05 November 2019

Once Upon a Time in…Los Angeles


by Paul D. Marks

Me with gangster car at Melody Ranch backlot
Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood is getting a lot of notice for a lot of reasons, one of which is his recreation of a certain era of L.A. (1969) and various L.A. landmarks. And that’s our topic for today boys and girls. So if I might indulge in some personal memories of some of the locations in his movie. Unfortunately, in the really good old days, emphasis on old, we didn’t carry cameras with us all the time, so I don’t have a lot of pictures of those locations from then and what I do have are mostly in boxes and mostly not scanned.


Cinerama Dome

Entering the Cinerama Dome theatre when it was a new and exciting thing was like entering a giant geodesic egg (okay dome). It was a big deal when it first opened in the early 60s on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, a little east of the Strip. It was built specifically to play movies that were shot in the three camera Cinerama process. A process that didn’t last very long for a variety of reasons I won’t go into here.

I remember going there to see these exciting movies, only two of which were filmed in the real three camera Cinerama. After that movies called Cinerama were filmed in SuperPanavision 70 and released in some kind of Cinerama format, but they weren’t the real thing.

I think the first movie in full three camera Cinerama that played at the Dome, and one of the two in three camera Cinerama, was The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, an expansive movie about both the brothers Grimm (Laurence Harvey and Karl Boehm) and their fairytales. I remember being awed by the huge, curved screen. It was like you were enveloped in the fairytales.

The next was How The West Was Won, a thrilling epic western. I saw that when it opened there, too, and still have the book I got then. That was a time when big movies and things like companion books that went with the movie could be bought in the theatre. My book is just like the one in the picture here, though since mine is hiding away in a box this is a reasonable facsimile. I still watch the movie every once in a while, but listen to the music soundtrack often. The movie is definitely another Hollywood era and likely one we won’t see again. It was thrilling to see on the huge screen, especially that POV shot from inside the barrel rolling down the hill. If I recall, some people could have used airsickness bags.

In Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood Tarantino has Krakatoa: East of Java playing at the Dome in the background, and it did, and I saw it there. Unfortunately for the filmmakers, Krakatoa is west of Java. But no one figured that out till after the movie was done.

I saw a lot of movies at the Dome and it was always a thrill, but nothing like those first two in real Cinerama that made you believe you were in the middle of it, especially the action shots in How the West Was Won.


Casa Vega

Casa Vega is where Brad Pitt’s and Leonardo DiCaprio’s characters, Cliff Booth and Rick Dalton, tie one on in Once Upon a Time. And, if you love Mexican food, as I do, you end up trying a lot of Mexican restaurants. And one of them was Casa Vega. I used to go there a lot when I lived in the (San Fernando) Valley. The food was good, though I haven’t been there in a long time. It was a nice place to take a date or just hook up with friends for some margaritas, hot sauce and food.

And at least I never got asked to leave as I did in another Mexican restaurant where we were drinking margaritas by the pitcher and being obnoxious as young people, men and women, tend to be. And I started breaking the margarita glasses in my hand, on purpose. Just snapping them into pieces. After breaking a few of those the management politely asked if we could get the hell out. But Casa Vega was a little higher class place and nothing like that ever happened there.

Since I live so far away now I haven’t been there in a while, but writing this is making me hungry for Mexican food and it might just be worth the drive. Who knows, maybe I’ll run into Rick and Cliff.


Playboy Mansion

A party scene was filmed at the mansion…which was/is famous for its parties. Unfortunately, I never made it there, but I went to plenty of fun Hollywoodsy parties, with a lot of the same people who partied with Hef and his bunnies. The less said about most of those the better. Still, it would have been nice to go to the Playboy Mansion once or twice.


El Coyote


El Coyote, one of my favorite places
I’ve been to all the places on this list (except one) many times and have enjoyed them all over the years, well, maybe enjoy isn’t the right word for the last one on the list. But the one place (besides
Corriganville) that is very special to me is El Coyote. Now, this is a place I’ve been to at least a million times. You probably think I’m exaggerating, but hardly. I lived pretty near as a kid and we’d go often, probably since I was about 3. In fact, my mom went when she was a kid and it was at a different location. And when I lived in West L.A. as an adult, it was my home away from home. I’d often meet my friend Buddy (name changed) since his photography studio and my apartment were equidistant from EC from different directions. But I’d go there with everyone and often. When I met Amy, the future and now current wife, she had to pass 3 tests:

