27 February 2015

What I've Been Reading

By Dixon Hill

I've been pretty busy these last several weeks, but that hasn't kept me from snagging the odd moment to read.  I've chosen among old friends and new ones, and the list looks something like this:




Death in Paradise by Robert B. Parker

My wife and I enjoy watching the Jesse Stone mysteries, so I jumped at this book when I saw it on the shelf.  Never having read one of them before, I found it even better than I'd expected.  Perhaps it's a burden, having to picture Tom Selleck as Stone (since that's how I'd first encountered Stone on-screen), but I didn't find it any trouble, and I really enjoyed the book.

As a side note, there was a TV series with this title, and I might just blog on that in the near future.







By the Light of the Moon by Dean Koontz

This one was a re-visit to an old friend.  Yes, it has mystery, suspense, and yet is strangely filled with love, but it also has a science fiction element that might not appeal to every mystery reader.  Those who loved super hero comic books during childhood, however, will probably love this adult-styled  . . . well . . . I'm not sure exactly how to define it.  But I love it.









River of Death by  Alistair MacLean

I fell in love with MacLean's writing the first time I met it, with Ice Station Zebra, a book with a protagonist who seems to create his very own definition of "unreliable narrator."

Reading MacLean since my days in the army, I'm not as captured as I was in childhood.  Still, it's nice to get a fun little romp (only 253 pages in paperback) with this story of those wreaking vengence on Nazi SS officers who thought they'd managed to escape punishment in the depths of the Amazon.






The Blue Hammer by Ross MacDonald

WOW!  I suppose it's wrong to describe writing as "lush, spare prose," but I find it difficult not to when it comes to this one.  Spare to the point of nearly shifting the feel into one of poetry, the writing in The Blue Hammer really knocked me out.  Not just a pun, either.

I have to admit, I figured out the final little "twist" long before the ending.  But, with writing like this, I didn't mind sitting back and enjoying the ride to a location I knew was calling our name.  Additionally, the title had me pondering its meaning for awhile after reading.  Finally, however, I came up with a meaning that satisfied me.


Saint Odd by Dean Koontz

This is at once a new entry and an old friend.  Saint Odd is the latest, and final, of Koontz's Odd Thomas series, which chronicles the off-beat adventures of a young fry cook who happens to see dead folks (including Elvis and Sinatra) and tries to save the world, or at least parts of it, with each installment.

The storyline began several years ago, and in this final installment it (almost) ends with Oddie's death.  And what a death adventure this is!

Never before have I read a series in which the main character died, then wondered if the series might continue to follow that character anyway -- without bringing him back to life on earth.  But, this one has me wondering just that.

See you in two weeks,
--Dixon

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?

25 February 2015

The Complaints

David Edgerley Gates


I started reading Ian Rankin's books more than a few years back, complicated and often violent puzzles, and the Edinburgh DI John Rebus a morally ambiguous character, even if on the side of the saints.

More recently, I picked up THE COMPLAINTS, released in 2009, which introduces a new and younger character, Malcolm Fox, followed by THE IMPOSSIBLE DEAD, in 2011. Fox works for Internal Affairs, known colloquially as The Complaints, who investigate other cops. It's common knowledge these guys are disliked - resented the better word, outsiders who piss on their own doorstep. They find
themselves, like as not, swimming upstream, dealing with obstruction and half truths, closed ranks, hostile witnesses, and fighting chain of command, which might prefer they bury a can of worms.

Both of the first two Fox stories, THE COMPLAINTS and THE IMPOSSIBLE DEAD, are very much about that proverbial can of worms. A corruption inquiry, by its nature, leads to the unhappy and unwelcome, and heads are bound to roll. Which they do. Nobody likes The Complaints proved right, and nobody thanks them for it. The dynamic in the novels isn't Us and Them, but Us and Us. Fox is a traitor to his own.

Rankin mounts a near to impenetrable tangle of loyalties and betrayals, absent virtues, malign intentions, misspent human capital, leaky alibis, blood feuds and blood debts. THE COMPLAINTS is about a frame, with Fox himself the target, and THE IMPOSSIBLE DEAD turns on a cold case, unquiet graves. If there's a trick to it, Rankin doesn't show his hand. The books seem to lunge forward with the ordained gravitational pull of Doom, inexorable and final, as though agented or engineered by the very devices of wickedness.

