Showing posts with label Black Mask. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Black Mask. Show all posts

04 January 2019

Stop Meddling in My Genre - Part 1

by Lawrence Maddox


Dean Martin, actor, singer,
Post Modernist?
From the 1950s through the 70s, Variety shows were TV's shining jewels. Seen as quaint, corny, and conspicuously dopey by today's standards, elaborately produced offerings like The Ed Sullivan ShowPerry Como's Kraft Music Hall, and The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour were hugely popular. The majority of Americans would tune in to see not just cultural shifts, like the Beatles' American debut or Nat King Cole breaking racial barriers, but also to catch the icons of the day step out of the roles they were associated with.  You could watch Orson Welles and Jimmy Stewart sing "Personality" with Dean Martin; marvel at the ultimate cross generational Christmas mash-up of Bing Crosby and David Bowie dueting on "The Little Drummer Boy"; gasp at eternally square Richard Nixon trying his hand at comedy on the televised height of Hippy-dom, Laugh-In.

Though now viewed as old-fashioned, by allowing the famous to escape their prescribed boxes and take part in the equivalent of modern-day mash-ups, these shows could also be seen as doing something new and inventive, all in the name of fun.  In Smoke and Mirrors, John Leonard wrote that "We've a more pretentious word today for such radical juxtapositions of the silly and sublime, random conjectures of blank incredulity and dreadful apprehension (nostalgia laced with contempt) an absurd snippet (Rise Stevens singing "Cement Mixer, Putty Putty"). Instead of novelty, we have post-modernism."

When the same approach is taken with literary genres like crime fiction, feathers can get ruffled. As John Leonard implies, mixing genres can be seen as a post-modernistic reshuffling of the deck.   I'd like to make the case that crossing genres was right there at the beginning, when 20th century American crime fiction was taking shape in the widely read and cheaply made pages of pulp magazines. After cajoling you with my cross-genre calculations, we'll talk with genre bending daredevil Earl Javorsky, author of the multi-faceted and endlessly riveting PI Charlie Miner series.

Fans of Quentin Tarantino's game-changing crime drama Pulp Fiction might be mislead into thinking that pulp fiction itself is synonymous with crime fiction.  Pulp magazines, and the novels they spawned,  weren't actually genre specific at all.  Pulp magazines were named for wood pulp, the inexpensive main component of their pages, and they were cheaper to buy than their highbrowed antecedents, the pricier "slicks." Popular from roughly 1900 until TV began rotting America's mind in earnest in the early '50s, the pulps dabbled in fantasy, sci-fi, horror, westerns, crime, and adventure. Populism ran rampant in the pulps, and literary merit took a backseat to entertainment, no matter how tawdry or fantastic. Want tales of a flying ace that fights zombies? Here's G-8 and His Battle Aces. How about a Los Angeles socialite who wears a backless dress and a domino mask to rob from criminals a la Robin Hood? Look no farther than Saucy Romantic Adventures for tales of the Domino Lady. There were few sacred cows, and popular elements would be plucked from different genres and scattered about, all in the name of commerce.

Using cheaper paper wasn't the only way pulps kept the cost down; they also paid writers less than what other markets offered. This allowed the pulps to catch some luminaries-to-be at the start of their literary trajectories.  Perhaps the first pulp superstar was Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose "Tarzan of the Apes," published in All Story in 1912, was a national phenomenon. It not only helped kick off Burroughs' influential career but was a fillip to all the pulps in general.  Many other notable fantasy authors took the pulp plunge, including Conan creator Robert E. Howard, and the brilliant sci-fi subversive Philip K. Dick.

Pulp also provided the means for many burgeoning crime authors to gate crash the zeitgeist. Though Dashiell Hammett first published in the much tonier Smart Set magazine, his Continental Op tales became an early staple of the uber pulp Black Mask starting in 1923.  The Continental Op was a detective for a Pinkerton-esque agency (Hammett himself had been a Pinkerton) , and he was the proverbial joker in the deck.   The Op was a master manipulator who cast a cold, calculating eye on his fellow man. The Big Sleep author Raymond Chandler, one of many hard-boiled authors who followed Hammett into the pulps, famously said that Hammett "wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before." David Goodis, whose Shoot the Piano Player became a New Wave masterpiece under Truffaut, prolifically contributed Western stories to the pulps as well as crime stories.

The pulps were like a cheap hotel, and with that many different genres checking in, there were bound to be some illicit hook-ups. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the so-called pulp adventure stories, and there were none more popular or cross-pollinated than The Shadow.  The Shadow character began life in 1930 as the eerie omnipotent narrator for the radio show Detective Story Hour,  which in turn was a product of Detective Story Magazine. Like Tarzan eighteen years earlier, The Shadow character grabbed America by the imagination and wouldn't let go. The Shadow Magazine began less than a year later. Popular novels, a radio show, and movies followed. Orson Welles, thirty years prior to joining Dean Martin's wobbly orbit, voiced an early version of The Shadow on the radio.

