10 March 2023

Echoing "Get Involved"

R.T. Lawton’s SleuthSayers post of February 26th provides excellent advice. If any of you missed it, it’s entitled – ”Get Involved.”

R.T. advises writers to “attend a few writers conferences” and explains about striking up conversations, maybe volunteer, attend receptions. Networking. Meet other writers, editors, publishers, agents. He also advises writers to join local writer’s organizations and run for office.

Excellent advice.

I’m pretty sure I’ve read some things posted by John Floyd and Barb Goffman and others echoing some of this.

Michael Bracken recently posted about writers improving their craft in workshop settings if you can find one. Again, good advice.

I don’t take that advice for a number of reasons I do not want to explain. The fault is in me. It’s just the way I am. I just write. As I age, I find writing easier, ideas keep coming and the passion remains to pound each idea out of the block of marble into something smooth.

I keep pulling away from socializing and find that I’ve offended friends on occasion, writers I admire, for not accepting invitations to socialize. I’m more withdrawn these days.

Did not intend to make this blog about me but I have been asked by friends about these things, so there it is.

So, do what the others say instead of what I do.

Get involved with other writers, editors, publishers, agents.

Short Mystery Fiction Society lunch at the Napoleon House Restaurant during
New Orleans Bouchercon, 2016. Lot of familiar faces.

I was there. I took the picture.

That's all for now.

09 March 2023

Truth in What?

We've had some crazy times up here in the South Dakota Legislature.  (I know, so what else is new?) 

We had "Boobgate" – where a Senator and her husband decided to discuss breast feeding and how to get your spouse to help you (with hand gestures) to a young female staffer in the staffer's office.  You really can't make this stuff up.  (LINK

We have had seemingly endless anti-trans, anti-drag, anti- bills.  The anti-trans / anti-gender affirming care passed.  BTW, no one seemed to note that this bill denied parental rights in medical care for their child, i.e., if the parents agreed that their minor needed gender affirming care.... it was still illegal.  And how about this bit from HB 1080?

Section 2: Except as provided in section 3 of this Act, a healthcare professional may not, for the purpose of attempting to alter the appearance of, or to validate a minor's perception of, the minor’s sex, if that appearance or perception is inconsistent with the minor's sex, knowingly:
(6) Remove any healthy or non-diseased body part or tissue.

And the only exceptions in Section 3 are for a "medically verifiable disorder of sex development, including external biological sex characteristics that are irresolvably ambiguous; A minor diagnosed with a disorder of sexual development... or A minor needing treatment for an infection, injury, disease, or disorder.

Sounds like that outlaws circumcision, doesn't it?  I see lawsuits coming up. 

The anti-drag show bills did not pass, perhaps partially because "Tootsie: The Musical" was playing at the Washington Pavilion during the legislature, and enough legislators realized that they'd occasionally enjoyed a good comedy that depended on one of the male characters being dressed as a woman and wanted to continue to be able to have a good laugh.  (As I've said before, you can have my copy of "Some Like It Hot" when you tear it from my cold, dead hands.)  

The legislature declined to help local counties build new jails with funding, ignoring "the drastic increase in crime" that was the reason they passed at least one of Governor Noem's pet projects, two new prisons, one in Rapid City, and one outside of Sioux Falls.  

And they went into a real tear about inmates serving their time.  There was a "Truth in Sentencing" bill which would require that inmates convicted of violent crimes serve 80% of their sentence before being considered eligible for parole.  Well, I wrote a lot of people about that one.  Because here's the deal:  sentencing comes after a conviction, which comes after a trial, which comes after being charged by the state's attorney, and what the state's attorney charges someone with can... vary.  

True story, no names given:  When I was teaching at SDSU, I had a white student who was arrested, tried and convicted of killing his father.  He was charged with Second Degree Manslaughter and got 20 years.  Meanwhile, a Native American was arrested, tried and convicted of killing someone in a bar brawl that got taken out into the parking lot.  He was charged with First Degree Manslaughter and got life without parole.  So killing your father gets less time than killing someone in a drunken brawl?  What's fair about that?  

True story, all names given:  Former AG Jason Ravnsborg struck and killed a man while driving late at night.  The sheriff drove him home, and no alcohol test was made until the next day; Ravnsborg swore he thought it was a deer, even though the man's eyeglasses were in the front seat of his car, proving the man went through windshield; etc., etc., etc. Prosecutors chose not to charge Ravnsborg with vehicular homicide or second-degree manslaughter. (Yes, I know guys who are doing time in the pen for such behavior.) Instead, he was charged with careless driving (which was dismissed), driving out of his lane, and operating a car while using a cellphone.  He had to pay $1,000 and court costs, and that was it.  In that case just about everyone agreed with me that this was special treatment, and the uproar eventually resulted in his impeachment:  but he never spent a day in jail.  He was never even fingerprinted.  


Except we know it won't happen.

Then there's a recent case where a Native American got out on parole and got arrested for his 8th DUI.  So that launched a new set of demands for mandatory prison sentencing for multiple DUIs, etc., which will only apply to "certain people". I know this because, back when I worked for the UJS, I saw a man whose family was very influential / wealthy / powerful in a certain county, who was constantly being stopped for DUI, often in possession of drugs, often escorted home, and was never arrested.  I used that guy as the prototype for Vic Adger in my story, "The Closing of the Lodge" (AHMM, Nov/Dec 2022), except that Vic was far more of a gentleman.  Look, I'm not saying that alcoholics with multiple DUIs aren't dangerous - but some treatment would help, and they're not going to get that in prison.  

