Showing posts with label mystery. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mystery. Show all posts

06 October 2020

Coast to Coast Noir - The Many Shades of Noir


Amazon

I’m happy to announce that the third volume in our Coast to Coast crime fiction series dropped last week. (See how cool I am: “dropped”.) I’m also happy to say, we’ve had some success with the first two volumes, Coast to Coast: Murder from Sea to Shining Sea and Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea. When the last volume came out I did a piece here on editing for it: click here. For this volumeNoirI’m going to talk a little about noir, what we decided our definition of it is, and a little tease about each author’s story.

The authors in this volume are: Colleen Collins, Brendan DuBois, Alison Gaylin, Tom MacDonald, Andrew McAleer, Michael Mallory, Paul D. Marks, Dennis Palumbo, Stephen D. Rogers, John Shepphird, Jaden Terrell, Dave Zeltserman.

Coast to Coast: Noir from Sea to Shining Sea is the third in our series of Coast to Coast crime anthologies from Down and Out Books. The first two Coast to Coast collections garnered fifteen nominations and/or awards between them. Hopefully we’ll keep our record going with volume three. We have twelve terrific writers and stories.

The way that all the books have been laid out so far is that the stories start on the West Coast and each succeeding story moves a little farther east until we hit the East Coast. The thinking on this, at least in my mind, is to move left to right because that’s how we read on a page and it just seems comfortable.

From the intro to the book and pretty much what we suggested to the authors:

“What we asked for was noir in the classic tradition of David Goodis and Jim Thompson or movies like Double Indemnity. Our definition of noir is basically somebody tripping over their own faults: somebody who has an Achilles heel, some kind of greed, or want, or desire that leads them down a dark path. But within that the authors could be as down and dirty as they wanted. Time frame wasn’t an issue either. The stories could be set anywhere in time from now till back when.

We also don’t think noir has to be the dark of a rainy night or ominous shadows from Venetian blinds. There doesn’t even have to be a femme fatale. But one definite thing about noir: No one is safe. There’s no place to hide in this collection of twelve stories from the dark side of the American Dream. Noir can happen anywhere to anyone who’s just a little greedy, a little too proud, or a little naive. It can happen to a college student working at a steel mill or the chef-owner of an upscale Greek restaurant. Even the most pure of heart can succumb: a correctional officer at a maximum security prison or a father seeking justice. And it’s not always about money, sometimes it’s about power, fame, revenge, payback.”

So here’s a little tease for each story, in author alphabetical order: 

Look your Last by Colleen Collins

Location: Denver, Colorado 

Story: A young woman follows in the footsteps of her P.I. father who was murdered. She takes on a case that has ties to her father’s murder. 

Noir themes: private eye, revenge, fate, the past haunts the present. 


The Dark Side of the River by Brendan DuBois

Location: rural Massachusetts

Story: An ex-con trying to get on the right track again is persuaded by his brother to help him in a drug scheme.

Noir themes: femme fatale, ex-con trying to reform, family and loved ones can drag you down.


Where I Belong by Alison Gaylin

Location: Hudson Valley, New York


Story: A teenager leaves home after a video of him beating up his stepfather makes him an internet sensation.

Noir themes: outsider, loner, greed, some people are born bad.




Nashua River Floater by Tom MacDonald

Location: Nashua, New Hampshire

Story: A detective is hired under the table by a state trooper to investigate a homicide of a criminal who was recently released from prison. He uncovers some secrets from the past. 

Noir themes: private eye, secrets from the past, alcoholism.



On an Eyeball by Andrew McAleer

Location: Boston, Massachusetts 


Story: A woman C.O. at a high security prison endures sexual harassment in her job. She isn’t happy about it…

Noir themes: femme fatale, sex, revenge is best served cold.




The Dark Underside of Eden by Michael Mallory

Location: Springfield, Missouri

Story: A reporter for a local radio station looks into the apparent suicide of a young intern at the station who he was having an affair with. 

Noir themes: sex, power, corruption, the innocent are sacrificed.



Nowhere Man by Paul D. Marks

Location: Santa Monica/Venice Beach, California

In 1965, a guy working at the DMV sells information on the side and causes a young woman’s murder. It affects him more than he thought it would… 

Noir themes: greed, the innocent are sacrificed, you can't escape fate. 


Steel City Blues by Dennis Palumbo

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania


Story: A young college student works in the local steel plant and finds himself embroiled in a steamy affair with the foreman’s wife. But nothing is quite as it seems. 

Noir themes: sex, seduction, greed, femme fatale.




Detour to Dolmades by Stephen D. Rogers

Location: Providence, Rhode Island

Story: The chef-owner of a high-class Greek restaurant is the master of her domain, until she lets her defenses down. 

Noir themes: homme fatale, gangsters, pride can bring you down.



Pandora’s Box by John Shepphird

Location: Los Alamos, New Mexico

A young college student is seduced into joining a group of grifters in a plot involving the  Los Alamos National Laboratory and a Grateful Dead rock concert.

Noir themes: sex, drugs, loss of innocence, a con man luring a young woman into crime.


Sins of the Father by Jaden Terrell 

Location: Nashville, Tennessee


Story: A former Night Stalker special forces helicopter pilot comes to his daughter’s rescue… 

Noir themes: mistakes made in the past, regrets, revenge, redemption.




The Long Road by Dave Zelsterman 

Location: small town, Kansas 

Story: A husband can’t remember what happened before he was in a car accident. His wife discourages him from thinking about it, but he won’t leave it alone. 

Noir themes: lies, deception, you can never escape your own past.