Author Walter B. Gibson was tasked with turning the sinister Shadow into a fleshed out character who could lead his own adventures. Since Gibson was writing for a detective pulp, The Shadow was placed in the world of crime, gangs, and murder. The Shadow operated like a detective, but also a vigilante. Many of his characteristics, like taking justice into his own hands and manipulating others like pawns, came directly from pulp characters like Hammett's Continental Op. Yet The Shadow was also a figure of horror who had the supernatural ability to cloud men's minds, though actual invisibility happened  only on the radio show.  Gibson said Bram Stoker's Dracula was an influence.  Sci-fi elements were also included when The Shadow would occasionally battle mad scientists and their inventions.  The influence of The Shadow can't be overstatedThe Shadow may also be unfortunately responsible for what I'll call "The Scooby-Doo Effect"; stories where the bad guys dress up as something spooky in order to scare away intruders, and would've gotten away with it if it wasn't for those meddling kids. The Shadow was a smorgasbord of genre elements, and so were the "hero pulps," such as Doc Savage, that it paved the way for.

Really, so much of what entertains us today began with pulp.  Bill Finger, who along with Bob Kane developed Batman, said "my first Batman story was a take-off of a Shadow story." Superman was inspired by Doc Savage. Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (aka Blade Runner) is sci-fi at its finest, but it's also a hard-boiled detective novel. Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter, the basest of Private Dicks. He's got a gun, a list, and police bureaucracy up the wazoo.  It's as if the other Burroughs (Beatnik William) used  his cutup technique, clipping at one story from Analog and another from Black Mask and pasting together this dystopic hybrid

Charlie Huston carries on the fine tradition of genre mixing in his thrilling Joe Pitt series. Starting with Already Dead in 2005, Huston's Pitt is a private detective working the mean streets of New York. Pitt is also a vampire who must negotiate his way among cops and dangerous vampire clans while solving cases. Huston has said he prefers to be called a pulp writer.

I'm fortunate to have author Earl Javorsky's take on mixing genres, among other topics, in my next installment.  His Charlie Miner books, Down Solo (2014) and Down to No Good (2017), are my latest hobby. Miner is an insurance fraud investigator who keeps getting killed, but that doesn't stop him from playing detective in his own deaths, or from helping Homicide Detective Dave Putnam with his cases.  Join Earl Javorsky and myself outside the box for part two.

Note: A technical issue isn't letting me respond to comments to my blog. This is a real bummer. Please continue to comment. I'll be reading what you have to say and yelling my appreciative responses at my computer screen until this glitch is resolved. Thank you and Happy New Year!

10 January 2017

I am Arturo Bandini

by Paul D. Marks

By Nail Babayev (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)],
 via Wikimedia Commons
Robert Towne, screenwriter of Chinatown and writer-director of Ask the Dust, has called Ask the Dust by John Fante the greatest novel ever written about Los Angeles.

“Fante was my God,” Charles Bukowski wrote in the introduction to a later edition of Ask the Dust.

***

This post is the tale of a young punk and John Fante, author of Ask the Dust, Dreams from Bunker Hill, Wait Until Spring, Bandini, and more. They never met, they never talked, they never corresponded (though sort of), but one was greatly influenced by the other.

Some time before Fante died the young punk discovered his work, especially his seminal work, Ask the Dust, about Arturo Bandini (Fante’s alter ego), a young writer struggling in Los Angeles in the 1930s. The young punk devoured everything of Fante’s he could get his hands on, and at that time not everything was in print as Fante hadn’t been rediscovered yet. The punk thought that Fante was speaking to him, writing about him. The punk related to Bandini’s struggles and aspirations.

Ask the Dust is Bandini’s story. Bandini was born to be a writer and he is more than excited when he sells his first short story. Fante, uh, Bandini, was a struggling writer living in the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles in the 1930s (see my piece on Sleuth Sayers from 12/2016 –  http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2016/12/remembering-los-angeles-bunker-hill-in.html  for more on Bunker Hill). Even then the once-impressive neighborhood, filled with grand Victorian mansions, was rundown. Many of the mansions had been turned into cheap rooming houses. Both Fante and Bandini lived in cheap hotels there, Fante in the Alta Vista, renamed the Alta Loma for Bandini:

The hotel was called the Alta Loma. It was built on a hillside in reverse, there on the crest of Bunker Hill, built against the decline of the hill, so that the main floor was on the level with the street but the tenth floor was downstairs ten levels. If you had room 862, you got in the elevator and went down eight floors, and if you wanted to go down in the truck room, you didn't go down but up to the attic, one floor above the main floor. – John Fante, Ask the Dust

Bandini (Fante) traveled the streets of downtown LA, from Pershing Square to the Grand Central Market, where he liked to look for girls. Bandini was elated when he finally sold his first short story, as was the punk when he sold his first paid piece – an article on John Lennon.


Screenwriter Towne decided he wanted to make a movie of the book. His dream finally came true in 2006, with mixed results. But one thing that the movie got right was the sets, at least in tone. Built on two “football” fields in South Africa, they recreated the look and feel of the hot and dusty Bunker Hill of the 1930s. Maybe every little thing isn’t in the exact place it should be, maybe every little detail isn’t exactly right, but the overall ambience and milieu is there and you feel like you’re there among the hoi polloi and the people just hustling to get by. And you feel that you could run into Bandini – or Fante – in a diner or the Columbia Buffet on Spring Street.