Once more, for the cheap seats:  Incarceration does not "fix" addiction.  

And now for something completely different!  Hirsutism!  

Did you know that humans still carry the genes for a full coat of body hair?  (WaPo)  Turns out we're kind of like elephants, which historically speaking, began as woolly mammoths.  Which instantly made me think of werewolves:  Hypertrichosis, a/k/a werewolf syndrome, is "an abnormal amount of hair growth over the body."  But now it seems like it's less of an infection and more of a throwback. 

Anyway, meet Petrus Gonsalvus, 1537-1618, "the man of the woods", and his wife Lady Catherine.  Their marriage is considered to be a partial source of the "Beauty and the Beast" legend.  Four of his seven children suffered from the same syndrome:


Gonsalvus served in the courts of Henry II of France, and successive rulers of Parma. "Despite living and acting as a nobleman, Gonsalvus and his hairy children were not considered fully human in the eyes of their contemporaries."  

Well, they said the same thing about Larry Talbot (a/k/a Lon Cheney).  Whose makeup appears to have been modeled on poor Petrus: 

"Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night;
May become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright."

For those who don't know, wolfsbane is one name for a member of the aconitum family. Like Monkshood (Below):

Aconitine is a potent neurotoxin and cardiotoxin. "Marked symptoms may appear almost immediately, usually not later than one hour, and "with large doses death is almost instantaneous". Death usually occurs within two to six hours in fatal poisoning (20 to 40 mL of tincture may prove fatal).[25] The initial signs are gastrointestinal, including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. This is followed by a sensation of burning, tingling, and numbness in the mouth and face, and of burning in the abdomen.[3] In severe poisonings, pronounced motor weakness occurs and cutaneous sensations of tingling and numbness spread to the limbs. Cardiovascular features include hypotension, and ventricular arrhythmias. Other features may include sweating, dizziness, difficulty in breathing, headache, and confusion. The main causes of death are ventricular arrhythmias and asystole, or paralysis of the heart or respiratory center.[25][26] The only post mortem signs are those of asphyxia."  (Wikipedia)  (My emphasis added.)

I'd say there's more to worry about than wolves or werewolves when the wolfsbane blooms.  In fact, aconite sounds like a handy plant to have in the garden... in a cloud-cuckoo land sort of way, of course. We "do but jest, poison in jest, no offense i'th' world."

And now for some BSP:

My story, "Cool Papa Bell", is in Josh Pachter's Paranoia Blues;

Just because you're in prison doesn't mean there's no more crime...

And on Amazon HERE

My noir novella, Cruel as the Grave is in Crimeucopia:  We'll Be Right Back

There's nothing like toxic friendships, murder and a South Dakota winter to make everybody crazy...

Available on Amazon HERE.

You can keep a secret for a long time in a small town, but eventually it will come out...  And always at the wrong time...

On Amazon HERE.

08 March 2023

The Novella

As a form, the novella attracted me early.  It didn’t have the capaciousness of a novel, or the tight rising action of a short story, but it promised both a wider canvas and the close reading of character.  In time, I came to realize how near it was to a screenplay, the economy of depth.

My parents had some John O’Hara titles on the shelf.  I don’t think they were fans of the later novels, which were heavy-duty door-stoppers, but they had all of the story collections – his stories from the 1960’s are terrific, and invite reappraisal – and a trilogy of novellas called Sermons and Soda-Water.  That book became my model for what a novella ought to be, rigorous and intense.

I didn’t see anything to match it for twenty years, and then Jim Harrison published Legends of the Fall, and that book had me seriously re-thinking what you could maybe accomplish in a hundred-odd pages.  (I have to say that the movie adaption is execrable, a subject for another time.)

Much influenced by Legends of the Fall, I wrote a bounty hunter novella called Doubtful Canyon.  I discovered, to my chagrin, that it’s an awkward length, too long for most general-interest magazines, too short for book publication.

Then I did a spy story, called Viper, and put it up as an Amazon e-book.  I did the same with another, The Kingdom of Wolves.  I love the form, but the issue is marketability.

We come now to the Nero Wolfe Society’s Black Orchid Award, which is specifically for novellas, written after the manner of Rex Stout.  This doesn’t mean a pastiche, like a Sherlock Holmes and Watson; in fact, you’re not supposed to use Nero and Archie at all, or their ecosystem.  It means, in the spirit of.  I read a couple of Wolfe novellas, to get the flavor, but I found them dated and contrived, and I read one of the recent winners, “The Black Drop of Venus,” which appeared in Hitchcock, and a mystery I found original and ingenious.  The obvious question: could I write one?

I don’t know the answer, but I’m taking a crack at it.  The trick, of course, is how to do Nero-esque without the tiresome Nero himself, the misogyny, the hothouse flowers, the bloviating condescension.  Archie, let’s face it, is by far the more attractive (and authentic) personality. 

A bigger question is how to address the basic gimmick of the Nero stories.  He never leaves the house.  Archie does the legwork and reports back.  Nero reads the runes and fingers the villain.  How do you repurpose this, without falling into inert convention?  “The Black Drop of Venus,” manages to solve the problem convincingly, with a good deal of wit.  I hope to follow suit.