We also did a Zoom panel with 9 of the 12 authors you might want to check out: 


So there you have it. This collection shows that noir can be many different things in many different settings. And, much as I like classic noir films and books, the stories don’t have to have unceasing rain, Venetian blind shadows or flashing neon signs. But I think there is a theme to them and that theme shows up in each of these varied stories.

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

The Blues Don't Care got a nice review from It was a Dark and Stormy Book Club.

“On one level it’s a mystery where Bobby Saxon, with secrets he wants no one to find out, works to solve a murder and clear his name under extraordinary racially tinged circumstances. With a lot of twists and turns, this is an excellent mystery.  It takes place in World War II-era Los Angeles, and the author does a brilliant job that brings the long-gone era alive with memorable characters, scents, descriptions, and most of all, jazz. Highly recommended."


Buy on Amazon or Down & Out Books


Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my web site www.PaulDMarks.com

02 June 2020

Outside the Three-Mile Limit


As many regular readers here know, I’m fascinated with Los Angeles history. I post about various aspects of it from time to time. I use it as background in much of my fiction. And one of the most fascinating aspects of L.A. history are the gambling boats that used to anchor off the shore, just outside the three mile legal limit.

The Rex
Bobby in the just-released (yesterday) The Blues Don’t Care has more than his share of adventure on one of those gambling ships. In the novel, Bobby and the band he’s in get a gig on the Apollo, one of the gambling ships off the Los Angeles coast. They find more than a little trouble there that really sets the plot in motion.

Cops dumping slot machines off the Rex
The Apollo is based on the real gambling ships that used to lay off the SoCal shore, just outside the three-mile limit. I’ve taken a few liberties with the Apollo. It’s much nicer than the real gambling ships, which, while they had their amenities, weren’t always as glamorous as you might think. But when gambling was illegal I guess they were good places to go and get your fix.

                  The interior of the Lux
The most famous of the real gambling ships was the Rex, run by Tony Cornero, A.K.A. The Admiral. Cornero had a checkered career, to say the least. During Prohibition in the 1920s he was a rum-runner (I wonder if he knew Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.?). He moved much of his illegal booze on ships, so had a background on the bounding seas for when he decided to open up the gambling ships later on.



When Prohibition was repealed, Cornero made the easy slide over to gambling. In 1931 when gambling was legalized in Las Vegas, he and his brothers set up there, opening up The Meadows Casino and Hotel, beating out Bugsy Siegel’s Vegas venture by over a decade. Unfortunately, Lucky Luciano got wind of it and, since Cornero wouldn’t pay extortion money, the Meadows was torched. Hmm, no connection to old Lucky there, right?

Tony Cornero aboard the Lux
So back to L.A. Cornero went. And in 1938 he bought two ships, the SS Rex and the SS Tango and converted them into gambling boats. By running them outside the legal limit he could skirt US law. The ships included gourmet chefs, gunmen to keep the peace, waiters, waitresses and—wait for it—orchestras. And that’s where Bobby and the Booker ‘Boom-Boom’ Taylor Orchestra come in.


Cornero was a constant thorn in the side of authorities, but things went along swimmingly until The Battle of Santa Monica Bay—yeah, that’s a real thing. The authorities tried raiding the ships. The Rex held them off for nine days, but eventually lost and Cornero, to make a long story short, hightailed it back to Vegas, where he built the Stardust Casino and Hotel, which I stayed at many times. At the time, way back when, I knew it was mob-connected, but I didn’t know then about the Cornero connection, which I find intriguing.

The Battle of Santa Monica Bay
And, of course, some pivotal scenes in The Blues Don’t Care are set on the Apollo, just a water taxi ride from the Santa Monica Pier:

“A fine briny mist bit Bobby’s skin as he waited in the throng of people on the Santa Monica Pier for the water taxi that would take him to the gambling ship Apollo. The little cartoon-like ‘Kilroy Was Here’ drawing glared at him from the water taxi shack. Kilroy was everywhere these days. He had to shield his eyes from the fiery late afternoon sun, wished he had a pair of sunglasses. Only movie stars and musicians wore sunglasses. Maybe he’d get a pair of shades.”

Below, Bobby describes seeing the Apollo’s ballroom for the first time:

“Bobby peered over the sea of faces in the ballroom—white faces in expensive suits and chic dresses. The Apollo wasn’t the biggest or fanciest or the most seaworthy ship in the world. But if she went down, half of Hollywood, the Los Angeles political establishment, and business movers and shakers in the Southland would disappear into Davy Jones’ Locker. That didn’t stop the people who ran her—gangsters everyone knew—from decking out the main ballroom as if it were Versailles. The ceiling was tall and sparkled with lights under a false ceiling with a gauzy, azure-painted sky. Below it, the dance floor in the center of the room, surrounded by gambling tables—craps, roulette, blackjack, and the like. And in rows behind the gambling tables, dining tables.”

The La La Land gambling ships also make appearances in one of my favorite books and a movie from one of my favorite series.

Raymond Chandler talks about them in Farewell, My Lovely. In the novel, Philip Marlowe is told that Moose Malloy might be hiding out on one of the gambling ships outside the three mile limit. Marlowe sneaks aboard and persuades Brunette, the gangster who runs the ship, to get a message to Malloy. Farewell, My Lovely was made into the movie Murder, My Sweet (1944). The 1942 B movie The Falcon Takes Over is also based on the plot. And in 1975 Robert Mitchum starred in a remake.

