Showing posts with label Dashiell Hammett. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dashiell Hammett. Show all posts

05 October 2015

Good Books and Old Movies, Part I


by Susan Rogers Cooper

I've been honored over the past few years to be asked to teach classes at Austin's Lifetime Learning Institute. This is a wonderful organization for people 55+ to take classes in just about anything and for a very nominal fee. I've taught classes on writing the mystery a couple of times, which is always fun – especially when I'm able to dazzle my students with guest speakers like Jan Grape and Joan Hess.

This semester I'm teaching a class called: “The Mystery: From Novel to Film.” We read the book, we watch the movie. And we compare and contrast. Our first book was John Buchan's “The Thirty-Nine Steps,” and, of course, we watched the Hitchcock movie version. There were a lot of differences, the main being that in the book there were no women – in the movie there were plenty. I preferred the movie myself. As did a lot of the class.

Our second movie was the William Powell and Myrna Loy version of Dashiel Hammett's “The Thin Man.” After rereading the book, I noted that the alcohol consumption was even higher in the book than in the movie, and those people could drink!

Tomorrow we watch the 1974 version of Dame Agatha's “Murder on the Orient Express,” with Albert Finney as Hercule. I'm rereading the book now and have come full circle in my appreciation of Christie's talent. She was amazing. Even knowing the ending, I'm still fascinated with how she got there.

It's going to take two classes to watch all of that very long movie, but the next, and last, movie will star two of my favorite actors in the film version of a book by one of my favorite writers: the Bogart and Bacall version of Raymond Chandler's “The Big Sleep.”

Teaching this class has given me a chance to reread some classic mysteries and re-watch some wonderful old movies. I'm already thinking about next semester and what new treasures I can share.

Any suggestions?

13 August 2015

No Sex, Please, We're Skittish


by Eve Fisher

"If you mention sex at an AA meeting, even the non-smokers light up."
--Father Tom, "Learning to Live With Crazy People"
Agatha Christie.png
Agatha Christie

And so do a lot of mystery writers and readers.  There are those who write and/or love cozies, and want everything as asexual as they think Agatha Christie was.  Except, of course, that if you actually read your Agatha Christie, there's a lot of hot stuff going on:  In AT BERTRAM'S HOTEL, Ladislaw Malinowski is sleeping with both Elvira Blake and her mother Bess Sedgwick, and that fact alone is one of the major drivers of the plot.  In SAD CYPRESS, Roddy Welman's sudden, overwhelming attraction to Mary Gerrard makes everything homicidal possible.  And, in at least three novels, a man's lust for one woman, combined with his lust for money, makes it possible for him to marry and murder a rich wife.

Then there's the noir crowd:  


“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”
― Raymond Chandler, FAREWELL, MY LOVELY
“I loved her like a rabbit loves a rattlesnake.”
― James M. Cain, DOUBLE INDEMNITY
Brigid O'Shaughnessy: “I haven't lived a good life. I've been bad, worse than you could know.”
Sam Spade: “You know, that's good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we'd never get anywhere.”
― Dashiell Hammett, THE MALTESE FALCON

In noir, EVERYTHING is about sex.  That and greed.  But mostly sex, and often violent sex. (Prime examples are probably the "rip me" scene of James M. Cain's THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE - and Mickey Spillane's VENGEANCE IS MINE, in which - and I think it's the first chapter - he beats a woman before having his way with her and she loves it all.)  The noir guys all moon over the virgins (Walter Huff over his victim's daughter; Mike Hammer over Velda), but the women who obsess them are anything but. And so of course they hurt them, twist them, torture them, betray them, all of the above.  Truth is, after a long day in noir-land, you want to yell at them, "Try somewhere else besides a bar to meet women!   Buy the girl some flowers!  Try to stay sober for ten minutes!" but it's all a waste of breath.  (Except, apparently, to Nick Charles who got a clue and a rich wife.)

And spies...

The upper center of the poster reads "Meet James Bond, secret agent 007. His new incredible women ... His new incredible enemies ... His new incredible adventures ..." To the right is Bond holding a gun, to the left a montage of women, fights and an explosion. On the bottom of the poster are the credits.

Spy stories, of course, depend on global locales, tech wizardry, constant weapons, supervillains, and a high body count for both sex and death.   Women, women, women, of all ethnicities, although Russian spies are a perennial favorite.  (Is it the accent, or the idea of nudity and fur?)  I just read a novel in which the male American spy and the female Russian spy were mutually obsessed, madly, madly in love/lust/etc., to the point where I really thought that the cover should be of her holding him against her exceptionally large chest, hair flowing like a female Fabio...  Anyway, sex drives these plots as well, no matter what the spy or the supervillain think, because - besides providing objects of rescue, thus securing another reason for the ensuing sex - 90% of the time at least one of those women is going to save the male spy from certain death. The game is to figure out which one by, say, page five.  

Horror.  Sex = death.  The survivor's a virgin.  What more can I say?  



So, to all of those who say that mysteries are all about cerebral detection, and that there isn't much place for sex in them - WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?  

As Oscar Wilde once said, “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”  

You could look it up...