1. Like the Beatles – she passed with flying colors.

2. Not smoke – again, she passed with flying colors.

3. Like El Coyote – now this one was more iffy as she’d never been there. Would she like it or would she not? Will she or won’t she? This was a make or break issue. I could never marry someone who didn’t like El Coyote. I could be friends with them, lots of people I know don’t like it. It’s the kind of place you either love or hate. So I’m tolerant, I can be friends with EC Haters, but I couldn’t marry one. My heart raced as we made our way into the tackiest restaurant on the planet. We ordered our food. I awaited the verdict – she liked it. We got married that day. Well, not really, but we did get married. And it seems to have taken. And we both still like it but we live pretty far now so we don’t get there as often as we used to. But every now and then we need a fix.

I even had my bachelor party at El Coyote in a back room. It was a co-ed bachelor party, but Amy didn’t come, though in retrospect I don’t see why she couldn’t have. Well, maybe there was just that one… And I set a lot of scenes there in things that I write. Well, they say write what you know and I know El Coyote pretty well.


When Buddy and I used to go there, about once a week, I’d get in fights with people for smoking before the anti-smoking in restaurant laws were passed. One of them was a doozy, but I’d probably get in trouble all over again if I went into the details.

And I’m not the only person who loved El Coyote. It was Sharon Tate’s favorite restaurant. And on August 8, 1969 she and Wojciech Frykowski and Abigail Folger had dinner there – what turned out to be their ‘last supper’. Roman Polanski was out of town. And Tarantino recreates that last supper in Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood. Supposedly, he shot at the same booth they actually ate at. It’s a poignant moment when you know what is to follow in real life.


Musso & Frank

Musso & Frank is a Hollywood Time Machine back to the past. To the glory days of Hollywood. What can you say, an L.A. institution. Been around since 1919 and recently celebrated its 100th birthday. On Hollywood Boulevard, though Hollywood Boulevard ain’t what it used to be…if it ever was.
Amy and me at Musso a couple of months ago with
one of the famous red-coated waiters in the b.g.

It hasn’t changed much since it was founded, and I’d bet real money that some of the waiters are the original ones from 1919. Musso’s is the kind of place that the phrase “if these walls could talk” was invented for. And if they could you might hear Chaplin or Bogart or Marilyn Monroe saying things they’d never say in public. And speaking of Bogart, it’s like that line in Casablanca, “everyone comes to Rick’s,” well, in real life sooner or later everyone comes to Musso’s.

When there, in the wood and red leather booths, eating your Welsh rarebit, if you squint just a little you can still see the ghosts of Fitzgerald and John Fante (one of my favorite LA writers), Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. If you cup your ear just right you might hear Dorothy Park quip off an ironic bon mot. If you close your eyes for a few seconds you can see a whole array of Hollywood royalty, actors and screenwriters and if you open them you might see them in the flesh, even today.
There was even a semi-secret back room, where writers of all kinds would hang. Well hang out.
The food is mostly trad, things like Welsh rarebit, steaks, chicken pot pie, Lobster Thermidor and the like. And there’s a full bar, which reminds me: I’m pissed off about the last time I went there a couple months ago. I’ve been wanting a Harvey Wallbanger in the worst way, which you used to be able to get just about anywhere but is almost impossible these days. But for some reason I forgot to see if they still made them there and ordered something else. Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to go back. Research, you know.

Musso is where DiCaprio and Brad Pitt meet Al Pacino in the movie.


The Bruin Theatre

The Bruin Theater is in Westwood. UCLA is in Westwood, just a couple blocks north. Westwood used to be one of the places to go on dates and for fun. Westwood used to have about a dozen bookstores and it was great fun walking from one to another, each a little different, and coming home with an armload of books. All fun and terrific. Then there was a gang shooting and people largely stopped going. I went on the second half of my first date with Amy there. First we went to a screening, then we went to a restaurant called Yesterdays that I liked to go to in those days. There was a live band playing a lot of Beatles music, so it was a perfect first date 😊.

I used to see a lot of movies at the Bruin and the Village theater across the street. There’d even be premiers and sneak previews. They were big, old-fashioned theatres, with big screens, not divided into tiny little theatres that make you wish you would have just watched something on your big screen TV.

And I guess, according to Tarantino’s fable Sharon Tate went there and watched a Matt Helm movie that she was in. But if I were to have put my feet on the seat in front me like she does in the movie I probably would have been kicked out.