07 March 2023

On the Road to Someplace Else

    I sat at my desk a while back, intending to write a short story about a private eye. Hard-boiled and world-weary, I envisioned an arc where this paladin of the pavement would walk some mean street and, likely, do the wrong thing for the right reason. 

    In my imagination, I pictured a Shamus Award-winning character. Heck, readers would love this guy so much that they'd create new awards to bestow upon him. In my imagination, he was that good. Ever humble and appreciative, I'd always accept their adulations on his behalf.

    He might have a worn trench coat for armor and keep a bottle of cheap whiskey in his desk drawer to help silence the demons of a life lived hard.

    I don't know. For the story to exist, the words had to cross the gulf between my mind's eye and that blinking cursor on the blank screen. The distance on that day was farther than I had anticipated.

    The tough guy couldn't make the leap.

    What do you do when the story refuses to come together?

    Strategies for overcoming the problem differ for everyone trying to write. Some people forge ahead, dropping bad word after bad word onto the page, thrilled that no one else will see the roughest draft, confident that editing will transform the ugly. Others recommend separation. Take a walk or do some vigorous exercise, some task to clear the impediment blocking the path forward. If I walk far enough or exercise hard enough, I'm too worn out to work at my desk. That also solves the problem.

    I could open a door, look inward, or try another Zen-like technique proposed online for getting unstuck with a story.

    Surrender is a final strategy. A writer might admit defeat in this round. Save what's there. My computer file labeled "Not Shamus" contains notes, including the alliterative paladin of the pavement, along with a few other bumper sticker jottings. They've been put aside for another day.

    I started fresh on a new blank screen. This story thread didn't have the baggage of the earlier character. The story contained a different protagonist. He'd been the junior varsity of my imagination. When the presumptive star couldn't perform, the coach looked to him to step forward.

    That plucky little bench warmer was Doyle Tuchfield, the main character in "A Study With Scarlett." Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine included my story in the March/April issue. 

    Faint traces of the old story remain. Rather than a contemporary private eye, Tuchfield is a Victorian-era detective specializing in on-scene investigations. As a veteran of some of the Civil War's major battles, Tuchfield, too, might be a bit world-weary. And we know that his sparse office has a desk. A bottle might be stashed there somewhere. 

    Setting "A Study With Scarlett" in an earlier era also allowed a Holmesian element to be added to the story. The small homage was noted with the main characters named Doyle and Scarlett.

    It is never the wrong time to have a Sherlock Holmes reference. Since their first publication in 1887, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson have remained in print. The original stories may be found in seventy languages. An eponymous magazine and countless websites, pastiches, parodies, and fan fiction entries are available for reading. The present, however, may be a particularly good time. Characters that Arthur Conan Doyle envisioned, like Mycroft, have their own books (Mycroft Holmes by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse).  Characters he didn't create have been featured in Netflix movies (Enola Holmes by Nancy Springer).

    I started off intending to write one story. On the way, a different tale emerged. A splash of homage combined with a few hints of the original. There was also some research conducted while standing in my darkened closet, but you'll have to read the story to see if you might guess what that was all about.

    Those original notes remain on my computer, along with fragments of other tales and titles for stories that I've never begun. I may get around to visiting them someday. That, I suppose, depends on the road ahead.

    Until next time. 

06 March 2023

The Rashomon Effect

My February SleuthSayers slot missed Valentine's Day, so I'm belatedly sharing a link (at end of this post) to my love story published on Yellow Mama at that time, a flash-plus piece you might find cynical. But it really isn't. Rather, it uses the Rashomon effect to demonstrate, as all such tales do, that truth is in the experience of the individual. In the original Japanese movie Rashomon (1950), filmmaker Akira Kurosawa showed an event, the death of a samurai, from four different points of view, without reconciling them or concluding the story with a version of what "really happened."

Since then, much has been written about the Rashomon Effect in movies, literature, and real life, even in the courtroom. Kurosawa's great theme, the ambiguity of truth, is more or less important to each storyteller who uses this powerful technique. I suspect this is why some of the examples often cited are better examples of the unreliable narrator—or unreliable narrative, with its deceptive twists and turns—than of the Rashomon Effect. The Usual Suspects, for example, appears on Rashomon lists, but does it belong there? How about Gone Girl?

For fun, I watched a couple of movies I hadn't seen in many years that are always cited as Rashomon Effect stories: Les Girls (1957) and Courage Under Fire (1996).

Les Girls was a musical that won the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Comedy or Musical). It's still lots of fun, silly in the way that all Fifties musicals were, and worth seeing for Cole Porter's songs, Gene Kelly and Mitzi Gaynor's apache dance, and Kay Kendall's performance, which won her a Golden Globe for Best Actress (Comedy or Musical). Her drunken rendition of Carmen's "Habanera" alone was worth the $2.99 I paid to see the movie on Amazon Prime. The Rashomon Effect is applied to events that occurred many years before the present, in Paris in the spring, where Gene Kelly's act, Les Girls, was appearing, featuring three young women: an American (Gaynor), an Englishwoman (Kendall), and a Frenchwoman (Taina Elg). Now Kendall has published a book about those events. She is being sued by Elg. Each of them has a different story to tell about which one had a fling with Kelly, which of them tried to kill herself . . . you get the idea. Finally, Kelly appears as a surprise witness to offer yet another version that actually is the truth—though maybe not the whole truth. Filmmaker George Cukor, less subtle than Kurosawa, pounds the Rashomon message home with a guy pacing back and forth in front of the courthouse carrying a sandwich board that says, in giant letters, WHAT IS TRUTH?

