Monday, October 20, 2014

Noir Redux

(Spoiler alert: You might want to save this for later if you haven't read the book yet—ed.)

The protagonist, if you can call him that, of LONDON BOULEVARD by Ken Bruen is named Mitchell. First name or last, it’s hard to tell, but he only goes by the one. Isn’t there some other hardboiled crime novel where the main character goes by only the one name?

I am not sure, but I am sure that Bruen is a well-read guy, as well as a real aficionado of music. And movies (like Sunset Boulevard, of course) and even American cop shows. So is Mitchell, come to think of it. He gets through about a book a day while he is doing a three year stretch in prison for beating a guy nearly to death while in an alcoholic black out. He references a host of British and Irish and American crime writers, some of which I have heard of, and many of which I haven’t. And he even references Camus: “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” Mitch may aspire to this existentialist transcendence, but he never does surmount fate, not even close.

And he not only references those writers, he mimics them, but not in a way that is mere imitation. He takes them and turns them into something dark and terrifying, or more dark and terrifying. And while the novel starts out as a kind of exercise in fatalism, it eventually morphs, at least partially, into a mystery. In some weird and delicious way, it is a mystery that the novel is going to turn into a mystery. It’s great stuff, and I am going to gamely try to tell you why (even though the best way to be convinced is to read it yourself).

The Mitch character has the kind of insubordination problem that Philip Marlowe does, but not the moral code. He likes to get stoned, wasted, doped up and always eventually passes out on any kind of drug or booze he can get his hands on, but the thing that really gives him a rush, puts him into the kind of ecstatic clarity of a holy monk, is violence, and the nearness of death. In this sense, he is kind of like Travis McGee. Unlike McGee, however, he is more likely to take a life than to save one.

The minute Mitch gets out of prison, you wonder how long it is going to take him to get back in. He is picked up by Norton, a thug who was the one who actually beat the guy into a coma, and who let Mitch go down for it. When an old man unwittingly drops his wallet in the line of sight of both Mitch and a ticket taker, Mitch gives it back, but tells the reader: ”I know myself pretty good. If the ticket collector hadn’t seen it, I’d have kept it.”

Right at the beginning of the first person narration, Mitch says ”you believe you’re making choices, and all you’re doing is slotting in the pieces of a pre-ordained conclusion.” Of course, if you believe you’re fated to make the same mistakes over and over again you lose hope, and give up trying, and so you do, but that is beside the point.

The real point for me was that I was convinced this was to be a tale which would hold my interest not because there was a mystery about what had happened or would happen, but because I wanted to see just how Mitch’s tale would reach its inevitable brutal conclusion. I thought I was going to merely be a witness to Mitch’s descent back into hell, or his transit from the depths of hell (prison) to a slightly higher level of it (Southeast London) and back down into the pit, or into the oblivion of death. And I had no doubt a lot of people would die along the way.

Bruen has the ability to use English in marvelously arresting ways. These were not complicated ways, but nevertheless brilliant: “The bread was fresh and crisp like an idealized childhood.” “The next morning I was deciding what to wear for extortion.” “If MY WAY was the anthem of chauvinists, DESPERADO was the rationalization of convicts.” It’s great stuff. And he’s got the same smart mouth that a lot of hard guys in crime novels do. When the warden gives him a kind of exit interview on the day of his release and tells him that repeat offenders are obsessed with jail, Mitch replies “I think you’re confusing obsession with compulsion.” And then Mitch “explained the difference to him.” Having bested the warden at verbal combat, Mitch is told by a guard that it’s not a bright idea to give the warden lip, so Mitch gives the guard some: ”What else did I have to offer?”

Mitch is a product of Southeast London, a cesspool of casual and deadly violence, and in a way he is perfectly suited for it, although not for the politer society that produces places like they were byproducts of its economic digestion. Norton immediately furnishes Mitch with an apartment, and Mitch becomes a leg breaker for an enterprising loan shark named Gant. He also hooks up with and his old friend Jeff and robs a bank, and pokes a young mugger in the eye, in a failed attempt to remove it. The fair damsel that he saved from said mugger has an Aunt who needs a handyman, and Mitch ends up fixing more than the aging actress's clogged gutters. This Gloria Swanson stand-in manipulates Mitch into bed with a still compelling sexuality, and when that begins to fail she uses money and guilt. Again, Mitch is fatalistic, this time about his chances of ever escaping her (or Southeast London).

When Mitch finds Ainsley, whom he thinks is the love of his life, Lillian Palmer (the old actress) tries to commit suicide. He goes to her bedside, feeling like a well-trained mutt, and reassures her he will never leave her: “I felt exactly like I did when the judge said ‘Three Years.’”