Corriganville

As I mentioned in my SleuthSayers post of September 24, 2019, Corriganville is one of my favorite places on Earth. Of course, it’s not the same today as it was then. Then it was a working movie ranch and tourist attraction, today it’s a park. But I have my memories.

Recently, Tarantino recreated the Spahn Ranch of Manson Family infamy at Corriganville Park for Once Upon a Time. I’m not sure why he didn’t do it at Spahn, which is just down the road. And down a piece from that is the former Iverson Ranch, the greatest movie ranch of all, imo. If you’ve seen The Lone Ranger TV series you’ve seen the Iverson Ranch. The famous Lone Ranger Rock, where he rears Silver in the opening, was on the Iverson. The rock is still there and parts of the former ranch are park today, but most of it is developed.

If you missed my Corriganville piece, check out it out at https://www.sleuthsayers.org/2019/09/once-upon-time-in-corriganville.html.


Melody Ranch

“Do not forsake me, oh, my darlin’…” is how the theme song to High Noon opens. I love cowboy music, as distinct from country-western, and that is one of my favorite songs, from a truly classic western movie. And some of that movie was shot at Melody Ranch.

I’ve done some “time” there, and Melody Ranch is another fun and fave place. And it’s still going strong as a movie location ranch. I doubt if you could count high enough to reach the number of things filmed there which, besides High Noon, include Combat (TV series), Deadwood (TV series), Django Unchained, The Gene Autry Show, The (of course) Gunsmoke (TV series), Westworld (TV series) and tons of others. Tons.

On the western street at Melody Ranch
It got the name “Melody Ranch” from Gene Autry when he owned it, naming it after his radio show. But in terms of the movie biz, it started out as Monogram Ranch. Monogram was one of the low-low-low budget film companies that were around in the 1930s. They merged with Republic Pictures, the King of B film studios, and the ranch became theirs. Autry bought it in 1953 and stabled his horse Champion there until he died in 1990. Today it’s about 22 acres and owned independently. At its height, I believe it used to be about 110 acres.

Tarantino used the ranch as the location for the Lancer set in Once Upon a Time.

I love backlots, soundstages, exterior sets, whether I’m there for business or pleasure. And Melody Ranch, with all its history, is a fun place to be.








Aquarius Theatre

The more things change, well, you know the rest.

The Aquarius theatre in Once Upon a Time is a Hollywood landmark on Sunset Boulevard. It went through many incarnations since its opening as the Earl Carrol Theatre (Earl Carrol was known for the Vanities, and the theatre was a supper club with stage shows). If you remember the old TV show Queen for Day, it broadcast from there for a time. In the 60s, it became a rock venue called the Hullabaloo, which eventually morphed into the Kaleidoscope club. Between the two, lots of big acts played there. Canned Heat, Jefferson Airplane, Love, the Grateful Dead, the Byrds, the Yardbirds, the Doors, many more, and, of course, the Seeds. I saw many of these bands, though not all at the Hullabaloo/Aquarius, whatever it was called at the time. I have a friend who saw the Seeds there (remember them, “Pushin’ Too Hard) about 600 times. I exaggerate, but not by much and maybe he didn’t see all their shows there. And then it became the home of Hair for what seemed like forever.
In 1968, the exterior was repainted and it became the Aquarius and home of the play Hair for I think about 130 years, give or take a decade or two. And, of course, it changed a lot over the decades, but not too long ago it was repainted back to its psychedelic glory to look as it did in 1968/69. I don’t recall in the movie that anything was set there, just that Pitt and DiCaprio drive by and it lends background atmosphere to the time frame. Definitely a blast from the past.

And, while I have some memories there, I thought I’d turn the rest of this section over to my friend Terry Tally, who practically lived there:

“Walking into the Hullabaloo Theater in 1967 was like stepping back in time. Originally a posh supper club called the Earl Carroll Theater, it was built in 1938, and renamed the Moulin Rouge by Ciro's owner Frank Sennes before becoming the Hullabaloo in 1966. Its interior was a throwback to a bygone era with its classic bar, sweeping staircase to the lounges, the larger than life art deco statue of Beryl Wallace, and elegant tuck and roll seating. I saw The Seeds many times in those days whose signature song Pushing Too Hard opened the door for me to other garage bands of the time. Music was really happening in L.A. and many bands like Love, The Doors, Buffalo Springfield, and The Byrds played there on the unique revolving stage where one band would exit while still playing and another would come on playing their first song in a cool rotation.