And much of Song of the Thin Man, the last Thin Man movie (co-written by my friend Nat Perrin) is partially set on one of the ships. A benefit is happening on the gambling ship Fortune. The bandleader is murdered. Guess who has to figure it out. Song of the Thin Man should be called Farewell, My Thin Man as it’s the last in the series and unfortunately not the best by far, but it has its moments.

Mr. Lucky
Another movie that takes place on a gambling ship is the Cary Grant-Larraine Day flick Mr. Lucky. Not his best, but I like it. And you can check out my close encounter of the first kind with Cary Grant at my website.
The book was released yesterday. Hope you’ll want to check it out. Here’s what some people are saying about it:

"This is a beautifully noirish book, set firmly in the dark days of wartime and offering a sharp insight into the life and times of Los Angeles, 1940s style. Yes, it’s a mystery thriller, but The Blues Don’t Care is so much more than that, with historic detail, chutzpah, a cast of hugely entertaining characters, a really unusual protagonist and, best of all, a cracking soundtrack too."
    —DeathBecomesHer, CrimeFictionLover.com

“Award-winning author Paul D. Marks hits it out of the park with this finely-written novel bringing WWII-era L.A. alive with memorable characters, scents, descriptions, and most of all, jazz. Highly recommended.”
     —Brendan DuBois, New York Times bestselling author

“Paul D. Marks finds new gold in 40's L.A. noir while exploring prejudices in race, culture, and sexual identity. There's sex, drugs, and jazz and an always surprising hero who navigates the worlds of gambling, music, war profiteers, Jewish mobsters, and a lonely few trying to do the right thing. Marks has an eye for the telling detail, and an ear that captures the music in the dialogue of the times. He is one helluva writer.”
      —Michael Sears, award-winning author of Tower of Babel, and the Jason Stafford series


"While The Blues Don't Care is a complex, sometimes brutal, story, it also has its glimmers of beauty and joy. Those glimpses come from Bobby's passion for music, and his awe when he sees celebrities such as Clark Gable and Billie Holiday. Wander into Bobby Saxon's world in Paul D. Marks' latest book. It's a world you won't easily forget."
      —Lesa's Book Critiques, lesasbookcritiques.blogspot.com



~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website  www.PaulDMarks.com

11 April 2020

First Thoughts about Writing a Story


Last Saturday, John Floyd talked about how he starts writing a new story. A very interesting post. Check it out if you missed it.

John said he usually starts with a plot.

I’m different. I usually start with a character, then fix on a setting, and finally decide on the inciting incident which often includes a crime. I never outline but simply start a story and keep writing most every day to finish it. If I do get stuck, I make a list of what could happen next, pick what I think is the best situation, and continue writing.

I think there are two reasons it’s so much easier for me than other writers to not plot. First is to read. A lot. Stephen King says we should read the same amount of time every day as we spend writing. Sounds about right to me. But I started reading early (with Nancy Drew—I’m a cliché!), and average two books a week, and have for years and years and years. I know there have to be terrific authors out there who do not read much. But if you are struggling, I suggest you read more in your genre to get a feel for how good writers do it. And maybe get some insight into why you consider some writers amateurish and not be that way yourself.

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression (Second Edition) (Writers Helping Writers Series Book 1) by [Becca Puglisi, Angela Ackerman]
For some reason I am highly focused. You can even interrupt me when I’m writing, and I will get right back to where I was and continue on when you leave me alone. How do I do that? I SEE in my mind’s eye the setting and what’s happening. I HEAR what the characters say and how they say it. And I FEEL their emotions as I write about them. I even find myself making faces, which I can use for dialogue tags. But the seeing and hearing are the most important things. Because I’m THERE, when I get back to writing, I can continue with little trouble. If you “see” everything, you will prevent mistakes such as having someone sitting and a while later, standing without showing it happening. You can imagine the gestures the characters are making and use them to make tags. You can describe the setting the same way every time you need to mention a table or a chair.

So, it’s all a snap for me, right? Of course not. I have other problems. The first and worst is character names. I wish I had all the time back spent messing with them. For a novel, I average about five or six name changes. Thank goodness for Find and Replace in Word although that can be both amusing and frustrating. For my current work, I decided to change a character’s name from Slack to Novak. I forgot how many characters wore slacks. This is about a 75,000 word novel. My fear is that I haven’t corrected all of them because you can’t totally depend on Replace to work correctly. I can only hope my beta readers find any of my characters wearing Novaks. Then I changed Mark to Aaron, and there was Maker’s Aaron instead of Mark. <sigh>

I learned early to make a list of characters in a chart that can alphabetize rows. First and last names each receive their own rows, and I also have ones for age, car, and description and other details I need to remember. So, as soon as I have several names, I alphabetize them by first name, try to have others with a different first letter, then do the same with the surnames. When writing series, these are really handy to look back at when I forget a minor character’s name or description, age, or make of car.

Because I am more interested in characters than the actual plot and setting, I have a lot of dialogue and people’s reactions to what’s going on. I find myself repeating certain reactions. Each novel seems to generate it’s own particular reaction. The last one was “shrugged.” This one has too many folks gasping. Fortunately, I own a terrific book called THE EMOTION THESAURAS—A writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. They have a whole series of books like this one, but for me, this is the most useful. Pick any emotion, go to the index, and choose things like anxiety, denial, happiness, surprise (gasp), and so forth.

That’s not all. I sometimes put in characters that in the end do not add much or anything to the plot, so I have to kill them off. And sometimes I leave stuff out that needs to be there and it can be difficult to find a place to impart the information needed during edits. I might even have to add a character or two.