Still, there is the dream Mitch has of a kind of wedded bliss with Ainsley. The relationship is one of the few places where he practices compassion (he also loves his near insane sister and mourns the loss of the street peddler who sold him his daily paper. When the paper-seller is murdered by a young soccer prodigy, Mitch shoots up his legs so badly that he will never play again ). Ainsley represents everything that Mitch never let himself ever dream of having.

But Mitch gets into a beef with Gant when he turns down an offer for a leg-breaking promotion and tries to leave his employ. In short order both Norton and Ainsley are killed, and Briony commits suicide. Gant sends an evil Eastern European assassin to kill Mitch, but Lillian’s chauffeur, named Jordan, turns out to be an ally, and the duo quickly dispatch both Gant and the Slavic hit man.

And still I was thinking this is a tale in the Dreiser fashion, a tale of cruel fate, and I am waiting for Mitch to die or go back to jail, waiting for him to explode into the kind of violence he can’t seem to control, especially now that he has lost the little he had in the world.

And that is where the old worm turns. When Jordan and Lillian Palmer go out of town, Mitch discovers in one of her drawers the collar of Briony’s little dog, another apparent victim of the psychopath Gant. And everything that happened transforms magically into something else. Jordan, who had once been Palmer’s husband, has been protecting her by doing everything he can to make sure Mitch never leaves her. The Butler killed Ainsley because he was afraid Mitch would leave Palmer for her. And he killed Gant to keep Mitch from being killed, again for the great love of his life. He even killed Briony, because she was trying to take Mitch away from Southeast London. And so our “hero” kills Jordan and the faded starlet, and finally the penny drops for me too. It doesn’t matter if Mitch goes back to jail or dies, because he is already either dead or in hell.

© 2014 Mike Welch

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Are You Willing to Murder Someone?

I never gave much thought to my inner feelings about committing murder. Oh, sure, in my novels I killed off a bad guy, here and there. But for years it didn't hit me in my gut or drain the blood mentally from my body.

After all, I'd been a mystery reader since I was a kid. Watched a lot of TV, where shooting with a gun was par for the course! Kill the guy, then drink Coca Cola or drive a Ford!

An active member of MWA since 1988, I've heard world-class authorities speak about various aspects of killing. I devoured all the Great Minds' revered tomes on the various arts of murder. I'd become a devoted disciple of John Douglas, Robert Ressler, Jefferson Bass and all the scholars of the science of criminology, behavioral profiling and sociopathic/psychopathic behavior.

My home was filled to the ceiling with books on weapons, terrorism, homicide, poisons, death and dying, crime scenes, human remains, criminal investigation.

Writing fiction about crime and death became as natural to me as breathing. (It didn't bother me a bit when people in non-mystery social settings moved their chairs when they heard that I wrote—gasp—"murder mysteries!")

Along the way I fell in love with the world of spies and espionage. Twenty years ago I became a member of AFIO (The Association of Former Intelligence Officers), attended their elegant annual conventions in Washington, rubbed shoulders with the great men and women of the dark worlds of spying.

My own crime novels have often dealt with topics other than murder—prostitution, kidnapping, sex-trafficking and slavery, terrorism, psychopaths, corporate intelligence.

But, as all crime writers, I was always aware that much crime writing deals with the ultimate battle with—or fear of—death.

Currently, the American serial killer Dennis L. Rader, a former code compliance officer, who killed 10 people in the Wichita, Kansas area, is co-writing a book with Katherine Ramsland, a forensic psychology professor at DeSales University. Both authors hope this book will help investigators and criminologists understand serial killers.

"People like me need to be understood, so the criminal professional field can better understand the criminal mind," Said Rader, who called himself "B.T.K.", which stood for "bind, torture, kill."

I have a confession to make to you, my friends. I do NOT want to read this book!

After decades of immersion in the facts and theories of why bad men and women commit gross crimes… I don't want to know what made this Mr. BTK act out his inner demons!

Yes, I've committed several murders as a crime writer. But in my last novel I had a very hard time in letting my character commit a justified murder. Even though all evidence pointed to the fact that it was necessary—an act of justice—that had to be carried out by a decent and honest man! I spent days delaying the writing of that scene—even though yelled at by the agent…

Tell me, how do YOU feel about reading of the inner machinery and feelings of a serial killer?

In your opinion, how much does a serious crime writer need to know about the down and dirty reasons that make a demented mind turn to murder?

Granted, every serious crime writer needs to know a certain amount of background in—and knowledge of—these dark people who also walk on our sacred earth.

But, with the planet in such a state of upset on so many levels… my inner self yells out… Enough Already!