Courage Under Fire paired Denzel Washington, as a Gulf War commander tormented by the memory of a fatal error in combat, with Meg Ryan, breaking out from her usual romcom roles, as a candidate for a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor. Investigating the incident that made her a dead hero to evaluate her worthiness for this high honor, Washington finds that each of the men she saved tells a different story. In the end, it turns out they all lied.

If it's a solvable mystery, is it still a Rashomon story?

Here's my story, "Perfect," in Yellow Mama #96.

05 March 2023

Wardle of Wordle

Josh Wardle
Josh Wardle

Long ago in the depth of the pandemic, our friend ABA mentioned a game she thought might interest SleuthSayers. Rob mentioned it in passing, but said nothing further. At the time, I was working on other articles and gradually it slipped into my mental æther until I stumbled upon it Friday. You remember ABA– She won the Criminal Brief Christmas Puzzle way back when, an impressive feat.

As a puzzleist, she couldn’t resist telling us about Wordle… and believe me, auto-correct is right now having fun at my expense as it substitutes worldly, workable, and girdle. But ‘worldly’ is applicable:  Wordle is literally being played around the world– Europe, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. So I have to apologize, letting our SleuthSayers wallow mentally while the rest of the planet has been playing… unless you read the New York Times. It bought the game a year ago.

What is Wordle?

It’s been compared to the game Jotto and the television show Lingo. It’s a fame of guess-the-letters of an unknown word, simple like Hangman, but a stretch to the imagination. You must submit real words. You can’t probe by using, for example, ABCDE.

Each word (in standard play) has five letters with six attempts to guess it. Results are color-coded:

  • green     correct letter in the right place
  • yellow    right letter, wrong place
  • grey      wrong letter

Beginner’s Luck

On my first play joining this game world at large, From a single letter E, I nailed it in my third attempt (proof attached):

  1. STEAM   Notice how I cleverly deployed the commonest letters,
  2. DRECK   only to be punished with merely a single letter E,
  3. QUERY   but as luck would have it…

I simply couldn’t think of any other word with a letter E in the middle that didn’t use letters already ruled out (i.e, steak). And then boom! Got it!

First Wordle game ever. Not bad for a beginner!

Oh, before I forget, did I mention Wordle was invented by a Welshman named Wardle?

After the New York Times purchased the rights, concerns arose the newspaper would charge for the game. They haven’t done so, but clones have arisen. I include a couple here because Firefox gave me problems loading the original. Here are various places to play it:

04 March 2023

A Sense of Entitlement, Part 2

Two weeks ago, I did a column here at SleuthSayers about some of my favorite titles of books, stories and movies, and the comments made by friends and readers on that subject convinced me to follow that post with another discussion of fictional titles. (Are you sorry you commented?)

To me, the most interesting thing about this topic is--and always has been--the way different authors handle the task of titling their work. I've talked to quite a few writers about this, and some say they come up with a title first, before the writing starts; others wait until after the story/novel/etc. is finished; and still others choose a title during the writing process. I do it in all three of these ways, depending on the story, but I most often select a title during or after the writing is done. I just find that to be easier. Which way is best? Who knows. Different strokes.

If I had my druthers, I think I'd come up with the title first. I believe that kind of blank-slate approach might allow you to create a title that's truly special and catchy--and you could then write your story to fit the title. My old writing buddy Josh Pachter almost always does it that way, and even keeps a long list of titles that he likes and intends to use at some point. How's that for planning?

But no matter when a writer chooses a title, the next thing is (obviously) what will the title be?

For me, it's often something that describes the plot in some way, and maybe even a phrase or piece of dialogue I've used in the story. But not always. Sometimes titles are simple, sometimes complex, sometimes mysterious. I usually don't give it serious thought until fairly late in the story, but in the rare cases when the story's finished or almost finished and I'm still having a really hard time coming up with a good title, I do think about it--because I'm forced to. And when that happens, here are some of the hints that I've found to be helpful, over the years.

NOTE: The following examples are all stories of my own (an even dozen of each type).

1. A title can be a play on words.

Murphy's Lawyer, The President's Residence, Driving Miss Lacey, Amos's Last Words, Mill Street Blues, A Shot in the Park, Byrd and Ernie, North by Northeast, Henry's Ford, Bad Times at Big Rock, Wronging Mr. Wright, Gone Goes the Weasel 

2. A title can be a person's name or nickname.

Annabelle, Sneaky Pete, Billy the Kid, Lucifer, Frankie, Diamond Jim, Sweet Caroline, The Sandman, The Delta Princess, Robert, Tomboy, Mustang Sally

3. A title can be a place name.

Lookout Mountain, Ship Island, Mythic Heights, Turtle Bay, Blackjack Road, Dentonville, Sand Hill, Silverlake, Land's End, The Rocking R, The Barrens, Rooster Creek

4. A title can have a hidden or double meaning, later revealed.

Smoke Test, A Thousand Words, Calculus 1, War Day, Knights of the Court, The Powder Room, Wheels of Fortune, Run Time, A Gathering of Angels, Melon CollieBaby, True Colors, Weekend Getaway

5. A title can be a possessive.

Molly's Plan, Lindy's Luck, The Deacon's Game, Newton's Law, Lucy's Gold, Nobody's Business, Walker's Hollow, Lily's Story, Hildy's Fortune, The Judge's Wife, Rosie's Choice, The Devil's Right Hand