Each story is different, so of course, each one has its own idiosyncrasies and needed fixes. For some reason, I don’t hate editing like a lot of authors do. Which is a good thing. My average is about five passes for novels and sometimes even more for short stories because every detail in those needs to work extra hard.

All that said, I do pay a lot of attention to plot. I try to have interesting starts and finishes to each chapter and to the story as a whole. I enjoy making up twists and unusual situations. But for me, the characters drive the plot. They act and react. I need to put some hard or uncomfortable situations in front of them and see how they handle them.

Who else usually comes up with a character? I suspect it’s probably a tie between character and plot coming first, with setting coming in last. But if you choose setting first, I’d love to hear how that works for you. 

I hope everyone is doing okay staying inside most of the time and maybe getting lots of writing and reading done. I certainly am. Take care!

23 March 2020

Introducing Mr. Block


Jan Grape
My guest author today is Lawrence Block. Better known to most of us as Larry. I've known him for a number of years and spent many hours reading his fiction and his non-fiction. He's an author with so many books published that I am not sure he even knows the number.

He's a teacher of writing as well, with articles and books and essays and workshops on writing. In fact, if you've ever wanted to take a workshop with Larry, you are in for a treat, right here and right now.

A couple of weeks ago, Larry mentioned that he was going to pull the plug on his April workshop. I contacted him and he gave me permission to reprint this message and well, just continue reading.

— Jan Grape

by Larry Block:
  1. In an uncharacteristically prudent move, I've pulled the plug on A Time & A Place For Writing, the workshop I was scheduled to lead Tuesday & Thursday nights in April at @Center4Fiction in Brooklyn. Want to take it at home? For free? No problem.

  2. Thu April 2 @ 7pm—Turn off phone! Sit down with pen/pencil & legal pad set a kitchen timer, & do 15 minutes of free writing as explained in Write For Your Life. This is a warm-up exercise, nobody's going to read it, and as long as the pen is moving you're doing it perfectly.

  3. When the timer goes off, stop. If you're my age, go to the bathroom. If you're young, stay where you are. Boot up your computer. If you've got a work in progress, open the file. If not, open a new blank document. Set the kitchen timer for an hour. Take a deep breath.

  4. Start writing.

  5. When timer goes off at hour's end, stop immediately—or finish the sentence you're writing. Take a few deep breaths. Go to the bathroom. Pick up phone, put it down again w/o turning it on, & congratulate yourself for your resolve. Set timer for a half hour and resume writing.

  6. If you want, email me at lawbloc@gmail.com & say you want to participate. That'll get you an opening sentence each Tues & Thu for your free writing exercise, and may help foster the illusion that you're doing more than sitting home & writing on your own. #pandemicpandemonium

This evening, I went to Larry's Face Book page to look for a photo and title of his latest book or story and found that Mystery Reader's International Journal had a wonderful guest essay by Larry about his latest book. I spoke with Janet Rudolph, the journal's editor and since it's just out right now she sent me a link and photos. Please read. It's a wonderful article by a master author in our field.

LAWRENCE BLOCK:
DEAD GIRL BLUES
How My New Novel Came About and Why I’m Publishing It Myself

Sometime in the late fall of 2018 I started writing a short story. It began with a man picking up a woman in a lowdown roadhouse. A lot of stories, true and fictional, begin that way. Few of them end well.

This one didn’t end well for the woman. I’d have to finish writing it to find out how it would end for the man.

Lawrence Block


08 March 2020

Coronavirus COVID-19: The Heroes and the Culprits


Dr Mary Fernando
Mary Fernando, MD
Every time a patient goes to a doctor with a new illness, the story of chasing down the diagnosis is like a mystery novel with one difference: everyone works hard to make the story short with as little excitement as possible.

In medicine, no one wants a long, twisted plot line and the best stories are the boring ones where the culprit is found quickly.

This desire for a short, boring story line has done what nothing else has been able to: it has united the world because citizens of every country want the story of the new coronavirus, #COVID-19, to end before they get a starring role in the tale of a new epidemic.



On December 30, 2019, Dr Li, a 34-year-old ophthalmologist in Wuhan, posted on Weibo that he had seen 7 cases of a SARS-like virus and warned fellow doctors to wear protective clothing to avoid infection. This sensible and medically appropriate suggestion resulted in Dr Li being summoned to the Public Security Bureau four days later and he was made to sign a letter confirming he had made false statements. Before his death from Coronavirus on Feb 7, 2020, Dr. Li explained why he warned people initially despite the fact that he knew he might be punished for it: “I think a healthy society should not only have one kind of voice.”


Like the Chinese government who tried to put a lid on information about COVID-19, we have had many others who have tried to do the same for political and financial reasons. There’s nothing wrong with trying to protect businesses, however, there is a great deal wrong with stifling information. The only thing that protects people and saves lives is the truth: if certain activities or places are unsafe, people should know this.

Through the evolution of this disease, there have been many kinds of voices speaking out and, just like in any mystery novel, each new crises reveals a great deal about the character of those involved.

There are some people who want everyone to stay calm – as if one smidgeon of worry will muck up their world. They came out in force at the beginning of this epidemic grabbing every straw they could to dampen down concern. I’m a huge fan of calmness but not when it is coupled with misinformation such as: this is only spread by animals, only spread by people who are symptomatic, the virus doesn’t live on surfaces for days and it is no more lethal than the flu.

Not one of those statements is true and people cannot protect themselves if they don’t know the truth. 