26 February 2015

Homage


by Eve Fisher

DaVinci
the original
Mona Lisa
What's the difference between an "homage" and a shortage of ideas?  Talent.   Or gall, you take your pick.  For example, Mona Lisa, the most famous painting in the world, has been done a few different ways:
Marcel Duchamp's
L.H.O.O.Q      
The Mona Gorilla
Rick Meyerowitz's
National Lampoon
illustration
"Mona Gorilla"
The other night, my husband and I were watching Wim Wenders' Hammett. And I first want to give a quick shout out to Elisha Cook, Jr., who played Wilmer in the original Maltese Falcon and the taxi-cab driver in Hammett.  And, favorite movie quote:
"What's your town like, anyway?  Free and easy?"
"Yeah.  More so than most."
"Who runs things?"
"Same people who run things everywhere.  The cops, the crooks, and the big rich."
(Indeed, once you grasp that, everything makes sense.)  

The next night, they were showing Neil Simon's The Cheap Detective on TCM, which is one of my favorite movie homages/parodies of all time.  Favorite movie quote:
"Oh, no, no. No, it's, uh, my mistake here, uh. For a second here I thought that this young lady was a girl that I knew in France; I was wrong; the girl I know is dead."
"Oh, a natural error, monsieur. My wife has been mistaken for dead girls by many men."
(There's a tag line ANY noir femme fatale would be proud to have - heads up, Velma!)

Now these are two of the many variations that have been done on Dashiell Hammett/Humphrey Bogart/Sam Spade.  (Yes, I know that Hammett wasn't Bogart wasn't Spade, but on the other hand, in the mash-up that is the cultural mind, they are, and we all know it.)  With these two movies, what you get is the German Expressionist v. New York neurotic view of the H/B/S world.  One is all camera angles and moody lighting, and a constant barrage of quotes from Hammett novels.  (I would have played the drinking game every time I recognized one, but I would have passed out long before the end of the movie.) The other is a barrage of jokes, based on twisted quotes and scenes from Bogart movies and Hammett novels.  They're both good.  They're both worth seeing.

I love homages.  The instant list of my homage favorites:

   
Horror was never the same again.  Favorite quote:
     Dr. F: "You know, I'm a rather brilliant surgeon. Perhaps I can help you with that hump."
     Igor (played by the late, great Marty Feldman):   "What hump?"


The answer to every other "normal" sports movie.
Favorite quote:  "I believe in the Church of Baseball. I've tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I've worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I heard that, I gave Jesus a chance."


So good it practically counts as a Cliff Notes of Russian literature and Ingmar Bergman.  I have the whole movie pretty much memorized.  One of my favorite scenes:
       Music teacher:  So who is to say what is moral?
       Sonja (played by Diane Keaton):  Morality is subjective.
       Music teacher:  Subjectivity is objective.
       Sonja:  Moral notions imply attributes to substances which exist only in relational duality.
       Music teacher: Not as an essential extension of ontological existence.
       Sonja: Can we not talk about sex so much?


Where the West bites the dust.
Hands down best line (written by Richard Pryor):  "Mongo only pawn in game of life."

And then there's almost anything by the 5th Baron Haden-Guest:

   

And there's a whole RAFT of movies that are about nothing but making movies in Hollywood:

  

By the way, am I the only one who's noticed that every generation, there's a new version of "A Star is Born"?  Do we really need that?  Even when its B&W and silent?

A Star Is Born 1937 poster.jpg A Star Is Born.jpg AStarisBorn1976.jpg The-Artist-poster.png

And, in the world of mysteries, besides Hammett and The Cheap Detective:

My favorite Clouseau,
for the nudist camp scene alone
Murder by death movie poster.jpg                        

So, what's your list?

24 February 2015

Adventures in La La Land


Introducing Paul D. Marks:

Today I have the honor of introducing our newest SleuthSayer.  Usually when there is an opening Leigh and I join forces to come up with suitable candidates.  This time it so happened we each came up with the same name: Paul D. Marks.  And to our delight, he said yes.

I had met him in November when we served on a panel on Bouchercon.  He was funny, thoughtful, generous, and he cleans up nice.

So, who is this dude?  Only a Shamus-Award winner for the novel White Heat, which received praise from Publisher's Weekly and made some best of the year lists.  It was set in southern California, as is, not surprisingly, Paul D. Marks.

Paul has had more than thirty stories published, including "Howling at the Moon," in EQMM last year.  He has been published and praised in literary journals as well.  You can find several of his stories in his collection  L.A. Late @ Night.

According to Steven Bingen, author of MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot, Paul also has the distinction, dubious though it might be, of having been the last person to shoot on the fabled MGM backlot before it bit the dust to make way for housing.

You can read more about him at PaulDMarks.com  Or right here every other Tuesday.  Over to you, Paul!

Rob
***
Adventures in La La Land

by Paul D. Marks

Thank you, Rob, for the great intro. And thanks for saying I “clean up nice.” My mom would be glad to hear that.

Before I get into my first post for Sleuth Sayers, I’d like to thank Velma Negotiable , oh, and Rob Lopresti and Leigh Lundin and the other Sleuth Sayers, for asking me to come aboard.

Since this is my first post, I thought I’d write about two things I know pretty well, Los Angeles and me. Sort of an introduction to my writing and me, my influences, especially my inspiration for setting. And since it is an intro it might be a little longer than a normal post...