You didn't need to be 21 to get in, and it was the hangout place for young Hollywood hipsters and babes in mini-skirts. Kids would be jammed under the porte cochere waiting to get in, and there were always familiar faces in the crowd. My wife and I share memories of seeing the same shows, though we didn’t know each other at the time, where many of the 60s greatest musicians launched their careers alongside house band The Yellow Payges, The Strawberry Alarm Clock, Sopwith Camel, The Troggs, Hamilton Streetcar, The Peanut Butter Conspiracy, The Standells, and The Music Machine whose members all wore black leather gloves.”


Vogue Theatre

My friends Andy, Richard and I used to go up to Hollywood Boulevard to see movies, sometimes all three, sometimes just two of us. We saw tons of movies there. I know we went to the Vogue, but to be honest I don’t remember what we saw there. There were a bunch of theatres on the Boulevard and we’d hit them all. At that time, Hollywood Boulevard was no place to write home about. Maybe not as bad as Times Square was before it got Disneyfied, but bad enough in most parts of it. But at least there were no dorks dressed up in costumes charging you to take a picture with them like there is today with Spiderman, Batman and the others haunting Hollywood Boulevard from one end to the other. And God forbid if you try to take one of their pictures without paying. Hopefully your insurance is paid up.

One of our favorite genres, and believe me, it was a genre, were (outlaw) biker movies and there were a ton of them in the late 60s.

The Wild Angels, Hells Angels on Wheels, Glory Stompers, Born Losers (which introduced the character of Billy Jack. And while a lot of these movies don’t hold up for me today, I still love Born Losers.). And, of course, Hells Angels ’69 (in which many Hells Angels played, uh, Hells Angels – how cool was that), which is appropriate because that’s the year Tarantino’s movie takes place. And many, many more. In fact, Jack Nicholson became famous in Easy Rider. But I knew him well already from these low budget biker movies and Roger Corman movies. He was no overnight sensation to me 😉.

So, one time Andy and I are heading to one of the theatres on the Boulevard. We walk up outside and there’s a ton of choppers backed into the curb. I don’t remember how many, but I’m thinking realistically maybe thirty. That’s a lot. And the theatre they’re parked out front is playing one of the biker movies we’re heading to see. We were young, and maybe stupid, but we bought our tickets and went inside. And about ten rows back from the screen is a row of Hells Angels and their girls. Now, they’re not sitting staggered throughout the near-empty theatre, they’re sitting from one side of the theatre in one very long row.

We sat a few rows behind them. And we knew if they talked or howled or did whatever they might do we weren’t going to ask them to shut up. So the movie started. And they sat in rapt attention. They might have talked a little or laughed, but mostly they were just glued to the screen. And for all we knew they were on the screen.

We didn’t bother them. And they didn’t bother us. But it gave a little more verisimilitude to the movie to have them there.

I don’t remember which movie it was or really which theatre, but it could very well have been the Vogue. And, as I recall, from Once Upon a Time, there isn’t really a scene set there, but Tarantino dressed up the marquee the way it would have been in 1969 for the background, since it looks a bit different today.


Cielo Drive

Back in the day, the good old days in some ways, the bad old days in others, and for years after the Sharon Tate murders in a house on Cielo Drive, almost everyone who came from outside of L.A. wanted me to take them up there for a drive-by (so to speak). So I would dutifully do so. We’d drive by the house. They’d gawk at whatever they could see of it. Say how horrible it was, all the usual stuff. I was never really sure what the fascination was. Some kind of morbid fascination with Manson, with L.A., whatever.

The people who eventually bought the house had it torn down, I think partially because they were tired of the gawkers and partly because when Sharon Tate and her friends were murdered it was such a shocking crime. Today, the property is still there, with a new house on it. But nobody’s asked me to take them there in a long, long time. I assume that’s because it’s not the house and also because these days we have shocking crimes every other day and the property on Cielo is old hat. Plenty of new murder scenes to check out. If you’re lucky maybe even a fresh one, with the cops still there.

***

There’s more places in Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood that I could talk about, but this is a partial trip into my town. I loved growing up in L.A., there were so many pop cultural touchstones and I got to see or participate in many of them. I still love L.A., though today I’d say it’s more of a love-hate relationship. But regardless of anything else, my heart will always be here in one way or another.