While some grasp at anything to calm people down, others have done the opposite and developed theories to fan all sorts of flames and even to start fires on their own. One theory floated around that this new virus was developed in a lab to destabilize the world. Right on the heels of this is another, very malignant theory that this is a virus that largely infects people of Chinese origin and that they are responsible for the spread of this. This has resulted in racist attacks on people around the globe.

There is another set of characters that have been emerging and speaking loudly: those who take a great deal of reassurance if they know things and even more reassurance if they know everything. Now this person who knows everything is a purely fictional character who has never existed but this doesn’t stop some people from emulating them. If this person who believes they have all the information has a large pulpit, they can spread information that is inaccurate and possibly dangerous.


Who is the biggest, baddest, scariest culprit in the saga of #COVID-19?
 Misinformation, spread by people whose need for calm, chaos or personal brilliance blinds them to the new facts emerging about this virus daily.

Some of those new facts are reassuring, some are worrisome and not one of us knows them all because it is an evolving story. For example, there has been some evidence that gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea and diarrhea may precede respiratory symptoms during infection with this new coronavirus– this is crucial information that could lead people to seek medical attention earlier and therefore limit spread of the disease. Since we know that people without symptoms can spread the disease – unlike with SARS – we can’t assume we haven’t been exposed because no one around us was ill. 


Just like in any mystery novel, we should remain suspicious of all the characters - any one of them could spread misinformation – often not from malice but because their character compels them to engage in certain behaviours that increase misinformation. Bottom line – the only thing that will keep you and those you care about safe is information on how to avoid getting infected with coronavirus.

The heroes of this story? The first hero was Dr. Li  because he had a simple mission: to inform those around him with whatever information he had to keep them safe.

Inspired by the heroes in this coronavirus story, I recently told my children who were traveling with me that – given the fact that this disease can be spread by people who have no symptoms and the virus can live on surfaces for days – they could stay safer if they assume their hands are infected and not touch their face and food without disinfecting them first. This simple set of instructions was the best way I could summarize this disease to the people I care about the most in this world. I also keep telling them that we are in the midst of learning about this disease so I’ll keep them updated. My children must have confidence in me because they grin every time I say this.

As of the 7th of March, 2020, the World Health Organization reported that the number of confirmed cases of COVID19 has surpassed 100K. The doubling time of this disease appears to be around 7 days but the numbers, just like this disease, are fast moving. A peek at that study along with with data used gives an idea of why we need to take a deep breath and keep learning.

03 November 2019

History and Mystery


Leigh Lundin
Perhaps I've always enjoyed historicals without fully realizing it. To pose a question, are Agatha Christie novels historical? What about the novels of Arthur Conan Doyle?

Generally, we don’t call fiction written in and about the author’s own time as historical novels. Yet modern readers can consider them a slice of history. Who better to fill us in on fine details of the day than someone living then and there?

I don’t find the tales of Edward Marston as smoothly written as, say, Ellis Peters or the wonderful Lindsey Davis. But that lack of ‘smoothinity’ (I’m aware of ‘smoothness’ but this suits my purpose) lends additional verisimilitude. The reader can feel the dirt in roadside food, the pinch of the cobbler’s shoes, the stench of an outhouse.

We live in a politically correct ‘woke’ atmosphere. We foster a supercilious attitude where we think we’re some way superior to those who’ve come before. Novels set in ancient Egypt or Imperial Rome remind us we’re not so different, not different at all.

Many of us, R.T. Lawton and Janice Law, David Edgerley Gates and Eve Fisher, to name a few colleagues, love the research as much as the writing… and reading.

For your pleasure, following are a dozen historical novels, new and old, you might want to nab.


The Alienist first appeared in 1994, the first in a short series. Who can resist New York City Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt?


The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco’s first novel published in 1980, is one of my all time favorites. Monesteries aren’t all peace and quiet.


I loved the virtually vanished Jewish Alps, the Borscht Belt Catskills in upstate New York. Think The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel entertains The Hotel Neversink.


Thanks to Tirzah Price at Book Riot for many of these suggestions and further details.

What are your favorite historical novels or series?

16 September 2019

The Play's the Thing


by Steve Liskow

Not long ago, I saw an audition call for a production of a play I performed in years ago, a mystery called Wait Until Dark. It's a rarity, a good mystery play that began as a play instead of being adapted from either a book or a film. There are several good mysteries on film, but most of them began as films or novels. My wife Barbara, who still acts in five or six plays a year and impersonates an 1890s British maid at the Mark Twain House, and I spent the rest of the evening trying to think of other good mystery plays that aren't adaptations.

It's a short list, and I don't like several of them for crochety reasons of my own. Obviously, many of Shakespeare's plays involve crime or mysteries: Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Lear, Caesar. I won't include them. Aeschylus gave us The Oresteia 2500 years ago, only a few years before Sophocles graced us with Oedipus The King, maybe the earliest detective story. I won't include those, either.

All those plays involve stage conventions we now consider "unrealistic" or "old-fashioned." The mystery form has conventions itself, and some of them are artificial, too. Red herrings, delaying a discovery, the impossible crime, and multiple suspects are pretty much standard procedure. Maybe that's why a script that leans heavily on staginess is effective for many of the plays I include below.

Investigating a mystery often involves moving from place to place, so a challenge in a mystery play is limiting scene/set changes that slow down the action. There are two ways to do this, one a staple of Shakespeare and the Greeks. That's the lack of a stage set at all. The audience has to imagine a different place for the action, often given the cue through dialogue ("What woods are these?"). The other is to construct a play that happens in one location. That's tough.

Barb and I have been involved in productions of most of these plays, which colors my judgment.