I’m old enough to have grown up in Los Angeles when both Raymond Chandler’s L.A. and Chandler himself were still around. When I was a kid L.A. still resembled the city of Chandler's "mean streets," Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer and Cain's Double Indemnity. In fact, I grew up in a Spanish-style house very much like the one that Barbara Stanwyck lives in in the movie version of Double Indemnity.

L.A. was a film noir town for a film noir kid. And that certainly had an influence on me and my writing. And a lot of my writing involves L.A., not just as a location but almost as a character in its own right. Of course, we’re all influenced by our childhoods, where we grew up and the people we knew. And those things, whether conscious or unconscious, tend to bubble to the surface in our writing like the black pitch bubbling up from the La Brea tar pits.

* * *

Two things that Los Angeles means to me are movies and noir, oh, and palm trees, of course. Movie studios and backlots were everywhere in this city. You couldn’t help but see the studios, feel their presence and be influenced by “the movies” one way or another. Many of the studios and backlots are gone now, but almost everywhere you go in this city is a movie memory and often a noir memory. L.A. is Hollywood’s backlot and many films, including many noirs, were filmed throughout the city.

As a kid, a teenager and even a young adult, I experienced many of the places I read about in books and saw in the movies, once the movies got out of the backlot and onto those mean L.A. streets. Not as a tourist, but as part of my “backyard.”

So Los Angeles has insinuated itself into my writing. Here’s some examples of how it might have gotten there and how it reflects my view of the ironically named City of Angels.

Angels Flight
photo credit: Angels Flight via photopin (license)
Angels Flight is a funicular railway in downtown Los Angeles. Star of many films and many noirs, including Kiss Me, Deadly, Criss Cross and others. Chandler visits it in The High Window and The King in Yellow. As a young boy, my dad took me to the original Angels Flight (now moved down the road and since closed). And though I may not have known about noir films and hardboiled novels then, it was an experience I’ve always remembered. Such a cool little pair of trains going up and down that hill, the tracks splitting in the middle just as each car approaches the other and you think they’re going to smash into each other head on. Angels Flight slams back to me in memory every now and then and makes its way into my writing, most notably in the eponymous story Angels Flight, which I must say came out before Michael Connelly’s novel of the same name.

That story, about a cop whose time has come and gone, is still pretty relevant today. The world is changing and he’s having one hell of a time catching up, if he even wants to. He’s a dinosaur. And he knows that Angels Flight is an anachronism, just like he is. He says to the other main character:
  October_2,_1960_LOWER_STATION_-_NORTHEAST_ELEVATION_-_-Angels_Flight-,_Third_and_Hill_Streets,_Los_Angeles,_Los_Angeles_County,_CA_HABS_CAL,19-LOSAN,13-1
“Will Angels Flight bring back the glamour of the old days? Hollywood’s lost its tinsel. Venice’s lost its pier. And there are no angels in the City of Angels. What can Angels Flight do to bring that back?”

“Sometimes you need something for the soul,” the other person says.

I think that sums up a lot of my attitude not only toward Angels Flight but to the City of Angels as well. 

In Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust, Tod Hackett comes to L.A. thinking he’s an artist. And like so many others he gets trampled by that dream. Not much has changed all these decades later in my story Endless Vacation, when a young woman comes to Hollywood with big dreams and a bigger heroin habit. The narrator tries to help but he also knows:

Who the hell am I to talk? I came to L.A. looking for a Hollywood that died before I was born. A glamorous town of movie stars and studios and backlots. A studio system that nurtured talent, whatever you say about how it also might have stifled it with the other hand. A town that made movies in black and white but whose streets were, indeed, paved with gold. Yeah, I bought it – hook, line and clapboard.

Luis Valdez examines the Zoot Suit Riots that took place in L.A. during World War II in his play Zoot Suit. I remember my grandfather, who lived through that time, talking about “pachucos” when I was a kid. In my story Sleepy Lagoon Nocturne, set during the war, I take a stab at dealing with the racial tension of that era.

Hot jazz—swing music—boogied, bopped and jived. And Bobby Saxon was one of those who made it happen. Bobby banged the eighty-eights with the Booker “Boom-Boom” Taylor Orchestra in the Club Alabam down on Central Avenue. It was the heppest place for whites to come slumming and mix with the coloreds. That’s just the way it was in those days, Los Angeles in the 1940s during the war.

Venice Beach and boardwalk is the number one tourist destination in Los Angeles.Venice-CA-Canal-1921 People think it’s cool and flock to see the “freaks,” and maybe the nearby Venice Canals. Developer Abbott Kinney wanted to recreate Italy’s Venice in L.A., and he did, to some extent. But it didn’t quite work out. Many of the canals were drained and filled in, though some remain. They can be seen in several movies, too numerous to name. And, because they were another place I’d done time at, they pop up in my short story Santa Claus Blues, which opens with a bunch of kids playing along the canals and coming across a dead Santa floating in one of them.

Staring at the canal, Bobby thought about Abbott Kinney's dream for a high culture theme park, with concerts, theatre and lectures on various subjects. Kinney even imported Italian gondoliers to sing to visitors as they were propelled along the canals. When no one seemed to care about the highbrow culture he offered he switched gears and turned Venice into a popular amusement area. And finally the people came.