You might wonder, why Malcolm Fox? I mean, why has Rankin picked up this new thread? Then again, Rebus hasn't been put out to pasture. The next two books, STANDING IN ANOTHER MAN'S GRAVE and SAINTS OF THE SHADOW BIBLE, draw Fox and Rebus together, although as may be expected, Fox is an adversary. I'd venture to guess it isn't that Rankin has gone stale on Rebus, rather that he's holding him up to the light, getting a fresh perspective. Fox and Rebus are something alike, both of them solitaries, both of them haunted - Rebus more so - but Fox is the more transparent and accessible. I don't know that we relate to him any better. His inflexibility gets in the way a little, Fox kind of dour (the Scots would say 'do-er,' drawing out the long vowels), not in any way humorless, but slow to get the joke. Rebus, as his name suggests, is a puzzle. You can see they'd rub each other the wrong way, Fox being too quick to take his man's measure, Rebus not one to suffer fools, or hide his impatience. And what does Fox make of Big Ger Cafferty? we might ask. All in all, a nice spin on an old tale, a collision of competing integrities. 

One other remark. Rankin's guys aren't a generic index of weaknesses - bad marriages, the worse for drink - or their strengths, either. They're well-observed and genuine, a reflected glance. They have depth, and a specific gravity. Not entirely likable, perhaps, but completely there, if not always in our comfort zone. Is this counter-intuitive? I'm not sure. Fox and Rebus are uneasy companions, with each other, by themselves, and with us. They take warming up to. But they enlist our sympathies. Obdurate, they are. Certainly not frictionless, or smooth. A little sharp and peaty to the taste, like a single malt. Slightly acrid, with a length of finish that lingers in the mouth.

http://www.davidedgerleygates.com/

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.

23 February 2015

Lessons Learned

By Fran Rizer



Hopefully, all of you remember Christa McAuliffe.

My sons and I remember her for personal reasons.  As a recently divorced public school teacher in 1984, I was excited when I found a stack of blank applications on the table in the faculty lounge at the school where I taught. They were for the NASA Teacher in Space Project for educators to apply to become the first teacher in space. I took one home and filled it out. My son found and read it.  That night at the dinner table, he enlisted his younger brother's help in convincing Mom not to submit that application.
Christa McAuliffe

"We don't want you to go away, even for a few days," they protested.

"If I'm chosen, you can stay with your father while I'm gone," I said.

The matter was discussed frequently right up until the dead-line to submit the application.  Their final plea was, "Please don't go.  You might get hurt."

I thought that was completely ridiculous, but I caved and trashed the application the day after the submission deadline. When Christa McAuliffe was announced as the teacher chosen to participate, I confess I was happy for her, but just a little jealous. I read every article and watched every news broadcast about the coming Challenger expedition.

Would I have been selected from the more than 11,000 applicants if my application had been submitted?  I'll never know, but my sons were positive that McAuliffe would not have had a chance if I'd applied.

By January 28, 1986, teachers had stopped suspending classes for students to watch launches.  I was the only teacher in the building with the classroom TV on for the launch.  We were the exception because that discarded application gave me a special, personal interest.  Seventy-three seconds after launch, the shuttle broke apart right before our eyes.

I sent a student runner to the office to have the principal announce that history was being made and teachers should turn on their classroom televisions.  The events of that day were totally shocking, but at home that evening, my sons, though saddened at the loss of the astronauts and Christa McAuliffe, were just happy that I wasn't the teacher in the Challenger.

I learned a lesson on January 28, 1986.

Fast forward to August 23, 1996. I'd left my classroom ready for school to begin the following Monday. On my desk, lesson plans for the week; on students' desks, name tags and their books stacked neatly with their names entered and serial numbers recorded.  

My sons were young adults by then.  One of them was home between semesters at Furman University.  The other was at work tending bar to help finance his studies at USC.  I
My car the morning of August 24, 1996
spent the evening at a recording studio where we were cutting a demo of a song.  I left the studio and drove thirty miles back to Columbia.  Half a mile from my home, I was playing a cassette tape of the song we'd just recorded and singing along.  The title of the song was "I Ain't Scared of Nothin'".  It was country music, of course, and described how the singer, who'd never been afraid of anything, was shaking in his boots at the thought of losing his girlfriend.