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:


Don't forget to check out Broken Windows, the sequel to my Shamus award-winning novel, White Heat. Betty Webb at Mystery Scene magazine says: "Broken Windows is extraordinary."



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

04 November 2019

Mythic Mystery


The last few nights I have been watching Die Walkure on PBS. I am not a big Wagner fan, finding his operas slow going, despite all the exotic trappings, the remarkable singers, and the frequently beautiful music. But I had seen broadcasts of the production when it debuted at the Met a decade ago, and I was curious to hear the new cast and to see how the famous – or infamous – Lepage machine had held up.

Wotan tries to get Fricka to see things his way
What struck me on this second viewing was how contemporary the situation was and how familiar the details of the whole Ring must be to any modern mystery aficionado. It’s a classic story of greed and power leading to disaster and regret, with some right up-to-the-minute touches.

Wotan’s troubles really start with luxury real estate in the opening of the Ring cycle. He goes into debt to the giants Fafner and Fasolt in order to build Valhalla, a home for the gods, complete with the rainbow bridge to bring the dead heroes who will defend the gods in the afterlife. Just how that will work out is left unclear, but later on, Wotan will worry that his semi-undead army might be led astray by bribes from a rival.

Those worries are in the future. The giants build Valhalla and, as contractors are wont to do, demand payment. When Wotan is short of cash, the giants seize Freia, the goddess of youth and beauty. The gods realize that this is a bad bargain, for without Freia, they are going to age and die.

Crisis in Valhalla. Wotan and Loki, fire god and trickster, go off to seize the Rheingold. The McGuffin in the opera of the same name, the Rheingold, had already been stolen from the Rhine Maidens by the master craftsman, Albrecht, who has forged the Ring of the Nibelungs, a trinket which guarantees world domination at least some of the time.

The Valkyries
Alas for Wotan, though he and Loki trick Albrecht and seize the treasure, every last scrap including the famous Ring is owed to the giants. They, in turn, immediately fall out over it. Fasolt is killed and Fafner, in a real self re-invention, turns himself  into a dragon, slinks back to the Nibelung forest and guards the golden hoard in his cave.

Wotan has his palace, the giant has his payment. All should be well, but Wotan, Valhalla in hand, wants the security of the Ring and realizes that his hands are tied by the treaties he has made with his rivals. Unlike certain modern politicians who withdraw from treaties without more ado, Wotan wants plausible deniability. He wants a hero who will, as heroes in these things tend to do, fight the dragon and get the gold.

Wotan sets out on this dodgy project, romancing first Erda, the wise earth goddess, and producing the Valkyries, lively equestriennes in odd costumes with wonderful music. But though Brunhilde, the protagonist of Die Walkure, is the most complex, morally alert and interesting character in the whole Ring, she is not a hero. Male gender required.

Brunhilde
Wotan’s second try, a liason with a mortal woman, produces the ill-fated twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde. While the boy is out hunting with his father, the family home is attacked by Hunding, a nasty piece of work, who murders the mother and kidnaps Sieglinde, forcing her to marry him, combining a @MeToo moment with news out of the Middle East.

Siegmund, brave, loyal, devoted, has hero written all over him, but when he finds his sister and falls in love with her, he offends the Fricka, queen of the gods and defender of marriage. Siegmund must die, and only Brunhilde’s courage saves Sieglinde and her unborn child. This will be the long-sought hero who, hampered by a notable lack of sophistication, will kill the dragon, marry his aunt, betray her love, get himself killed and bring on Gotterdammerung.

It’s a lot of keep in mind, but somehow with a philandering politician, a wronged but shrewd wife, luxury real estate, unsupportable debt loads, more or less bare-faced theft, plausible deniability, not to mention rape, murder, and mayhem, the world of the Ring doesn’t really seem that exotic.

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?

02 November 2019

A Pair of Kings





For many years, one of my favorite writers has been Stephen King. I started with The Stand, which I still consider to be his best novel (next best: 11/22/63), and recently finished his latest, The Institute. Looking up now at my shelves, I count 71 of his books, including a couple that are nonfiction and several that are collaborations. I liked 'em all.

Even though he's prolific, to say the least, King still can't write novels and stories fast enough to suit me, so imagine how pleased I was to learn, several years ago, that his son Joe--pen name Joe Hill--was cranking out fiction as well. I also own all of Hill's books (my favorite: The Fireman), and a few days ago I finished reading his latest, a collection of short stories called Full Throttle.