My grandparents always referred to MacArthur Park, on Wilshire Boulevard on the way to downtown, as Westlake Park, its original name. It was renamed for General Douglas MacArthur after World War II. But for my grandparents it was always Westlake. When I was a kid it was the place they took me to have a picnic and rent a boat and paddle around the lake. A nice outing. In the movies it’s the scene of a murder in one of my favorite obscure noirs, Too Late for Tears. By the time of my novel White Heat, set during the 1992 “Rodney King” riots, the nature of the park had changed from when I was a kid:

MacArthur Park is midway between Hancock Park, not a park, but an upper class neighborhood, and downtown L.A., a neighborhood in search of an identity. When I was a boy, my grandparents used to take me to the park. We’d rent rowboats and paddle through the lake, tossing bread crumbs to the birds. The park is a different place today. You can still rent paddle boats – if you want to paddle across the lake while talking to your dealer. Sometimes on Saturdays or Sundays immigrant families still try to use it as a park. Most of the time, it’s a haven for pushers, crack addicts, hookers and worse. Even the police don’t like treading there. If they were scared, who was I to play Rambo?

Even if someone’s never been to Los Angeles, most people know Sunset Boulevard and the Sunset Strip. Sunset begins or ends, depending on how you look at it, at Pacific Coast Highway on the west and continues to Union Station in downtown L.A., though recently the last part of the jog has been renamed. It goes from wealthy homes in Santa Monica and the West Side, into Beverly Hills, through the Strip in West Hollywood, where hippies back in the day and hipsters today hang out. Into Hollywood and on to downtown. It’s a microcosm of Los Angeles. Of course, both Union Station and Sunset have made multiple appearances in movies and novels and have made several appearances in my writing. Sunset was a major artery in my life as well as in the city. One time I walked almost the entire length of Sunset on a weekend day with my dad, ending up at Union Station. Later, I hung on the Strip. I drove it to the beach. I slammed through the road’s Dead Man’s Curve, made famous in the Jan and Dean song. Sunset appears in my stories Born Under a Bad Sign, Dead Man’s Curve, L.A. Late @ Night and more. In the latter, Sunset is as much of a character in the story as any of the human characters.

She'd only noticed the mansion. Not long after that, her parents had taken her to the beach. They had driven Sunset all the way from Chavez Ravine to the ocean. She had seen houses like the one in the movie. Houses she vowed she'd live in some day.

What she hadn't realized at the time was that there was a price to pay to be able to live in such a house. Sometimes that price was hanging from a tag that everyone can see. Sometimes it was hidden inside.

And who doesn’t know the famous—or infamous—Hollywood Sign? Something I sawHollywood_Sign almost every day as a kid, and which a friend of mine and I hiked up to many, many years ago, before it was all fenced in and touristy. In Free Fall, originally published in Gary Lovisi’s Hardboiled magazine, a man recently separated from the service, heads west, as far west as he can go until he comes to the terminus of Route 66 in Santa Monica, near the Santa Monica Pier. This is the end of the road for him in more ways than one.

I kept looking at the Hollywood Sign, wondering about all the people down below, pretending to be in its glow. Where do they go after L.A.? There is nowhere, the land ends and they just tumble into the arroyos and ravines, never to be heard from again.

So this is a sampling of my writing and my relationship to L.A., La La Land, the City of the Angels, the Big Orange. Could I have written about these places without experiencing them? Sure. We can’t experience everything we write about. But hopefully it has made my writing more authentic.
Maybe there are other cities less well traveled that would be ripe for exploration in movies and books. Maybe L.A. is overworked and overdone. But Los Angeles is part of me. Part of who I am. So it’s not only a recurring locale in my writing, it’s a recurring theme. And I’ve only just touched the surface here of Los Angeles, the city, its various landmarks and neighborhoods and my relationship to it.

So that’s part of what shaped me and makes me who I am. And some of my L.A. story. You can take the boy out of L.A., but you can’t take L.A. out of the boy. Oh, and here’s an L.A. story for you (a true one): I’m one of the few people who pulled a gun on the LAPD and lived to tell about. But that’s for another time.

28 August 2014

Jalepeno Culture


by Eve Fisher

So I was watching the morning news and there was a commercial where two guys walk into a fast food joint and see the sign for a Double Jalepeno burger.  With, of course, lots of cheese.  And they smile at each other, order one each, and life is bliss.  My husband, who has an Irish stomach, winced.  Myself, I was thinking, that's American cuisine today:  you want flavor with that?  Here's some cheese and hot peppers. What more do you want?

Not the burger, but
I don't want to get sued.
That's what we're known for.  Cheese and hot peppers.  Slathered all over everything.  The cheese runs thick on the tongue, smothering most of the taste buds.  The hot peppers add shock value.  Cheap, filling, and one hell of a lot less trouble than actually, say, making a mole sauce, or a bechamel.  Although nowadays what you'll be given for bechamel sauce is generally Alfredo sauce, thick and pasty with flour and, you guessed it, cheese.  In other words, tarting it up with cheese and hot peppers is easier than getting involved in the time-consuming artistic complexity of producing flavor.