The next thing I knew, I heard someone say, "She's not dead. She moved just a little bit."

"Doesn't mean anything.  Could have been a spasm."

It turned out that I wasn't dead, and I won't tell you all about the flashing lights, sirens, and being cut out of the car, nor the panic that set in every time I rode in a car for the next several years. Suffice it to say that I didn't get back to my classroom for almost a year.  According to a witness, I had been rear-ended by a driver who hit me again trying to leave the scene of the accident. That second blow threw my car into the air and against a telephone pole. The witness followed the car that hit me as others gathered around my wrecked vehicle with an unconscious me inside.

Later, I actually watched a video of the other driver's arrest when the officer asked the driver, "Why didn't you stop to help that woman?"

His reply was, "I thought she was dead."

That taught me a lot in August, 1996, too.

Last week, I had a very bad day, but it ended with an offer of a contract to produce three books in the next twelve months. Immediately, I began to worry about the wisdom of accepting that deal.  I'm getting older.  My health is declining.  I enjoy my social life.  Would I be able to fulfill this agreement?

After much thought and recalling those two significant events in my life, I remembered what I learned on those two days: there are no guarantees. It seemed Christa McAuliffe's dreams were coming true, but it ended suddenly and  tragically for her family and our country.  No amount of schools named in her honor could make up for her loss.  August 23rd taught me again that there are no guarantees.  I can't guarantee that I am still able to produce three books in a year, but I've done it before and there are no guarantees that I can't do it, either.

Much of what I put on my bucket list when I retired has come true, but am I healthy enough (or young enough?) to write three books in the next twelve months?

I don't know for sure, but I do know that I'm signing that contract and I'm going to try.  I've been thinking a lot about the demands on my time, and though I've enjoyed my years with SleuthSayers and made some wonderful friends, this will be my last appearance here.  I'll continue to read SS and hope to comment at times, but I've gotta write three books, and as Tennessee Linda says, "Sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do."

Until we meet again . . .


22 February 2015

Songs of the South

by Dale C. Andrews
Please not yet. Those are the three eternal words. Please not yet.
                                                John D. MacDonald
                                                A Deadly Shade of Gold

       As usual the month of February finds me on the gulf shore of Alabama, making a good on a promise my wife and I made to ourselves back when we were still in the work-a-day world: once we retired February would never again find us in Washington, D.C. So we have again traveled south to a rental on the shore. Not the tropics, but also not the frozen east coast of the past several weeks.

Harper Lee
     Alabama is a sort of exciting place for anyone interested in literature to find themselves this February. Only a few weeks ago, and a scant 100 miles north, Harper Lee, the now 88 year old author of the American Classic To Kill a Mockingbird announced to a stunned world that, after 55 years of literary silence, this summer a sequel to her Pulitzer Prize winning story of Scout, Atticus and the travails of small town life in Alabama will be published.

       Whether we should feel some trepidation as we await the return of Atticus and Scout in the long-withheld Go Set a Watchman has already been the subject of numerous articles. Far be it from me to add another. But aside from such speculations concerning the ultimate merit of the Mockingbird sequel, an interesting sidelight to the pending publication of Harper Lee’s second novel is the reaction of the reading public, which had become resigned to Lee’s oft-articulated position that she would never publish a second work. This had been both accepted and hard to get over -- we had fallen in love with Mockingbird -- and Lee’s resolve to leave it at that had left us feeling a bit like a child allowed but one toy. The anticipation has been overwhelming with the possibility of another now on the horizon. 

Arthur Conan Doyle
       A writer’s decision to not follow up on a popular book, or to end a popular series of books, often invites a public outcry. Famously, Arthur Conan Doyle found himself unable, in the face of such clamor, to leave Sherlock Holmes sprawled at the bottom of the Reichenbach Falls. Doyle (and now Lee) ultimately bent, in some degree, to the clamor. Doyle took up the pen again, and Lee's attorney discovered that previous manuscript. And just yesterday Arthur Conan Doyle had his own last laugh -- a similarly "lost" Sherlock Holmes story was discovered in an attic after lying there unnoticed for the past 111 years.