Book of Days by Lanford Wilson. Wilson passed away in 2011 after producing a body of work that equals Miller or Williams. He wrote roles for William Hurt, Christopher Reeve, Richard Thomas, Joan Allen, John Malkovich, and Judd Hirsch, among others. I directed this play about ten years ago, and Barb acted in it. In fact, I lost an actor less than a week before opening and had to step into his role myself. 


 If Raymond Chandler had written Our Town, the result might have been Book of Days. On a bare stage, 12 characters interact with each other and the audience to discuss how Walt, one of the small town's leading citizens, dies in a freak hunting accident. Apparently, a tree fell on him during a tornado and his shotgun went off. But there are inconsistencies, and by the play's end, the audience understands who killed Walt, how and why it was done, and that the killer will get away with it.
Book of Days, my wife at lower right, me 4th from right
The play uses a bare stage but has over 90 scenes in 17 locations. We used light changes and a few basic props to keep the story going, just like the Greeks and Shakespeare.

Agnes of God by John Pielmeier uses the same black box strategy and for the same reasons. The artificiality is effective because we don't KNOW exactly what happened even though we understand the broad outlines. On a set consisting of two chairs and a standing ashtray, a female psychiatrist tells of being called in to evaluate the competence of a young nun. Agnes is accused of killing a newborn baby she claims she bore after an immaculate conception. If she is ruled rational, she faces a trial for murder. Otherwise, she will go to an insane asylum. The only other character is the Mother Superior who accuses the psychiatrist of bias against the Catholic Church. Barbara was learning the lines for Agnes as we went on our honeymoon.

I've seen two other productions, and all three had problems. It's hard to strike a balance between the characters and the story, but some scenes--a hypnotized Agnes reliving the agony of giving birth, for example--will keep you awake at night. She's clearly crazy, but does that automatically mean she's lying?

The less said about the film starring Jane Fonda, the better. Why anyone thought that stripping the play of its theatricality and trying to present literal reality on film is a bigger mystery than the play itself.

Equus by Peter Schaeffer also uses several locations with only the barest of furniture, and for the same reasons. Schaeffer passed away in 2016 at age 90 after writing many other acclaimed works, including Amadeus, which is also sort of a mystery.

The play gives us another psychiatrist treating a young patient, this time a teen-aged boy accused of blinding several horses in the stable where he worked. My wife played the boy's mother and a mutual friend played the psychiatrist (Shrinks are big in mystery drama: at least one of the plays I left off this list also has one). Actors wearing elaborate wire-frame heads play the horses. The nightmare moment of the play comes on a completely dark stage when all the horses' eyes light up, little red pilot lights across the back of the stage...and advance to surround the boy. Unlike Agnes, this play answers all our questions. Lucky us.
Equus cast & crew. Horse's head at bottom

Wait Until Dark by Frederick Knott appeared on Broadway in 1966, and Lee Remick earned a Tony nomination as the blind woman who knows killers will break into her apartment that night. She smashes all the light bulbs in the apartment so she can fight them on equal terms. Robert Duvall played the ringleader in that production, and I wish I had seen the moment when he shows Susie the one light she forgot to smash: the bulb in the refrigerator (In theater parlance, we refer to this as the "Oh &$%# Moment").

The film version, a year or two later, drags badly. It allows us to see outside, too, which removes the claustrophobic feel of being trapped in the apartment. Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna and Jack Weston are excellent as the bad guys, but Audrey Hepburn's weepy and whiny blind girl is annoying. She's all wrong for the role. I played the Crenna role years ago, and now Jeffrey Hatcher has reworked the play and set it in the 1940s. The play has to be done in an older time period because a photographic dark room is vital, but I don't understand why someone felt it needed to be rewritten.

Death Trap by Ira Levin. Levin, who wrote many other works, including the novel that became the film Rosemary's Baby, saw this 1978 drama become the longest-running comedy-drama on Broadway. It was nominated for several Tony Awards, including Best Play. Another very stagy work, it involves two playwrights, a newcomer and a seasoned pro, who work together on a project that won't make it to the stage. The play-within-a-play structure works, and the script abounds with dark humor and theater in-jokes, including using a crossbow as a weapon. Done well, it's wonderful. Don badly, it's...well, deadly. I saw a local production with the same friend who played the psychiatrist in Equus as one lead and a former student as the other. The excellent film starred Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve, and Dyan Cannon. Hard to go wrong there.

That's it. If the plays don't work, the fault, dear Brutus is not in our star actors, but in ourselves.


04 August 2019

Sorry, Sorry Night


by Leigh Lundin

Vincent van Gogh, self-portrait with bandaged ear
Vincent van Gogh
self-portrait, bandaged ear
Everyone knows the story of Vincent van Gogh. In desolation and desperation, he sliced off his ear and gave it to a love interest, a local prostitute.

Much of that tale is problematic, even outright false. I have a simpler theory:

He missed.

Wait, wait… I’ll explain.

First, let’s correct one fact right off. Not every one who works in a church is a priest, pastor, or parson. Likewise, not every one who works in a whorehouse is a prostitute. Van Gogh presented the ear to young Gabrielle Berlatier who worked not as une fille de joie, but as a maid, serving, sewing, sudsing the laundry.