It's the same in entertainment.  Sex and violence.  If things get slow, throw in a naked woman.  Or an explosion.  Or a riff of automatic weapons.  (Speaking of which, I'm sure you heard about the 9-year-old girl at a shooting range outside Las Vegas who accidentally killed the instructor with the Uzi he was showing her how to use.  9 year olds and Uzis, what could possibly go wrong? We don't even let 9 year olds drive, even here in South Dakota, where 14 years old get learner's permits, so what the hell was he thinking... Okay, enough rant on that...)

Back to sex and violence.  Much safer.  Now I understand that sex and violence are what titillates the masses, including you and me, but sometimes I want something more:  plot; wit; character; nuance. By the way, I watched an interesting review of "Outlander", the new series based on the Diana Gabaldon time-traveling fantasy series, in which the sole woman on the panel pointed out that, while this show was obviously being marketed to heterosexual women (hot men in kilts and all that), when it came down to it, there were a heck of a lot of naked women in it and no naked men. Now what's that about?  Couldn't it even occur to the producers (6 out of 8 male) that (most) women prefer naked men?  

Okay, back to character.  I've been binge-watching Michael Gambon's 1990's Maigret, and enjoying it heartily.  (I love reading Maigret, too - it's one of the main reasons and ways that I've learned to read French.) And I noticed something that hadn't really struck me before:  Jules Maigret is normal.  He's a good, decent, bourgeois man who drinks/eats/smokes a little more than he should but not too much, who loves his wife, and who really likes his co-workers (except for the examining magistrates).  He likes people generally, including most of the petty criminals he deals with.  And yet he's absolutely real, grounded in details and mannerisms and nuances that are very subtle.  In other words, he's an old-fashioned hero.  It's very refreshing.

But I think too many "heroes" have been run through our jalepeno culture.  I've seen too damned many lead characters who are damaged addicts (alcohol/drugs/gambling/sex), and/or whose significant other was brutally murdered by a mysterious serial killer, and/or who are promiscuous to hide their longing for love or their lack of ability to love, and/or who has significant PTSD and/or traumatic childhood experiences and/or mental illness and/or OCD/bi-polar/etc., and almost ALL of them are obnoxious to everyone around them (and yet are mysteriously loved despite of it)...  Folks, that isn't character, that's a laundry list.  What started out as an exception - with the ability to shock, startle, amaze, entertain - has become the norm, which means... well, cheese and jalapenos on everything.

Hollywood meth-makers
Real meth-maker
And it's often taken to the point where there's no one to root for. Everyone is lousy, including their kids.  Everyone is crooked. Everyone will do anything, anywhere, any time to get ahead.  Nobody even tries to be pleasant, much less good. And don't even get me started on "Breaking Bad":  I do not, repeat, DO NOT watch shows or read books where serial killers and/or drug manufacturer killers are the heroes. I'm an old-fashioned girl at heart.  Besides, the villains are even more alike than the defective detectives: always brilliant, always brutal, always cold, always with superhuman timing, and the only difference is how they do it and whether or not they eat their kill.  Boring...

At the same time, I can enjoy a good noir with the rest of them, and God knows in Dashiell Hammett's and Raymond Chandler's world, everyone is crooked as they come, and that's fine with me.  Because Spade and Marlowe longed for heroism and decency, like thirsty men for water, and tried to be knights errant, even if their armor was more tarnished than shining.  That's what I want in my hero, at the very minimum.  I want them to recognize honor when they see it, like Silver-Wig in "The Big Sleep", and to be able - at least some times - to resist treachery and temptation, like Brigid O'Shaughnessy in "The Maltese Falcon."  I want them to know the difference between good and evil, in the world and in themselves.  I want them to care about the difference between good and evil, in the world and in themselves.  I want them to want to be a hero, even when they fail.

Maigret.  D. C. Foyle.  Miss Marple. Guido Brunetti.  Nancy Drew. Columbo.  V. I. Warshawski. Archie Goodwin.  Perry Mason.  Endeavour Morse.  And many others, rich in variety, style, wit, character... Excuse me, I have some more reading to do.  And tonight - another Maigret!

14 February 2014

Dash and Lily


by R.T. Lawton

Valentine's Day is a time for love and lovers. Throughout the centuries, several well-known couples have been written into the pages of history for being famous lovers. As their stories came down to us in books, plays, movies and word of mouth, their romance became the stuff of legends. Who hasn't heard of the love between Anthony and Cleopatra from over two thousand years ago? And, probably only the young among us are the ones not aware of the on-and-off tempestuous entanglements of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. during the mid-1950's and later. (Coincidentally, they played the parts of Anthony and Cleopatra in a movie.) No doubt, you the reader, have several other candidates you could put forth as romantic legends.

But, since this is a crime writing, mystery site, perhaps our candidate should be one of our own, a famous mystery author. Who better than hard-nosed detective writer Samuel Dashiell Hammett with his decades long attachment to Lillian Hellman. Theirs was a romance stimulated by their love of writing, him as a novelist and short story author, and her as a playwright. Of course when one delves deeper, it appears their leftist-leaning activities may have also played a part in their mutual attraction.