I won't try to summarize every story in this collection, but I'll mention some that stood out, for me:


"All I Care About Is You" -- A story about the future, and about relationships between humans and machines. I think this is one of the two best stories in the book, and one of several that brought tears to my eyes. Science fiction at its finest.

"Throttle" -- A plot that Hill says was inspired by Richard Matheson's short story "Duel" (and its screen adaptation), this is a story about a group of bikers who are targeted and terrorized by a monster truck and its faceless driver. One of two stories in this book co-written with Stephen King.

"Late Returns" -- In this story a librarian takes a job driving an antique Bookmobile, and finds that some of the customers who visit him on his route have been dead for fifty years or more. An emotional and satisfying story, otherworldly but not horrific.

"Faun" -- Another tale inspired by a late author and one of his masterpieces--in this case Ray Bradbury and his short story "A Sound of Thunder." Here, a team of big-game hunters travels through a magical door in a New England farmhouse to a fantasy-world forest of orcs and fauns and centaurs.

"In the Tall Grass" -- One of the scariest and weirdest of the stories featured here. A young man and woman driving across the country make an unscheduled stop in rural Kansas when they hear a child's voice calling to them from a field of eight-foot-tall grass beside the road. The good Samaritans enter the tall grass to try to find him and find unspeakable horror instead. I didn't like this quite as much as I figured I would, but it's still good, and I thought it was better than the Netflix Original adaptation I watched the other night.

"By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain" -- To me, the best story in the book. The plot involves two  children who discover the dead body of a Nellie-like dinosaur at the water's edge, and what happens afterward. A fantastic short story, soon to be an episode of the streaming series Creepshow.


Have any of you read Full Throttle yet? If so, what did you think? Has anyone read Joe Hill?

I'm already looking forward to his next book.



01 November 2019

Crime Scene Comix Case 2019-11-006, Shifty in Love


by Velma

We welcome our criminally favorite cartoonist, Future Thought channel of YouTube, back to SleuthSayers. They produce more than one animated comic, but our favorite is Shifty.

It was bound to happen– Shifty falls in love. Naturally when our boy courts a girl, courting means something entirely different. Don’t pierce thine heart on the prick of roses.


That’s today’s crime cinema. Hope you enjoyed the show. Be sure to visit Future Thought YouTube channel.

31 October 2019

It Was a Dark & Stormy Night...



Happy Halloween! 

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."


                            –Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford

Ah, yes. The cliched opening to end all cliched openings! "It was a dark and stormy night..." much parodied, and the author cited above, Edward Bulwer-Lytton ("Lord Lytton" to his friends, you peasants!) is more infamous for this tortured opening line than he is for helping establish the Canadian province of British Columbia, for turning down the crown of the Kingdom of Greece, or for coining such time-honored turns of phrase as "the pen is mightier than the sword," "the almighty dollar," and a host of others. 

Funny story: Bulwer-Lytton didn't even coin this line. He just used it about twenty years after Washington Irving (Of "Sleepy Hollow" fame) actually coined it in his famously satiric work, A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker, in 1809.

And it was used over and over again throughout the 19th century (and in fact Paul Clifford, the novel in which Bulwer-Lytton employed it, was a runaway best-seller until literary tastes began to veer away from this sort melodramatic description). And what did Bulwer-Lytton get for his trouble?



Well, there's a yearly writing contest sponsored in his name by San Jose State University's English Department, with the avowed goal of writing "an atrocious opening sentence to a hypothetical bad novel."

For all of Bulwer-Lytton's opening being widely panned for generations, it does definitely accomplish one essential goal: it sets the scene quickly and vividly. The reader is dropped right into the middle of the action, and has a clear image of what is happening right away.

I had this on my mind in the run-up to this evening's blog post, especially in light of the fact that my turn in the rotation this year lands on Halloween. So I got to thinking on the idea, looked around for good examples of opening lines/scene-setting so effective that in some ways they served as almost another character.

I've written on this sort of thing before. If you're interested in my own unfiltered thoughts on this subject, you can find them here.

So since I've offered my thoughts on this topic before, I decided to solicit opinions from writer friends–all of whom are smarter than yours truly–and was thrilled by the response I got. I've recreated them below, completely unfiltered. 

Some respondents gave a great opening line. Others cited an effective opening paragraph. Still others offered examples of what worked as well as holding forth articulately and compellingly as to why they found said examples so effect.