Women were the least of Vincent’s problems. His trip to the south of France hadn’t worked out, his paintings weren’t selling, and he was dependent upon his younger brother Theo for a small monthly stipend. Naturally, when a person pays money to another, they feel entitled to offer advice.
Sunflowers
van Gogh – Sunflowers, 1 in a series
van Gogh – Sunflowers, 1 in a series
van Gogh – Sunflowers, 1 in a series
van Gogh – Sunflowers, 1 in a series
“Vinnie, Vinnie. What am I going to do with you? Sunflowers? Who cares about sunflowers. In my dreams, I hear a voice chanting, ’Take a leaf from O’Keeffe.’ Don’t know what the dream means, but there you go.”

“But Theo…”

“And that weird thing, Drunken Fireworks on Bastille Day, title it Starry Night. Listen, I’m an art dealer. I know these things. You with me, bro?”

“But Theo…”

“Look, a healthy guy ought to paint nekked women. Look at Manet, look at Georgione, Gérôme, and hey, your buddy Gauguin. Naked people, now that sells; flowers not so much. Try to be more, well, like Toulouse.”

“Too loose for what?”

“Vinnie, Vinnie. Check out other artists, man, keep your ear to the ground. You so got that Dutch yardstick-up-your-klootzak thing. That peasant who models for you, what’s his name?”

“Er, something with Zach, maybe Balzac, Shadrach, Mezach, Prozach, I dunno.”

“That’s enough to depress anyone. Gotta go, bro. That argument with Paul, get over it. Gauguin’s a good guy. Tell him to send me some work. See ya, Vin.”
Van Gogh was one down-and-out dude. No luck selling his works, no luck with women, no job, no money, no friends– Van Gogh found himself beset with problems, especially depression.

On the 23rd of December 1888, he underwent a nasty row with his roommate, Paul Gauguin. Hours before Christmas, Van Gogh found himself abandoned, alone except for a bottle, actually a case of bottles.

He drank. He drank a lot. He followed Gauguin and waggled a straight razor at him. Gauguin sensibly fled to a hotel.

Vincent, truly alone, a man and his bottle… and a device commonly called a cutthroat razor.

The very drunk, very depressed artist decided to take his own life. He unfolded the blade. Intending to deliver a huge, decisive stroke, he raised the razor high above his shoulder, above his head. He hesitated, then whipped the blade down in a dramatic slash toward his quivering throat and…

Gaugin - Fatata te Miti (By the Sea)
Paul Gauguin - Fatata te Miti
Missed.

Gashed his ear, slicing it nearly off. Momentum lost, the blade glanced off his neck.

The inebriated artist botched his suicide.

The shock of blood and pain brought Van Gogh partially back to his senses. Woozy, he wrapped the ear and staggered to the brothel. There he unsuccessfully begged the teenage seamstress to sew it back on for him, a job too much for the girl.

Vincent van Gogh hadn’t deliberately cut off his ear. He’d intended to cut his throat and bungled his suicide.

So says my hypothesis. What’s your take?

13 July 2019

A Morning in Conan Doyle Land


I woke up on Saturday morning not feeling well (this was a month ago, I'm all better). I was resting on the sofa and doing the swipe through Netflix's recently added and currently trending lists, looking for something new and interesting to amuse, entertain, maybe even enlighten. Finding nothing that "grabbed" me, I moved over to Amazon Prime. Flicking down through the rows, I passed the children's section, and a title in that row reached out and took hold.

A Study in Scarlet. 

An animated telling of a Sherlock Holmes tale? For kids!? Seriously?!? I selected the program and let it start playing, the cynic in me chortling, this will be good for a laugh. I went in with zero expectations; in fact, minus expectations. I expected Dr. Watson to be played by Scooby Doo.


The opening shot is a moonlit set of rooftops; a dark and stormy night in Victorian London. A police constable is on the street, patrolling with a lamp. He winds up on the Brixton Road. He's joined by another bobby. There's a light on in an empty house. They enter. In a dilapidated drawing room, there's a dead body of an elderly gentleman on the floor.

Two and a half minutes in, and I'm thinking, this ain't too bad. The animation isn't going to win any awards, but the storytelling seems to be faithful to the source, and it has mood and atmosphere.
The opening credits started, and I was about to turn the thing off, when the following credit appeared: "With Peter O'Toole as Sherlock Holmes." That got my undivided attention. Naturally, I let the program keep playing. I could happily listen to Peter O'Toole read aloud from the phone directory, or recite the Periodic Table (have I mentioned My Favorite Year is one of my favorite movies?). I had no idea he had ever played Holmes. 

For the next 50 minutes, I was away (once again, happily) in Conan Doyle land. The program did indeed prove to be a reasonably faithful telling of the story, Watson was not played by an exuberant Great Dane, and nothing in the story's telling was "watered down" or "rendered appropriate" in any way for children; my biggest fear while watching.

And it's funny, when you think about it: an adult tale of murder, forced marriage (i.e., rape), revenge, and justice filed away for children's viewing pleasure alongside the likes of Anne of Green Gables, the Cat in the Hat, and Spongebob. I presume this was because it was animated. There persists (in some minds) that quaint notion that if something is animated, it must be for kids, that all animations are simply "cartoons" and should be dropped into the "Kids and family TV" box. (I gleefully await the addition of Fritz the Cat.) Had the exact same script of A Study in Scarlet been filmed as a live action drama, then it would have gone straight into the adult drama box. No questions asked.

But I'm glad it did, one way or another, wind up in front of kids. They seem to get so much rubbish in their TV diet. Let them find this quiet little doorway into the world of grownup mystery fiction.