Born in 1894, Dashiell left school at the age of thirteen. He held several jobs before going to work for the Pinkerton Detective Agency in 1915 until 1922, taking time off to serve in the Ambulance Corp during the First World War. Spanish Flu and tuberculosis soon laid him up in the hospital. Afterwards, back at the Agency, Dashiell became disillusioned with his role as a Pinkerton operative in strike-breaking activities. He quit and went to writing.

That same year saw him published for the first time. He quickly became known for his authenticity and realism, attributing this to his background as a Pinkerton detective. "All my characters are based on people I've known personally, or known about." From 1928 through 1934, he wrote Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key and The Thin Man.

Lilian Florence Hellman, about eleven years younger than Dashiell, was working as a reader for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer when she met Dashiell in a restaurant in Hollywood. Something sparked between them. A year or so later, she divorced her husband in favor of Dashiell. For the next thirty years, it was an on-and-off love affair until his death.

Being a strong ant-fascist, Dashiell joined the American Communist Party in 1937 and tried to keep America out of the coming war, but when Germany invaded Russia, he changed his political position, enlisting in the U.S. Army shortly after Pearl Harbor. Once again, illness struck him, this time with emphysema. Out of the army, he returned to his leftist political activities, but with less fervor.

Lily, who had once flirted with the Nazi Party in Germany before her religion became an obstacle, traveled to Spain in 1937 to lend her support to the International Brigades on the anti-Franco side of the Spanish Civil War. By 1943, she was considered to be an active communist and her passport application for travel to England was denied. Her past soon followed her back to Hollywood where she refused to sign a loyalty clause on a multi-year contract. The clause would have prohibited her from associating with radicals and subversives, to include Dashiell. Shortly thereafter, she was blacklisted.

Called into federal court about the activities of the Civil Rights Congress, an alleged communist front, Dashiell invoked the Fifth Amendment and served time in a West Virginia federal penitentiary for contempt of court. Both lovers were subsequently called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Dashiell got blacklisted for refusing to cooperate, while Lily would only talk about her own activities, not those of others.

In later life, Dashiell lost his desire to write. His illness took everything from him, except for Lily. She spent his last four years by his side caring for him. During that period, she wrote, "Not all that time was easy, and some of it was very bad. Guessing death was not too far away, I would try for something to have afterwards."

Dashiell Hammett died of lung cancer in a New York City hospital on January 10, 1961. Being a veteran of two World Wars, he was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.

Many great romances end in tragedy, which makes them all the more emotional in the remembering. As people do, Dash and Lily chose their own path in life and paid the price for going there. But, in the end, they stuck it through together until death did them part. What more could one ask of a lover.

02 October 2013

Trouble with Girls, Crows, and Hurricanes


by Robert Lopresti

I am happy to announce that I have a story in the first issue of Malfeasance Occasional, a new ebook series from the folks at Criminal Element.  The idea is that each issue will have a theme and this issue is "Girl Trouble."  It is available now.  Follow the links and get your hands, uh, hard drive, on it.

Oh, I should mention that I learned about this opportunity through Sandra Seaman's webpage My Little Corner, which is indispensable to anyone who wants to publish short genre fiction.  I have already told her I owe her a coffee.

Having said all that, I don't know whether this will really turn out to be a series or a one-off.  When they announced it in August 2012 they intended to move at a breakneck pace, with the first issue appearing in December of that year.   Obviously with one thing and another (one big thing being Hurricane Sandy, which blew through their offices like a, well, superstorm) the deadline has slipped a tad.  I suppose M.O. will turn out to be a series if the first book sells enough.  So. follow the links and get your-- did I already say that?

I know I haven't talked about my contribution, so let's go there.  "Crow's Lesson" is my first story in many years about Marty Crow, a private eye in New Jersey.  Marty was my first series character, and he was a reaction to my native state's decision to allow casinos in Atlantic City.  I'm not a huge fan of them.  (One of the reasons Jerry Izenberg was my favorite sports columnist in the Garden State was that he kept hammering on how much the state received on gambling (millions) and how much they spent on people with gambling addictions (zero).)

So I invented Marty Crow, a native of A.C. and a private eye.  He is a pretty sharp guy with one huge blind spot: he refuses to admit that he has a gambling problem.  And that winds up twisting things up for him as surely as if he insisted on walking with a fake limp.

Marty's first three appearances were in P.I. Magazine, which is still around, but stopped publishing fiction decades ago.  (S.J. Rozan's Bill Smith made his first showing in one of the same issues, oddly enough).  Since then Marty has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and anthologies. One of those tales earned me my only Anthony Award nomination. 

And you can even hear (for free) dramatic performances of two Crow stories, thanks to the Midnight Mystery Players, who carry on the great old tradition of radio drama. 

This particular story was inspired by a story I read in the New York Times many moons ago.  Some boards of education were so concerned about the possibility of children from other districts sneaking in to use their (presumably better) schools, that they hired private eyes to trail kids back to their homes.

Hmm, I thought.  Sounds like a case for Marty Crow.  As it happens, the young lady he follows leads him into a very bad situation.  (The other inspiration for the story was Dashiell Hammett's classic Continental Op story, "The House In Turk Street."  For some of you, that's a big hint as to what happens to Marty.)