6. A title can be an "ing" phrase.

Stealing Roscoe, Remembering Tally, Getting Out Alive, Mugging Mrs. Jones, Traveling Light, Burying Oliver, Heading West, Fishing for Clues, Shrinking Violet, Cracking the Code, Dancing in the Moonlight, Saving Mrs. Hapwell

7. A title can be a familiar term or phrase.

Two in the Bush, Just Passing Through, Not One Word, Elevator Music, Eyes in the Sky, Life Is Good, One Less Thing, Flu Season, Deliver Me, Some Assembly Required, Tourist Trap, In the Wee Hours

8. A title can be intentionally unique or different, or have a pleasing "rhythm."

What Luke Pennymore Saw, A Nice Little Place in the Country, The Daisy Nelson Case, The Miller and the Dragon, The Pony Creek Gang, The Starlite Drive-In, Everybody Comes to Lucille's, The Moon and Marcie Wade, The Early Death of Pinto Bishop, Debbie and Bernie and Belle, A Surprise for Digger Wade, On the Road with Mary Jo

9. A title can be the name of an object or some other thing in the story.

The Winslow Tunnel, The Ironwood File, The Willisburg Stage, The Artesian Light, Grandpa's Watch, The Blue Wolf, The Medicine Show, The Wading Pool, Pocket Change, The Tenth Floor, Crow's Nest, The Jericho Train

10. A title can be the name of a group.

The Barlow Boys, The Donovan Gang, The Garden Club, Travelers, Night Watchers, The A Team, Partners, The TV People, Rhonda and Clyde, Matchmakers, Friends and Neighbors, The Bomb Squad 

11. A title can be a time, date, or time period.

An Hour at Finley's, The First of October, 200 Days, Break Time, From Ten to Two, Game Day, A Night at the Park, Summer in the City, Last Day at the Jackrabbit, While You Were Out, A Cold Day in Helena, Twenty Minutes in Riverdale

12. A title can be simple, as long as it's appropriate to the story.

Ignition, Teamwork, Sentry, Sightings, Watched, Lightning, Trapped, Mailbox, Layover, Redemption, Proof, Cargo

Switching gears a bit . . . one thing I've always found fascinating is the way some authors use titles as a marketing trademark, to such a degree that readers/fans can sometimes identify the author simply from his/her titles. Here are some of those that come to mind:

Sue Grafton (the alphabet) -- A Is for Alibi, B Is for Burglar, C  Is for Corpse, D is for Deadbeat

Janet Evanovich (numbers) -- One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Three to Get Deadly, Four to Score

James Patterson (nursery rhymes) -- Three Blind Mice, Roses are Red, Jack and Jill, Cradle and All

John D. MacDonald (colors) -- The Dreadful Lemon Sky, The Lonely Silver Rain, The Green Ripper, The Empty Copper Sea

Martha Grimes (English pub names) -- The Old Silent, The Dirty Duck, The Anodyne Necklace, Jerusalem Inn

Robert Ludlum (three-word titles) -- The Matarese Circle, The Holcroft Covenant, The Rhinemann Exchange, The Bourne Identity

Erle Stanley Gardner (the case of . . .) -- The Case of the Crooked Candle, The Case of the Hesitant Hostess, The Case of the Perjured Parrot, The Case of the Daring Decoy

John Sandford (the word "prey") -- Rules of Prey, Silent Prey, Winter Prey, Mind Prey, Night Prey

James Michener (single-word titles) -- Hawaii, Chesapeake, Iberia, Space, Poland, Alaska

I realize I'm rambling a bit, but to me titles and title choices are an interesting topic.

Please let me know, in the comments section below: How do you go about choosing a title for your novel or story? Do you have a system that seems to work? Do you feel you're good at picking titles? Is it a task that's hard for you? Easy? When, in the writing process, do you usually select your title? What do you feel are your best titles? And finally: Have you ever considered or written a series of stories or novels having titles that serve to "tie them together," like Liz Zelvin's "Death Will . . ." series? Nosy blog writers want to know . . .

And that's that. Good luck to all, in your writing endeavors.

I'll be back with another post in two weeks. (Hopefully with a cool title.)

03 March 2023

I'm In The Story, Part Deux:
This Time It's Personal. Or Maybe Not.

Last time in this space, I talked about one of my least favorite types of story: the roman à clef. I used Valley of the Dolls as my example. Roman à clefs are usually bad because they try to force fit real people, dialog, and events into a fictional narrative. Either the disguise doesn't really work, or you get flat characters and wooden prose.

Some people in the comments, however, objected, saying they either read or wrote characters based on real people. I countered that Frederick Forsyth often inserted real historical figures - Well, they were more like present-day notables at the time of the writing - into his work. That's not the same thing. Nor is using a real person as inspiration for a character. That's pulling ideas out of the ether.

In the first novel I wrote, Northcoast Shakedown, I based a few people on neighbors and friends. A couple people read it and picked out who immediately. But George, the apartment complex manager, was not Lee, the neighbor across the way. For starters, I think Lee would have fainted dead away with some of the stuff George had to do. The landlord who died might have looked like my landlord, but his demise was inspired by a neighbor he hired to redo the balconies in our complex. And the building itself just lent itself to the storyline. My coworkers at the time tied themselves in knots trying to guess who, at Terminal Tower Insurance, was really someone among us. I told them I didn't do that because, again, using real people as characters often backfires for one reason or another: bad writing, hurt feelings, or those damn characters doing whatever they wanted.