In other words, on this Samhain, the eve before that Feast of All Souls, I offer you a veritable smorgasbord of considered opinions on this subject. 

And once you've finished with their opinions, go buy their books!

Read on...







Matthew Quinn Martin:  


“Where’s Papa going with that ax?”

(First line from Charlotte’s Web)









Curt Colbert:

"I am all in a sea of wonders. I doubt; I fear; I think strange things, which I dare not confess to my own soul."

                                                             – Bram Stoker, Dracula                   
  





Eve Fisher: 
I have always loved this opening (From Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest).  Talk about scene as character...


"I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn't think anything of what he had done to the city's name. Later I heard men who could manage their r's give it the same pronunciation. I still didn't see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves' word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better...

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

Nothing that goes on in this town is going to end well, is it?





Sam Wiebe: 

"There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge."

                                                –Raymond Chandler, "Red Wind"






Stacy Robinson:

"The night was clear and fine above us. The stars shone cold and bright, while a
half-moon bathed the whole scene in a soft, uncertain light. Before us lay the dark bulk of the house, its serrated roof and bristling chimneys hard outlined against the silver-spangled sky. Broad bars of golden light from the lower windows stretched across the orchard and the moor. One of them was suddenly shut off. The servants had left the kitchen. There only remained the lamp in the dining-room where the two men, the murderous host and the unconscious guest, still chatted over their cigars.

"Every minute that white woolly plain which covered one-half of the moor was drifting closer and closer to the house. Already the first thin wisps of it were curling across the golden square of the lighted window. The farther wall of the orchard was already invisible, and the trees were standing out of a swirl of white vapour. As we watched it the fog-wreaths came crawling round both corners of the house and rolled slowly into one dense bank on which the upper floor and the roof floated like a strange ship upon a shadowy sea. Holmes struck his hand passionately upon the rock in front of us and stamped his feet in his impatience.

                     –Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles           





Bill Cameron:

I have a problem with authority, especially writing authorities. I don’t care how illustrious they are. When Stephen King says don’t use adverbs then by golly I’m gonna adverbly adverb till the turgidly adverbial cows homely come.

So it may come as no surprise that one of my favorite openings to one of my favorite books breaks a rule by another illustrious writer. It literally opens with a dark and stormy night.

"The gray day ended as it began, too cold for May, and threatening a storm. Now the wind swept out of the east, lashing the sea. It drove the tide up through the harbor and past the town, into the great salt marsh beyond."

Today, The Mystery of the Witches’ Bridge would be called a middle grade book, though that category didn’t exist as such in 1967 when it was first published. I first read it in fourth grade, and return to it at least once a year. The opening continues, still quite stormy and nighty:

"Here, for half the course of the clock, the sea would invade the land. The black tide, branching and rebranching into its creeks and waterways, would fill and overflow the ancient beds of salt hay. It would hide, for a time, the treacherous salt ponds. Then around midnight the tide would halt, and slowly draw back into the sea.

"But all night long the wind and the rain, like powers of darkness, would turn this wasteland into a wild witches’ sabbath."

You could never get away with opening a book like that nowadays. An editor would Track Changes all that weather into oblivion, and if you indie-pubbed it, the first Amazon review would be a 1-star rant citing Elmore Leonard. (To be sure, Leonard offered exceptions to his “don’t open with weather” one sentence after declaring it, and Stephen King uses plenty of adverbs. Not even these literary deities suggested their rules were absolute.)

In a way, I sorta get it. I mean, we don’t even meet our first person, the main character Dan, until page two—after yet another paragraph following that witches’ sabbath bit. Certainly in this impatient era, many folks wouldn’t bother reading to page two, though they might take the time to make a Facebook post or tweet about it. To paraphrase another book opening (one far more famous), it is a truth universally acknowledged that people on the internet will assert their literary pet peeves are, well, universal truths.

And yet, for me, this book and this opening probably did more to make me a writer than any other single work. Is it florid and melodramatic? Yes. So am I. Is it a rebranching tidal meander that takes its own damn time? Absolutely. And so do I. Would it be declared unreadable, overwrought dreck by many self-appointed writing geniuses on the internet? . . . Well, you see where I’m going here.

What this particular dark and stormy night does for me is set a tone and establish a sense of place such that when we finally meet Dan, we already understand and feel the sense of dread that infuses him as he enters this turbulent landscape. And I’m not ashamed to say I love the hell out of it.