So let me wish the best to my fellow M.O. authors (Brendan DuBois, Eric Cline,  Hilary Davidson, Chuck Wendig, Patricia Abbott, Jeff Soloway, Charles Drees, Sam Wiebe, Cathi Stoler,  Milo James Fowler, Caroline J. Orvis, Ken Leonard, Travis Richardson), and to all  those who choose to get in trouble with us.

21 March 2013

Setting as Character


by Brian Thornton

Setting. Everyone knows about it. Few people actively think about it.

And that's a shame, because for writers, your setting is like a pair of shoes: if it's good, it's a sound foundation for your journey. If it's not, it'll give you and your readers pains that no orthotics will remedy.

Nowhere is this more true than with crime fiction. In fact strong descriptions of settings is such a deeply embedded trope of the genre that it's frequently overdone, used in parodies both intentional and unintentional as often as fedoras and trenchcoats.

Used correctly a proper setting can transcend even this role–can become a character in its own right, and can help drive your story, making your fiction evocative, engaging, and (most importantly for your readers) compelling.

Think for a moment about your favorite crime fiction writers. No matter who they are, odds are good that one of the reasons, perhaps one you've not considered before, is their compelling settings.

Just a few contemporary ones that come to mind for me: the Los Angeles of Michael Connelly and Robert Crais. The Chicago of  Sara Paretsky, Sean Chercover and Marcus Sakey. Boston seen through the eyes of Robert B. Parker. Ken Bruen's Ireland. Al Guthrie's Scotland. Carl Hiassen's Miami. Bill Cameron's Portland.

And of course there are the long gone settings highlighted in the gems of the old masters. These and others read like lexical snapshots from the past.Who can forget passages like:

The city wasn't pretty. Most of its builders had gone in for gaudiness. Maybe they had been successful at first. Since then the smelters whose brick stacks stuck up tall against a gloomy mountain to the south had yellow-smoked everything into uniform dinginess. The result was an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was a grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of the smelters' stacks.
—Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest

Or this one from Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely:

1644 West 54th Place was a dried-out brown house with a dried-out brown lawn in front of it. There was a large bare patch around a tough-looking palm tree. On the porch stood one lonely wooden rocker, and the afternoon breeze made the unpruned shoots of last year's poisettias tap-tap against the cracked stucco wall. A line of stiff yellowish half-washed clothes jittered on a rusty wire in the side yard.

And no one did it better than Ross Macdonald:

The city of Santa Teresa is built on a slope which begins at the edge of the sea and rises more and more steeply toward the coastal mountains in a series of ascending ridges. Padre Ridge is the first and lowest of these, and the only one inside the city limits.

It was fairly expensive territory, an established neighborhood of well-maintained older houses, many of them with brilliant hanging gardens. The grounds of 1427 were the only ones in the block that looked unkempt. The privet hedge needed clipping. Crabgrass was running rampant in the steep lawn.

Even the house, pink stucco under red tile, had a disused air about it. The drapes were drawn across the front windows. The only sign of life was a house wren which contested my approach to the veranda.
— Ross Macdonald, Black Money

In each of the passages excerpted above the author has used a description of the setting as a tip-off to the reader as to what manner of characters would inhabit such places. Even hints at what lies ahead for both protagonist and reader.

With Hammett it's the stink of the corruption that always follows on the heels of a rich mineral strike. With Chandler, it's a life worn-out by too much living. And with Macdonald, it's a world and its inhabitants as out of sorts as those hedges that need clipping.

Brilliant thumbnail sketches each. If you haven't read them, you owe it to yourself to do so. And each of them was giving the reader a glimpse of a world they had experienced first-hand, if not a contemporary view, then at least one they could dredge up and flesh out from memory.

With the stuff I write it's not that simple.

In his kind note introducing me to the readers of this blog, our man Lopresti mentioned that when it comes to fiction, my particular bailiwick is historical mystery. In my time mining this particular vein of fiction I've experienced first-hand the challenge of delivering to readers strong settings for stories set in a past well before my time.

How to accomplish this?

It's tricky. Here's what I do.

I try to combine exhaustive research with my own experiences and leaven it all with a hefty dose of the writer's greatest tool: imagination.

"Counting Coup," the first historical mystery story I ever wrote, is about a group of people trapped in a remote southwest Montana railway station by hostile Cheyenne warriors during the Cheyenne Uprising of 1873. I used the three-part formula laid out above.
  1. While pursuing my Master's in history, I'd done a ton of research on the western railroads, their expansion, and its impact on Native American tribes in the region, including the Cheyenne.
  2. I've visited southwestern Montana many times, and the country is largely unchanged, so I had a good visual image to work from.
  3. Imagination!
An example of the end result:

Wash and Chance made it over the rise and and into the valley of the Gallatin just ahead of that storm. It had taken three days of hard riding to get to the railhead, and the horses were all but played out.

The entire last day finished setting their nerves on edge. What with the smoke signals and the tracks of all the unshod ponies they'd seen, there was enough sign to make a body think he was riding right through the heart of the Cheyenne Nation.

Stretching away to north and south below them lay the broad flood plain of the Gallatin. The river itself meandered along the valley floor, with the more slender, silver ribbon of rail line mirroring it, running off forever in either direction. The reds of the tamarack and the golds of the aspen and the greens of the fir created a burst of color on the hills that flanked the river on either side, their hues all the more vivid when set against the white of the previous evening's uncharacteristically early snowfall. 