Peter O'Toole did four Holmes animated stories. They were all made in 1983, they're all 50 minutes long (with the exception of Baskerville, 70 minutes), and they're all on Amazon Prime (here in NZ, at least).
  • A Study in Scarlet 
  • The Baskerville Curse 
  • The Sign of Four
  • Valley of Fear
I've watched all of them. And as I said, there's nothing overtly special about the animation. The specialness of the telling lies in the stories themselves, and in this instance, the actor playing Sherlock Holmes (not that the films' imagery bears any resemblance to the man). If it's a wet Saturday morning, and you're unwell, I can recommend this medication.






stephenross.live/
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instagram.com/__stephenross/

05 February 2019

I Am Not a Crook – Or: A friend will help you move. A really good friend will help you move a body.


They say write what you know, but we can’t always write what we know because that would severely limit what we could write. I don’t think George Lucas or Robert Heinlein ever went to outer space before they wrote about it. And most of us here are crime writers or readers, but how many crime writers have actually lived a life of crime? Aside from speeding or maybe smoking a joint or a little underage drinking, not exactly heinous felonies. How many of us have committed those?

I’m no goody two-shoes (does anyone say that anymore?) but I also haven’t lived a life on the lam from a criminal past. As RT mentioned recently, I may have had homicidal fantasies, but I only carry them out on the page. I did, however, get a ticket for jaywalking once.

As I’ve mentioned before, I like to watch the Murder Channel, the Discovery ID Channel, 24/7 Murder, Mayhem and Betrayal. And one of the things that strikes me in many of the cases they cover is how, not only the main bad guy can so easily kill—and often someone they had once loved,—but how easy it is for them to find friends who will help them carry out their deeds before, during or after the fact. Someone to join you in the fun of murder, or join you afterwards to help you dispose of the body, lie to the cops, etc. Think about your circle of friends. Is there anyone you could turn to to help you kill someone or bury the body afterwards? I know I travel in certain circles, but I don’t think anyone I know would be willing to do that…except maybe the guy I wrote about last time, Brian McDevitt. But since I never tested him on it I can’t say for sure. But you know what they say, a friend will help you move. A really good friend will help you move a body. I’m not sure I have any really good friends… But so far I haven’t needed one. I guess I’ll find out if the time comes 😉.


And though I may not have murdered anyone, my life of crime began at a very early age. When I was around eight, I’m guessing, I stole a couple pieces of candy from a market. Once we got outside my dad noticed them in my hand and made me take them back. It was humiliating but it taught me a lesson—crime does not pay.

When I was in my late 20s, I was approached by a couple—no not for that. They wanted me to marry a friend of theirs from Lebanon so she could become a citizen. They would pay me and at the time I could have used the money, badly. I told them I’d think about it. But I didn’t really need to. I knew I wouldn’t—couldn’t—do it…because it was both wrong and illegal. Nonetheless, I went home and got back to them a day or two later with my negative response. They weren’t happy, but I could live with myself.

But I did commit a crime while down in San Diego. A buddy of mine and I wanted to go to Belmont Park, a small seaside amusement park. We didn’t want to pay, so we hopped a fence on the back side, climbing over barbed wire, and jumped into the park. Nobody caught us. Not exactly in the category of mass murderer, but still illegal.

McDonald’s Incident 1: Also, in San Diego, but another time, another person—my brother this time. We went to McDonald’s. They gave him too much change. A twenty instead of a five. I made him return it. Not a crime, of course, but it ties in with the next point:

McDonald’s Incident 2: Up in LA this time. They short-changed me. I pointed it out. They made me feel like a liar, a thief and criminal. They made me wait while they closed that register and rectified. They found they were wrong and I was right. They gave me my change but never apologized. This happened shortly after the first McDonald’s incident, so I felt like a sap for being honest that time. But I’d probably do it again.

Rear-ender: I was on my way to teach a class. Occasionally I taught one-night screenwriting seminars. I was sitting at a red light and I see this huge Ford pickup barreling down on me. I tried to pull over, but couldn’t in time. He clipped me, sent me through a lamppost and destroyed my car (see pix). I was lucky to get out alive. Luckily I wasn’t hurt more. And all I wanted from his insurance company—and everyone knew and admitted that he was 100% in the wrong—was to have my medical paid, real replacement value for my car, not the bluebook value—I proved to them that these cars were going for more than Bluebook. And for them to pay for my rental car. His insurance company lied to me over and over. They also tried to screw me more ways than one. I had tried being honest and straight with them. But I realized the error of my ways: not getting a lawyer and finally got one. And I’m sure that whatever settlement we got was more than what I would have settled for initially…because I am an honest person and didn’t want to screw them. But they wanted to screw me…so I screwed back, legally.


I probably shouldn’t say this, but since it’s from my wilder and younger days, and I don’t do it anymore: I used to carry a very sharp knife with me. And when people would block me in a parking place one way or another, well, let’s just say they had a hard time driving home…after I slashed their tires. I never felt bad about it. It shouldn’t take me ten minutes to crawl into my car or work my way out of a parking place. It was sort of instant justice.

I may have done some other things, heated arguments and sometimes fights, but nothing major. Never stole (except for the candy when I was a kid), murdered, burgled, robbed. But I write about people who do. And, of course, I did pull a gun on the cops that time...and lived to tell about it… But for that story you’ll have to check out my website: https://pauldmarks.com/he-pulled-a-gun-on-the-lapd-and-lived-to-tell-about-it/ 

So………..do you know anyone who would be willing to help you move the body?

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

Colman Keane interviewed me for his blog, Col's Criminal Library. Check it out:

http://col2910.blogspot.com/2019/02/questions-and-answers-with-paul-d-marks.html



Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website www.PaulDMarks.com