My stepson had trouble understanding this when I wrote the TS Hottle novella Flight Blade. I had my two pilots try to cover the one's oversleeping by saying they had miscommunicated and did not realize they were leaving early. The flight commander aboard their starship was named for my stepson and a lieutenant commander. "Why am I not an admiral?"

"I named the character after you. He's not you."

"But why am I not an admiral?"

It took a few go 'rounds to explain it. Then I read him the passage.

"Oh. I like that."

To quote said stepson, "Uh-huh."

What a lot of non-writers don't understand is characters are easy enough to pull from the ether. Someone else said every person is actually a hundred people, only one or two coming out in certain situations. The writer is a person who can pull all one hundred onto the page at the same time. One could actually look at a real person and spin four of five characters from them if they know that person well enough.

More often, the real-life inspiration is either an actor or a notable figure. Actors' performances sometimes crystalize an idea. I once wrote a character I pictured as Bill Pullman after seeing Independence Day. However, the way I wrote the character, someone else suggest Denzel Washington. Today, it would probably be Ryan Gosling and Idris Elba. (Actually, Idris would be the better fit if I still wrote that person. He has the same sense of humor, but can turn on the Luther/Stringer Bell intensity when needed. Plus the English accent would totally work.)

Notables are either ones with larger-than-life personas, or compelling life events that may inspire the story itself.

If you must know, I pilfered a couple of names from real life for Holland Bay, though the characters are not their real-life counterparts. I based one character on Ken Bruen after he gave me some input. But then Ken blurbed that book, so now the character is named Kearny. There's no Jack Taylor in Kearny. The others might have taken cues from real people, but they evolved on their own. Branson, Murdoch, and Armand Cole are all cut from whole cloth. Rufus had some television inspiration, as did Baker, who is what another character from another story would be like if the original wasn't a manipulative idiot. In reality, I liked the actor. The original character I couldn't stand. One has to be careful when using fictional inspiration. The gap between custom archetype, homage, and plagiarism is painfully small.

Using real people as a basis for a character is not roman à clef. It might surprise you to learn there was a real-life Beavis whom Mike Judge used as a model for his monumentally stupid creation, Beavis. However, the real Beavis had the name, the voice, and apparently in sarcastic moments, the laugh. But the hideous appearance, lack of intelligence, and disturbing fascination with fire all came after Beavis and Butthead had a few episodes under its belt. Let's hope the real Beavis had a sense of humor. Since he used to hang out with Mike Judge (whose normal voice is that of Butthead without he lisp and a larger vocabulary), I'm going to assume he got a big laugh out of it. A real one, not "Huh huh. Huh huh huh huh huh."

Of course, again, the difference here is the real person - notable or familiar - is the starting point. Once the character is in the story, they're going to do what they want, including flesh out an entirely new backstory. Which is what they're supposed to do.

02 March 2023

The Definitive Marlowe: Revisited

Last time around I referenced the long, long history of the film industry's attempts to profitably bring Raymond Chandler's iconic gumshoe Philip Marlowe to the big (and the small) screen. I promised to watch the new film Marlowe, (not to be confused with the 1969 James Garner film of the same title), starring Liam Neeson and share my thoughts about it, and also comparing and contrasting it with all of the film Marlowes who came before.

A Fistful of Marlowes: clockwise from upper left–Dick Powell (with the always fabulous Claire Trevor in 1944's Murder, My Sweet), Humphrey Bogart (The Big Sleep, 1946), Robert Mitchum (Farewell, My Lovely, 1975)& one shot of the otherwise camera-shy Robert Montgomery (The Lady in the Lake, 1947)

So let's get started!

First: my thoughts on Neeson's turn as Marlowe:

I loved it.

Neeson is seventy, but he keeps himself in pretty good shape (as demonstrated by his participation in some really well-done fight scenes in the this film), and although clearly an aging Marlowe, and not the age the Marlowe of Raymond Chandler's seven novels and countless short stories would have been in the year of the film's setting (1939), he and the film do not attempt to mask the fact that he's not mid-thirties, as the literary Marlowe would have been in 1939.

Also, director and co-writer Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) further changes things up by making Marlowe Irish-born and raised, at one point referencing the horrors of war he himself had experienced at the horrifying Battle of the Somme in 1916, as a member of the King's Irish Rifles. So this Marlowe is not, specifically Chandler's Marlowe.

Banville & the Black-Eyed Blonde

And that stands to reason, as the source material is not a Chandler novel, but one commissioned by the Chandler estate as a "sequel to Chandler's The Big Sleep," and written by Irish novelist John Banville using his crime fiction pen name Benjamin Black: The Black-Eyed Blonde (2014).

The film is gorgeously shot, with Spain taking the place of 1939 Southern California. The action is set specifically in and around mythical "Bay City," Chandler's fictional avatar for Santa Monica. Cinematographer Xavi Giménez may well be in line for an Oscar nomination. The costumes are period perfect, the acting, by an A-list of mostly Irish actors and headed by Diane Kruger, Jessica Lange, Danny Huston, and the always entertaining (and Scottish) Alan Cumming, is first-rate. The pacing is spot-on, the film never dragged or got bogged down in explanations of plot points, nor did it blast through pages of the script at the rate of a Transformers movie.

But most of all, with Jordan's sure hand on the tiller and Neeson all-in and game to try to pull the whole thing off, it just… works.