       But what happens when the series ends for reasons beyond the author’s ability to remedy; when the author is gone but nothing is left behind?  Since, as noted, I am gazing out toward the Gulf as I type, what could be more natural than to allow my gaze to linger off toward the east, where 17 miles away Florida beckons? And what is more “Florida” than John D. MacDonald and his iconic literary sidekick Travis McGee?

John D. MacDonald
       Okay, okay. I know there what you may be thinking. Does he intend to offer up as a premise a column that lumps Harper Lee -- a Pulitzer Prize winning (and beloved) artist -- with John D. MacDonald, the erstwhile paperback king who wrote almost 80 books over the course of a career that began in pulp fiction?  In a word:  Yep. But I'm not the only one who places MacDonald on a pretty high pedestal.  Back in 2003 Jonathan Yardley, literary critic for the Washington Post, went back to re-read MacDonald and came away incredulous, concluding that the body of work revealed the author as "one of the great characters in contemporary American fiction -- not crime fiction; fiction, period."  Yardley went on to explain:
This man whom I'd snobbishly dismissed as a paperback writer turned out to be a novelist of the highest professionalism and a social critic armed with vigorous opinions stingingly expressed. His prose had energy, wit and bite, his plots were humdingers, his characters talked like real people, and his knowledge of the contemporary world was -- no other word will do -- breathtaking.
       This is not the first time that I have offered up thoughts on MacDonald and McGee in this space. Unlike Harper Lee, who wrote but one book (now, two), John D. MacDonald (like Doyle) was prolific. He wrote almost 80 works of fiction and nonfiction, and 21 McGee novels before his sudden death in 1986. But he still left us hanging.  In the last of the Travis McGee series, The Lonely Silver Rain, McGee is confronted with several revelations (no further spoilers here!) but then, given MacDonald’s demise two years later, McGee’s fans are ultimately left to ponder where these revelations might have led.

       Like Harper Lee, whose sequel to Mockingbird was known by some friends to have existed, at least at one time, MacDonald, too, was rumored to have a final Travis McGee novel under lock and key.  I remember reading as much in a 1975 interview with MacDonald, and Stephen King has stated that before MacDonald's death he had discussed with King the backbone of what would be the final McGee adventure.  But all rumors of that final work, usually conjectured to bear the title A Black Border for McGee, were apparently baseless. MacDonald’s heirs have asserted that no such work exists, and have steadfastly refused all requests by other authors -- most notably one from Stephen King -- to continue (and properly end) the series. One caveat, here:  there is a little-known novel, The Black Squall, by Lori Stone, which sneaks around the heirs' prohibition by offering a final adventure clearly addressing what might have happened to Travis McGee and his friend Meyer, but doing so without ever using their actual names. But other than that, barring a Harper Lee, or Arthur Conan Doyle-like denouement -- a final work miraculously discovered -- that is it for McGee.

       So aside from The Black Squall (which, I admit, I have not read) the many fans of Travis McGee have had to look elsewhere over the last thirty years for a fix. And that has sparked a bit of a literary cottage industry among authors seeking to re-capture, and then offer to the reading public, the essence of McGee. 

       So, pause with me here. What, at base, is the Travis McGee formula?  What do readers look for in a Travis McGee novel?  The series evolved over time, but viewed in its entirety it seems to me MacDonald's McGee adventures are comprised of the following base elements: 

The Busted Flush, as imagined
       First, the series is centered around an “off the grid” protagonist with an off-beat lifestyle and home. McGee is a self-described beach bum who occasionally comes out of his “installment” retirement to take cases as a “salvage consultant,” working for 50 percent of the value of the property recovered. He lives in his 52 foot cabin cruiser, The Busted Flush, won in a poker game. His detached and unburdened lifestyle, and his luxury to observe the world around him as an objective critic, captures the reader. He narrates his own stories with spot-on observations and critiques of the world in which we live. We, as readers, nod in agreement and become wannabes. 