Renee Patrick:

California is the true protagonist of Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer novels, as Archer would be the first to admit. In The Drowning Pool, Archer takes a dip in the ocean because the Pacific "was as close as I ever got to cleanliness and freedom, as far as I ever got from all the people ... There was nothing wrong with Southern California that a rise in the ocean level wouldn’t cure." Macdonald could anatomize the Golden State like few others. Also from The Drowning Pool, here's Archer pulling into a suddenly prosperous burg: "The oil wells from which the sulphur gas rose crowded the slopes on both sides of the town. I could see them from the highway as I drove in: the latticed triangles of the derricks where trees had grown, the oil-pumps nodding and clanking where cattle had grazed. Since 'thirty-nine or 'forty, when I had seen it last, the town had grown enormously, like a tumor. It had thrust out shoots in all directions: blocks of match-box houses in raw new housing developments and the real estate shacks to go with them, a half-mile gauntlet of one-story buildings along the highway: veterinarians, chiropractors, beauty shops, marketerias, restaurants, bars, liquor stores. There was a new four-story hotel, a white frame gospel tabernacle, a bowling alley wide enough to house a B-36. The main street had been transformed by glass brick, plastic, neon. A quiet town in a sunny valley had hit the jackpot hard, and didn't know what to do with itself at all."

Macdonald lovingly crafted an entire fictional California geography. Several of his books are set in Pacific Point, which "rose from sea level in a gentle slope, divided neatly into social tiers, like something a sociologist had built to prove a theory" (The Way Some People Die). In the penultimate Archer novel Sleeping Beauty, the town is under threat from a man-made ecological disaster. Archer is returning from a getaway to Mazatlan when he spies oil out of the airplane's window: "It lay on the blue water off Pacific Point in a free-form slick that seemed miles wide and many miles long. An offshore oil platform stood up out of its windward end like the metal handle of a dagger that had stabbed the world and made it spill black blood."

Instead of driving home he heads to Pacific Point to witness the destruction firsthand. "From the hill above the harbor, I could see the enormous slick spreading like premature night across the sea. At its nearest it was perhaps a thousand yards out, well beyond the dark brown kelp beds which formed a natural barrier offshore. Workboats were moving back and forth, spraying the edges of the spill with chemicals. They were the only boats I could see on the water. A white plastic boom was strung across the harbor entrance, and gulls that looked like white plastic whirled above it." Archer joins the handful of people at the shore's edge, their mood grim. "They looked as if they were waiting for the end of the world, or as if the end had come and they would never move again."

Things get worse from there.





Jay Stringer:

Setting as character? I always come back to the idea that character is something that is revealed. A trait. The nature of a person. Can a location have a nature all of its own, or is it given one by the people who inhabit the space? How can writers reveal the character of a setting?


My favourite example, by far, is from the Josh Stallings heist novel Young Americans:

“One hundred feet past the Humboldt County line was a liquor store/gas station. She did not buy skunk weed from the kid selling it out of his wizard-painted van. She did make a phone call.”

That passage puts you in the moment. You know that place. You know how it feels, and how the air smells. Not really menacing, I guess? That depends on your relationship to weed, wizard-painted vans, or the guys who inhabited them. I’m not here to judge.

If I’m going to try and play by the rules and share an example that gives the
reader a sense of menace, I point you to the pure fear I felt during a recent re-read of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. As a teenager, the part that put my pants in the washing machine was Matt hearing the sound of a bedroom window opening down the hall. Coming back to the book as an adult, in the current political and social climate, I had to put the book down for a good long while after this:

“They walked slowly from room to room, as if their bodies had become glassy and fragile, and they turned on all the lights, and they did not look out their windows. That above all else. They did not look out their windows.”

By this point in the book, the vampires have started taking over the town, walking the streets at night. The passage might not give you a single description of the setting, but it reveals the hell out of the town’s character.




 And there you have it, something for everyone looking for input on the importance of setting in great storytelling. Thanks to all of my friends who chimed in. You guys are the best.

One last thing: this week Down and Out Books published the second of a pair of crime fiction anthologies I collected and edited. Both are inspired by the music of jazz-rock giants Steely Dan, and are thematically linked, but more than stand on their own as superb works of fiction. So if you get a chance, consider getting a copy of A Beast Without A Name, available wherever you go to get your crime fiction fix.

Thanks, and Happy Halloween!