At least it did for me. I highly recommend this film based on a non-Chandler book. Very entertaining!

So was Neeson's Marlowe the "definitive Marlowe"? Of course not. It's a Marlowe for our times, even if it is set in the early 20th century. Any "definitive" Marlowe would need to carry the feel of Chandler's character in the way that Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade was definitive (even if the short, dark Bogart looked nothing like the hulking, slope-shouldered "Blond Satan" of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon).

With that out of the way, let's take a look at the Marlowes come before…

Other Film Marlowes:

Sanders (Center) looking bored.

1. George Sanders (The Falcon Takes Over-1942)" Nope. Not Marlowe, not even an attempt at Marlowe: British actor George Sanders (who was great in many other things, but mostly seems bored here) plays Gay Lawrence, "the Falcon" in the B-movie series of the same name. Not noir, not hardboiled, broad comic subplot played for laughs and with the central character a "gentleman amateur not-quite-detective." Although John Wayne caddy and future Wagon Train star Ward Bond does a pretty fair job of playing "Moose Malloy" in this B-movie take on Farewell, My Lovely (the first, and weakest of three such film adaptations to be featured in this post). With Bond just a year removed from his solid turn as Detective Tom Polhaus in John Huston's seminal The Maltese Falcon, he's clearly better than the material he's given to work with here.

Not Marlowe-says so right on the door.

2. Lloyd Nolan (Time to Kill-1943) Nope. He's Lloyd Nolan playing Mike Shayne. This one, the first, and better of two film adaptations of Chandler's The Brasher Doubloon (published in the U.K. and in later American versions as The High Window) to be featured in this post, is also a B-movie filmed quick and cheap. Nolan, a talented character actor whose Hollywood career spanned most of the 20th century, is delightful as Mike Shayne, and the film sports a solid supporting cast, plenty of humor too, and it is superior in pretty much every way to 1947's The Brasher Doubloon- more on that, below! More on Nolan below as well. And you can watch the whole thing on YouTube here.

3. Dick Powell (Marlowe in Murder My Sweet-1944) in the film that helped him rebrand himself as a noir film hero and ditch his previous career as a(n aging) song-and-dance man. Powell is great, but too perky to be Marlowe. The film itself, directed by Edward Dmytryk, is a solid adaptation of the Chandler novel Farewell, My Lovely. This adaptation is more faithful to the subject matter than the Sanders version above (slapped on Hollywood ending notwithstanding). It's also better directed, with a stronger supporting cast (the difference between a "B" picture budget and an "A" picture budget) which included the ever-formidable Claire Trevor, and journeyman Mike Mazurky as probably the best ever film incarnation of the hulking, slow-witted brute, Moose Malloy.

Powell, as Marlowe, with Mazurky (right), about to be taken for a ride, Chauffeur and all.
Bogart is Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946)

4. Humphrey Bogart (Marlowe in The Big Sleep -1946) he's great. One of his best performances. The movie is an interesting mess, plotwise (complete with another Hollywood ending-and not even the likes of of A-list script doctors such as Leigh Brackett and William Faulkner can do much with it). The problem for me is that, as hard as he tries, Bogart still comes across like Sam Spade-his other iconic detective role, and from a much better movie. Great supporting cast: Lauren Bacall (with a teenaged Andy Williams supposedly dubbing her singing voice), Regis Twomey as long-time Marlowe associate Bernie Ohls, the Los Angeles District Attorney's chief investigator, and Marlowe's former boss, the great Elisha Cook, Jr. (riveting as Wilmer Cook, the psychopathic "gunsel" in The Maltese Falcon), and a not-yet-discovered Dorothy Malone sizzling in a single scene with Bogart as the clerk in a bookstore where Marlowe waits out a rainstorm.

Robert Montgomery and Audrey Totter, in the mirror.

5. Robert Montgomery (Two on-screen scenes in the camera-as-eyes-of-the-narrating-detective in The Lady of the Lake-1947). Dubbed a "startling and daring new method of storytelling–a milestone in moviemaking." In truth, an ambitious flop that condensed the source material in what is arguably one of Chandler's better novels (with, wait for it… yet another tacked on Hollywood ending). Mongomery directed, and starred as Marlowe in voice-over, using the camera as the eyes of the main character. He only appears in two scenes where he sees himself in a mirror. Definitive Marlowe? Nope. Although the aforementioned Lloyd Nolan steals the show here as corrupt cop De Garmo.

George Montgomery: Swashbuckling Marlowe!

6. George Montgomery–No Relation– (The Brasher Doubloon / The High Window-1947) B-movie effort and Montgomery, who is game and gives it his all (In spite of the fact that Montgomery's "all" seems to include playing Marlowe as if he were a method actor trying to play the hard-boiled icon as Errol Flynn.), is at the mercy of his own limitations and a script that makes his Marlowe far more interested in "love" than in "saving" the victim as was the case in the source material (Complete with, you guessed it: still another tacked on Hollywood ending!). Right age, and aside from the pencil thin mustache, right "look," but no dice. And you can also watch this one on YouTube here.

The wonderful Rita Moreno & Rockf-ermm Marlowe.

7. James Garner (the title character in Marlowe-1969) plays a P.I. who comes across as more proto-Rockford than as Philip Marlowe in this relatively faithful (no Hollywood ending!) adaptation of the excellent and often overlooked Chandler novel The Little Sister. Updated "modern" setting. Great supporting cast, especially Rita Moreno, Gayle Hunnicutt, Sharon Farrell, and H.M. Wynant as mobster Sonny Steelgrave. Bruce Lee is in it, and he's reliably terrible. Then again, the chops they cast him for weren't his acting chops. (*rimshot*).