       Second, there is the “best friend” buddy who provides an intellectual counterpoint, someone with whom the protagonist can spar during the course of the narrative. This companion must be colorful in his own right, intelligent, and equally detached, but must in some respects stand in independent contrast to the protagonist. McGee’s “buddy” is Meyer, an erstwhile economist, who lives on his nearby book-packed ship, initially The John Maynard Keynes, later (after The Keynes fails to survive an adventure) The Thorstein Veblen. 

     Third, the stories, at their heart, focus on the strengths, and the largely man-made weaknesses, of the state of Florida. Even when they do not take place there, each Travis McGee adventure displays a love of the natural Florida ecosystems, a disgruntled horror as to what is happening to them, and a matching disdain for those who are “developing” the state out of existence. A kind word is never said about a double wide, a condominium, a jet ski or a Hawaiian shirt.  As Florida author Carl Hiassen has written: "Most readers loved MacDonald's work because he told a rip-roaring yarn. I loved it because he was the first modern writer to nail Florida dead-center, to capture all its languid sleaze, racy sense of promise, and breath-grabbing beauty." 

       Fourth, the adventures must be well written.  MacDonald often criticized what he viewed as "hack" writing, and his own works set a high bar with his clean and spare prose, his eye for detail, and his ear for dialog.  

       With these elements in mind, for those craving a Florida fix, or, more specifically, a Travis McGee fix, there are at least two series that work pretty hard to deliver: The Doc Ford series written by Randy Lee White, and the Thorn series written by James W. Hall. 

       Doc Ford, a retired NSA agent and marine biologist, has been the hero of 21 mysteries written by Randy Lee White, with a 22nd, Cuba Straits, due out this March. The similarities to the McGee stories are striking. Ford is decidedly “off the grid,” living in a stilt house above the water on the gulf coast of Florida and ostensibly making his living by peddling marine specimens to collectors and scientists. His best friend and sidekick (like Meyer, always referred to by a single name) is Tomlinson, a frequently stoned philosopher who lives nearby on a Morgan sailboat (also, in a direct nod to MacDonald, named The Thorstein Veblen).  And the Doc Ford stories invariably contain impassioned takes on the delicate Florida eco structure and the angry rants of a frustrated environmentalist protagonist as he witnesses what is happening to it. 

       Another take on the formula is James W. Hall’s series, featuring the loner Thorn. Thorn is also an environmentally-aware protagonist who lives in a Florida shack built above the water and makes his living tying fishing lures. He is an orphan and a maverick, and is usually aided by his (again, one-name) sidekick Sugarman, a Florida policeman (and, eventually, ex-policeman) who serves as Thorn's verbal sparring partner as they fight various injustices, including the abuses rendered to the Floridian land and sea. 

       Each of these series has its faithful followers, and each is well written. Randy Wayne White has authored over fifty books, fiction and non-fiction, under his own name and several aliases. James W. Hall is both a novelist and an accomplished poet. The reader expects well written prose from these gentlemen and the authors deliver. But having read most of White’s series and the first third of Hall’s, there is still something missing for a reader, such as myself, in search of Travis McGee. Maybe it is the fact that Doc Ford, and (I suspect) Randy Wayne White, at least for me, is a little too right wing for a steady diet. Maybe it’s the fact that entirely too many of the characters in Hall’s series end up dying, and in gratuitous ways unnecessary to the logical progression of the story. 

       But lets face it: criticism is easy. And, by the same token, concocting a riveting tale and telling the tale as well as MacDonald, by contrast, is hard.  It takes a real hand to pull off a Florida series that can be read as a steady diet.  I can’t even do that with Carl Hiaasen's novels. When I have read a few I feel the need to come up for air.  These books, and other Florida capers, are fine as far as they go, but they still pale when compared to the works of John D. MacDonald, in the words of Stephen King “the great entertainer of our age, and a mesmerizing storyteller.” 

The last Travis McGee novel
        It looks like those of us who wondered what ever happened to Scout and Atticus will get our answer this summer, fifty five years after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. And now we also have a new Sherlock Holmes story, thanks to that lost Arthur Conan Doyle manuscript.  MacDonald’s fans, of course, arguably have little to grouse about by contrast. The available MacDonald library is far greater than Harper Lee's two books, and McGee, on his own, weighs in with 21 installments. But, still, that has not stopped fans from wishing, and from searching out and then gobbling up similar Florida adventures.    