"Suicide Blonde," another of my historical mystery stories, is set in 1962 Las Vegas. Again, the formula.
  1. I did plenty of research on Vegas up to and including this time when Sinatra and his buddies strutted around like they owned the place.
  2. I lived and worked in Vegas for a couple of years and have been back a few times since. I am here to tell you, Vegas is one of those places that, as much as it changes, doesn't really change.
  3. Imagination!
Which gets you:

Because the Hoover boys had started tapping phones left and right since the big fuss at Apalachin a few years back, Howard and I had a system we used when we needed to see each other outside of the normal routine. If one of us suggested we meet at the Four Queens, we met at Caesar's. If the California, then we'd go to the Aladdin, and so on. We also agreed to double our elapsed time till we met, so when I said twenty minutes, that meant I'd be there in ten. We figured he had a permanent tail anyway, but it was fun messing with the feds, regardless.

The Strip flashed and winked and beckoned to me off in the distance down Desert Inn as I drove to Caesar's. It never ceases to amaze me what a difference the combination of black desert night, millions of lights, and all that wattage from Hoover Dam made, because Las Vegas looked so small and ugly and shabby in the day time. She used the night and all those bright lights like an over-age working girl uses a dimply lit cocktail lounge and a heavy coat of makeup to ply her trade.

Howard liked Caesar's. We didn't do any of the regular business there, and Howard liked that, too. Most of all, Howard liked the way the place was always hopping in the months since Sinatra took that angry walk across the street from the Sands and offered to move his act to Caesar's. Howard didn't really care to run elbows with the Chairman and his pack, he just liked talking in places where the type of noise generated by their mere presence could cover our conversations.

You may have noticed that in both examples used above I've interspersed description of the setting with action, historical references and plot points. That's partly stylistic and partly a necessity. I rarely find straight description engaging when I'm reading fiction (in the hands of a master such as Hemingway, Chandler or Macdonald that's another story, but they tend to be the exception), so I try to seamlessly integrate it into the narrative. Also, since I'm attempting to evoke a setting that is lost to the modern reader in anything but received images, I try to get into a few well-placed historical references that help establish the setting as, say, not just Las Vegas, but early 1960s Las Vegas. Doing so in this manner can save a writer of historical mysteries a whole lot of trying to tease out these sorts of details in dialogue (and boy, can that sort of exposition come across as clunky if not handled exactly right!).

So there you have it: an extended rumination on the importance of one of the most overlooked and powerful tools in your writer's toolbox: setting. The stronger you build it, the more your readers will thank you for it, regardless of genre, regardless of time period.

Because setting is both ubiquitous and timeless. Easy to overdo and certainly easy to get wrong. But when you get it right, your story is all the stronger for it!

03 May 2012

Tough Broads


by Deborah Elliott-Upton


 

In creating characters for my stories, I lean toward tough women. I like the idea of spending time with an Ava Gardner, Barbara Stanwyck or Jennifer Lopez type. Tough on the outside, but have a softer side just beneath the surface. They have to be smart, sassy and have a sense of humor that isn't bawdy or giggly, but ready to take a tense moment down a notch if need be. I don't often write about these type of characters when they have reached their maximum strength, but somewhere on the path to that growth. I don't believe whiny, wimpy people -- female or male -- are often heroic and I want the best for my characters and especially for my readers. When I saw the above quote from Joss Whedon, I knew I was in good company.


There has always been something about tough broads in literature that keeps my interest. Keep Pollyanna and send me Scarlett O'Hara. Nancy Drew was one teenage girl who didn't wait for a boy to save her even though the mothers of that time period would have probably advised her to feign a bit of damsel in distress in order to catch her boyfriend's attention. Bring on the Zena, Warrior Princess!

Don't misunderstand. I like a "John Wayne-take charge-kind of guy" for my hero. I just don't think he has to "help the little lady" when she is perfectly capable of doing so herself most of the time. And women with brains are sexier than anything.

I recently read a novel that is selling like hotcakes during a pancake race where the main character is female and supposedly the hero of the story. When she gets into a predicament where I couldn't imagine how she could manage to escape, I was correct. She couldn't. The cavalry arrived in the form of her new and mysterious love interest who "saved" her. I was disappointed and I wondered how many other mystery readers would be also. We'll see if her sequel sells as well as this first book did.

In today's world, equality still doesn't exist in terms of equal pay. Men are still deemed better in combat than their female counterparts. Female roles in movies and television are still less in number than the male opportunities.

That doesn't mean incredibly smart and talented women aren't moving on up the corporate ladder and making their voices heard. They aren't regulated to the kitchen or tea parties in the afternoon unless that is their choice.

Men also have evolved to a new playing field. Men are choosing to become nurses, stay-at-home-dads and airline attendants; choices a few generations ago would have been taboo.

We're changing and I think today's readership enjoys real life women and men as characters in their fiction reading.

I read Johnny Depp will be starring as Nick Charles from Dashiell Hammett's "The Thin Man" series and as yet an uncast Nora. I look forward to seeing who will play that character with a certain bit of sass, brains and sex appeal. What a tough broad she'll be. Can't wait.