***

Fante and Bandini moved to Los Angeles from Colorado. The punk was born in LA. Fante lived in Bunker Hill, once the city’s most affluent neighborhood, but by the time Fante lived there it was what Raymond Chandler called “shabby town”. The punk never lived in Bunker Hill, but would see it often as a child on trips to downtown LA. And later as a young adult when the old Victorians were being torn down or put on dollies to move away, he and a friend explored several of the Victorians that hadn’t yet been moved. He still has the finial from a newel stairway post that he liberated from one of those old houses...and that he recently pulled out of storage.

And those images of the Bunker Hill that used to be linger still in the movie playing before the not-so-young-anymore punk’s eyes. A romantic vision of shabby gentility. Or maybe not so much gentility as seen in several noir movies that were filmed there in the 1940s and 50s, including Criss Cross, Kiss Me, Deadly and Cry Danger.

***

The young punk identified with Bandini and Fante. And even young punks who think they’re cool have idols and one of this young punk’s idols was John Fante. To that end, he decided to reach out to Fante.

As a young man, Fante had begun a correspondence with H.L. Mencken, journalist, scholar and co-founder of a magazine most of the readers here will know, Black Mask. The punk hoped to have a similar relationship with Fante. He sent Fante a long, 3 page single spaced typed letter. It was a fan letter, but also more than simply a fan letter, and the young punk hoped to begin a correspondence with Fante like Fante had had with Mencken.

The young punk had done a lot of things like that, writing to a lot of well-known people. Got letters back from some, phone calls from others (Cary Grant), and was even invited to Gene Kelly’s house. And from others nothing. As time went on, the punk started to lose hope that he would ever hear from Fante.

Even though Fante eventually had success in Hollywood, writing movies like Full of Life, Walk on the Wild Side and others, he never seemed like a happy man. He thought of himself as a well-paid Hollywood whore. And the punk knew that Fante was bitter and angry and in failing health. He never did hear back. He figured Fante was too sick or too angry or both.

On April 8, 2010, John Fante’s 101st birthday, Fante Square was dedicated in downtown L.A., near Bunker Hill. The area may have changed a lot, but the spirit of Fante and the old Bunker Hill is still there.

By eigene Aufnahme (Own work (Original text: eigene Aufnahme)) [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en), CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons


Fante died on May 8, 1983 and the not-so-young punk liked to think that maybe Fante read his letter or a family member read it to him before he died. And the punk kept writing, hoping to someday be able to say “I am Arturo Bandini.”

Books by Fante:

The Road to Los Angeles (1936, publ.1985)
Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1938)
Ask the Dust (1939)
Dago Red (1940), short story collection
Full of Life (1952)
Brave Burro (book, with Rudolph Borchert) (1970)
The Brotherhood of the Grape (1977)
Dreams from Bunker Hill (1982)
The Wine of Youth: Selected Stories (posthumously, 1985), Dago Red and short story collection
1933 Was a Bad Year (post., 1985; incomplete)
West of Rome (post., 1986), two novellas

Fante/Mencken: John Fante & H. L. Mencken: A Personal Correspondence, 1932–1950 (post., 1989), letters
John Fante: Selected Letters, 1932–1981 (post., 1991), letters
The Big Hunger: Stories, 1932–1959 (post., 2000), short story collection

###
And now for the usual BSP:

Coming on January 30th from Down & Out Books:
Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea 
A collection of 15 Private Eye stories from some of the best mystery and noir writers from across the country. Available for pre-order now on Amazon:


And I have a couple of appearances in January.

Santa Clarita: The Old Town Newhall Library
Saturday, January 14, 2017, from 10:00 AM-3:00 PM.
24500 Main St, Santa Clarita, CA  91321

Cerritos Library, where I’ll be moderating a panel:
Saturday, January 28 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
18025 Bloomfield Avenue, Cerritos, CA  90703


16 April 2014

Gardner had it covered

by Robert Lopresti

Topic for the day: Cover letters.  Do you use them when you send a short story to a magazine?  Most magazines say they're optional.

Personally I only use one if I have something specific to say about a story.  Only when--

Oh, skip it.  You are welcome to write about cover letters in the comments if you want, but that was just an excuse to tell you this story. Let's get to the point, because getting to the point is  exactly the point of what I am about to tell you.

I have been reading Dorothy B. Hughes' biography Earl Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Real Perry Mason.  It seems that early in Gardner's career, when he was turning out stories and novelettes like a printing press on steroids, his best market was Black Mask, and he started getting too many rejections from them.

Obviously this called for the attorney to use his best diplomatic skills and eloquence to persuade the editors that he was an author they wanted to work with.  So he wrote the following cover letter, which I quote in its entirety:

'Three O'Clock in the Morning' is a damned good story.  If you have any comments on it, write them on the back of a check.

Editor Harry North not only bought the story, he printed the cover letter in front of it.  And bought a lot more of Gardner's work after that.

Which shows you what you can do, if you're a future MWA Grand Master.  For the rest of us, your mileage may vary.