midwestern city, Sally and her fellow boarding house neighbors are barely getting by on low paying waitress and war plant jobs. Christmas being right around the corner lends little cheer to their day to day routines of endless bus commutes, household chores, grisly factory accidents and handsy bosses. Suddenly the dreariness is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of Petey Braun, Sally’s sassy, stylish sister unseen for years, back from crisscrossing the country with ribald tales to tell and a purse full of dough just in time for the holidays. Petey promptly finagles a singing job at the local edge-of-town nightclub where gambling and women are on the menu in addition to the steaks and cocktails.

maritta wolff 1

Night Shift could be a handy desk reference for any writer looking to add authenticity to period settings, Wolff’s writing is spot-on for dialog and descriptions, particularly of the humdrum and uneventful minutiae of daily life. It’s a very different kind of writing from what readers may be accustomed to in contemporary fiction, particularly genre fiction, which tends to be ruthlessly purged of nonessentials by agents and editors eager to get to the action. The novel’s nearly 550 pages long, (though I still plowed through it in two evenings) and a hundred pages or more go by before smart-mouthed Petey whisks into town in a swirl of stylish frocks with a savvy nose for a buck, a man and a plush place to park herself for a while.

maritta wolff 3

A crime novel? Well, not exactly, and certainly not a mystery. Oh, there’s some action, a genuinely evil bad guy, some neither-completely-good nor completely-bad troubled souls, and even a nasty killing near the end, with most of the book taking place in settings and scenes right out of a postwar noir film. Maritta Wolff had a way with the underbelly of mid-twentieth century small town life. Though Night Shift is populated by no shortage of men – siblings, spouses, coworkers, lovers and would-be-Romeo’s alike – it’s a woman’s novel all the way through. Just because there are no big heists, car chases, shootouts or murders, as such, this is still a genuine noir, and in many ways more legitimately so for disregarding some of the genre’s clichés and obligatory plot tropes.

An upcoming post will take a look at how this novel was trimmed down for a pretty nifty Warner Brothers noir-melodrama-romance by Raoul Walsh and crew, with none other than Ida Lupino as brassy Petey Braun.

maritta wolff 2

Just Pocket That Advance.

The Deer Park 1967 Cover Art

Cover art for a UK Corgi paperback edition of Norman Mailer’s 1955 The Deer Park, the writer’s infamous expose of Hollywood decadence set in mythical Desert D’Or (Palm Springs). A good novel or a dreadful one, I couldn’t say, but it was notorious in its day, the manuscript rejected by the publisher for obscenity even though it was already typeset and ready to go to press. Unprecedented at that time, Mailer kept his advance and took the book to another publisher.

Word to the wise: Cash the check, then talk.

 

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.

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