       For fans of these authors it is not so much how many books were written as it is facing the prospect that there will be no more.  It is that prospect that leaves us overjoyed at the unexpected promise of Go Set a Watchman or that final Sherlock Holmes story, and despairing over the fact that McGee's tale is apparently done.  The response of many of us to the fact that it is all over is a rift on McDonald’s three eternal words:

       “Please, not yet.”

21 February 2015

Impersonation





by John M. Floyd



Writers, like actors, spend a lot of time imagining that we are other people. That's how we make our characters real, and believable, and interesting. But if we want to be good writers, it also pays off to do some roleplaying outside the lives of our characters. What do I mean?

I mean we need to think like a reader when we write, and think like a writer when we read. This is nothing new--I've heard it many times, and you probably have also. But it does make sense.

Through the eyes of a reader

Oddly enough, thinking like a reader while you're in the process of writing can be one of those things that's more fun than work. You as a fiction writer are a manipulator; your job is to pull the reader into your story and make him believe, at least for that period of time, the world you've created. For that reason, you have to eventually develop the ability to see the flow of the plot and the actions of the characters in the mind of the reader. If you don't, your readers won't follow the story at the intensity level or the rate that you want them to. They'll either (1) fail to understand what you're saying, (2) figure things out before they're supposed to, or (3) become bored with the whole matter. In any of these cases, and certainly number (3), they probably won't even be readers anymore--at least not your readers. 

I have tried, over the years, to develop the knack of rereading what I've written in an earlier draft and seeing it as a first-time reader would see it. In other words, to make myself effectively ignore what I know is coming later and to picture the story only as a reader would at that point, page by page and paragraph by paragraph. I want to feel the anticipation generated in a proper opening, or the sudden threat of an evil reversal, or the joy of a positive twist, or the pure satisfaction of an "inevitable but unexpected" ending. I'm not always successful, but at least that's my goal.

If you can become successful at this kind of out-of-body evaluation of your work-in-progress, it can reveal plenty of things that you need to change or at least tweak in order to make your next draft more logical, believable, and suspenseful. If what happens in the story surprises and thrills you, it'll probably surprise and thrill the reader. And again, if it doesn't--well, you can catch it and fix it.

Through the eyes of a writer

Just as important, I think, is to be able to read the work of others as a writer as well as a reader. The next time you pick up a novel or a short story or sit down in front of a movie, try to put yourself in the mind of the writer. Why does he or she start things out that way? How did he choose his POV character? What does he do to draw you into the world--and the dilemma--of the protagonist? How does he make you feel such dislike for the villain(s)? How does he make you so interested in what will happen next?

I believe we should also watch for things we don't like in a piece of fiction. If something doesn't work, why doesn't it? I see that as a way to turn the mistakes of others into a learning exercise. If you hate the way such-and-such was handled in the story you're reading, analyze it and resolve not to make that error in your own fiction. (As I've said in earlier columns, I don't encourage writers to seek out substandard novels or movies--but if you happen to find yourself in the middle of one, try to figure out why it's so bad.) In the words of the wise doctor, "If that hurts, don't do it."

Funny thing: Finding and taking note of mistakes in a story is often easier than taking note of the positives. Why? Because if a book or short story or film is well done, we as readers or viewers are drawn so completely into its fantasy world that we don't notice the process. We get to the end, catch our breath as if we've been on a rollercoaster, and think Whoa, that was fun! In those cases, consider rereading parts of the story, or at least think back over the plotline to try to recall the details. If it was a movie, rent or replay the DVD. The truth is, the more you keep this evaluation process in mind, the more you'll eventually get to the point of studying all stories, well-done or poorly-done, even as you read or watch them. And--this is comforting to know--it doesn't lessen the enjoyment of the experience. I loved Stephen King's recent novel Mr. Mercedes, and while reading it I was aware at every moment of WHY this story was working as well as it was, for me. Will I now be able to write as well as the King? Of course not. But I might've learned things that'll make me a better writer than I was before.

Questions:

Do you find yourself consciously using either of these two "approaches" to better writing? Do you write with the reader always in mind? Do you look for the good and bad points in the work of others, and try to learn from them?

I hope I do. I try to.

Now I need to go read some more stories . . .