"That's okay with me." When "okay" is frequently NOT "okay"...

8. Elliott Gould (Marlowe in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye 1973) as a shambling, tatterdemalion, sort-of hippy Marlowe? NOPE. Hardly "definitive."

The first time I watched this film I loathed it. A few decades and a number of re-watchings later, and this film has much to recommend it. It is surprisingly faithful to the Chandler novel of the same name. Okay, maybe not so surprising, in light of the fact that Leigh Brackett penned the screenplay. Altman's The Long Goodbye bears the dubious distinction of containing a torture scene that still manages to shock the viewer, a half-century after its release.

The cast (including Gould, who is following Altman's direction to a t) is superb. Sterling Hayden was never better (and that's saying something) than in his role of millionaire author and part-time nutjob Roger Wade. Mark Rydell, known primarily for his work as a director (he would go on to garner an Oscar nomination for On Golden Pond.) is unforgettable in his brief turn as vicious thug Marty Augustine (who does not appear in the novel). Henry Gibson (of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In fame) is inspired casting as the drug-peddling quack Dr. Verringer. Baseball player (and author of the unforgettable sports memoir Ball Four) Jim Bouton was not an actor and it showed in his mostly wooden performance as Marlowe's doomed pal Terry Lennox, but they can't all be winners. And lastly, this film actually improves on the ending Chandler penned for the book. it's easily my favorite ending of any Marlowe film ever, and one of my favorite film endings, period, regardless of genre.

Not in any way a spoiler, honest.
Mitchum–absolutely GREAT as Marlowe.

9. Robert Mitchum Marlowe in Farewell My Lovely 1975) The third, and best of the three film adaptations of the Chandler novel of the same name. Mitchum was 58 when he took this on, and does nothing to try to play the part as "younger" (Marlowe in the 1942 novel would have been in his mid-thirties), and his performance is the better for it. this one ranks right up there with the best: Bogart, especially. And yet, I can't help but wonder what might have been, had Mitchum taken on this role in 1948, instead of the overrated (in my opinion) Out of the Past? Such a portrayal may well have been the definitive Marlowe. There was an air of sardonic nihilism that younger Mitchum pretty near perfectly embodied: too cool to care what others thought of him and knowing that his target audience were "guys with dirty fingernails and dirty shirts who have lost at least one job for talking back to someone..." And while late-fifties Mitchum is a terrific actor who gives a dynamite performance, he can't help but be more measured, more caring about the effects of his actions. His very age and him acting it, inhibits that performance, albeit slightly. It's a small quibble, but that's the difference between "great" and "definitive." As for the film itself, John Ireland is terrific as police detective Nulty, Harry Dean Stanton chews the scenery (which is appropriate in this instance) as Nulty's corrupt cop partner (and Marlowe foil) Billy Rolfe. Sylvia Miles scored an Oscar nomination for her turn as Jessie Florian, Charlotte Rampling is deathly dull as Helen Grayle (especially when compared to Claire Trevor), Jack O'Halloran is appropriately massive as Moose Malloy. And a year before Rocky, a young Sylvester Stallone has a "blink and you might miss it" role as whorehouse enforcer "Jonnie."

10. Robert Mitchum (Marlowe in The Big Sleep-1978) The less said about this blatant cash grab, the better. So I'll leave it at this: only three years separate this film from the vastly superior Farewell, My Lovely, and yet in this one Mitchum comes across as past-his-prime. Plus it's a modern update of the source material from 1939 to 1978. And the action is inexplicably moved from Los Angeles to London. ENGLAND. None of this is Mitchum's fault, but there you go.

NOPE. Don't bother.

10. James Caan (Marlowe in Poodle Springs-1998) I really like James Caan's body of work. But at this point in his career I feel he was pretty much just playing himself. He's supposed to be an older, recently married Marlowe, but his wisecracks even sound like a tired James Caan going through the motions. The caged energy of Sonny Corleone is long dissipated. The grim humor of Frank (the title character in Thief) is sadly lacking. And the professional, practiced readiness for controlled violence of Johnathan E. from Rollerball is nowhere to be found. The script (based on Robert B. Parker's continuation of the first two chapters of the novel of the same name that Chandler left unfinished on his death in 1959) is okay, and the supprting cast seems game, but this isn't really a Chandler Marlowe story, and as such, the seams are showing. But don't just take my word for it. You can catch the entire film on YouTube here for free.

Well-done, Liam!
11. Liam Neeson (Marlowe in the creatively titled Marlowe -2023) As I noted above, Neeson did a fine job, and it's a terrific film, with a wonderful and compelling cast. Neil Jordan's direction and collaboration on the script with William Monahan is pretty well pulled off. Spain as 1939 Southern California is gorgeous.

However, Chandler wrote Marlowe envisioning a scruffy Cary Grant playing the role. 40s Mitchum is pitch-perfect. So, short story long: I think there is no definitive Marlowe on film. Nor is there ever likely to be.

And what's wrong with that?

The definitive Marlowe?

And on that note, time for me to wrap it up and pack it all in for now. Tune in next time when I conclude this Marlowe media deep dive by touching on Marlowe portayals in TV and radio.

See you in two weeks!