Please share your thoughts and insights with us, be you a writer or a reader.

Thelma Jacqueline Straw, still proud to be a member of the Mystery Writers of America

P.S. John Sanford, Pulitzer Prize-winning thriller novelist, writes in an interview with Writer's Digest, Nov/Dec: (In the Minnesota prison system... "I talked to all those killers who were smart enough to learn programming… I had long, intimate conversations with these guys… none of them took any responsibility for the murders whatever, even when they admitted doing it." P. 40 )

Friday, October 17, 2014

My Dinner With Joseph Heller

It was the year Joseph Heller agreed to come and be the literary lion at the Trenton State College Writers’ Conference, sometime in the late eighties. The school is now called The College of New Jersey. Jean Hollander, director of the conference, contacted me at the last minute to come and run a workshop, because another writer had bailed. I was working at Applied Data Research at the time; I remember that because I still had an office and my office still had a door.

I took a personal day in the middle of the week to go to the conference. A free lunch for the writers running workshops was part of the deal. By the time my workshop was over there was only one other person in the writers’ free lunchroom, a gorgeous-looking woman with a profusion of dark curly hair and the sort of gypsy vibe to her clothes that we so admired in the eighties. I was dressed in tweeds, making believe I was enough of a professorial authority figure to run a workshop. As I hastily munched my free sandwich, this woman stretched her arms out in front of her, yawned elaborately, and said, “If I were home right now I would be taking a nap.”

A nap! Who the hell took naps in the eighties? I was working my butt off at the software factory, keeping house for a husband and small child, and rising every morning at 4:30 to get in a couple of hours of writing. “How do you get to take naps?” I said. “If I weren’t here, I’d be slaving at the office.”

She said, “I’ve never worked a day in my life.” Except for a writing class she taught at some college in Pennsylvania, she said, and for that she only had to show up once a week. Well, the scales fell from my eyes. This was what life was like for real writers. (I later discovered she was regularly published in the Atlantic Monthly.) For the rest of the day I hung out with this glorious woman, fascinated to see what real writers did.

The first thing she did was to bum a cigarette from two gay poets out in the hall, interrupting an intensely soulful discussion they were having about their work. She was trying to stop smoking, she said, and so hadn’t brought any cigarettes with her. The second thing she did was to peruse the conference program closely enough to spot the fact that the English department was taking Joseph Heller and maybe a couple of other writers out to dinner before his speech that evening. “We should go,” she said. “We’re writers.” She pulled me into Jean Hollander’s office and told her we wanted to go to the dinner. Other people were there, so Ms. Hollander was unable to give us the brush-off gracefully, although she probably wanted to.

Anyway, we were in. When we got to the restaurant, one of those dark places on the outskirts of Trenton where the food is divinely Italian and one’s fellow diners might be mobsters, my new friend grabbed us seats directly across from Joseph Heller. The faculty of the English department, some of them hard of hearing, were forced to sit at the ends of the long, narrow table while we writers kept up a witty conversation in the middle. “You should write humor, Kate,” Joseph Heller said at one point. We said I did. He told us stories of the joys of being a famous writer, how his publisher had bought him two servings of oysters at a restaurant in London when he was touring, how he had gone out to the market next day and had seen what they cost, how he had gloated.

When dinner was over the faculty members streamed out into the rainy parking lot to go get the car. My gypsy friend and I began to follow them, but at the door, Joseph Heller put his arms around both of our shoulders. “Wait,” he said. “We are the famous writers. Wait here and they will bring the car to us.”

We waited, and they came. Next day, back at the software house, I put up a little hand-lettered sign on my office door: “Kiss my ass. I’m a famous writer."

© 2014 Kate Gallison

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Award-winning Crime Novelist Charles Salzberg Strikes Again

Fans of Charles Salzberg's Henry Swann will be pleased to know that the third in the series comes out a week from tomorrow. A New York-based novelist, journalist and acclaimed writing instructor, Charles is the author of Devil in the Hole, chosen as one of the Best True Crime Novels of the Year by Suspense Magazine, and the Henry Swann detective series featuring Swann’s Last Song, which was nominated for a Shamus Award for Best First PI Novel; Swann Dives In; and the upcoming Swann’s Lake of Despair.

I never planned on being a crime writer. And yet it probably turned out to be the best thing possible for my writing career, which began for me, as it did for so many other English majors, with a desire to write the Great American Novel. But I was self-aware enough to know I’d never write a great novel, one that came even close to my heroes, Nabokov, Bellow, Roth and Mailer. Instead, I was willing to settle for a good literary novel.

But when I realized that wouldn’t pay the rent I stumbled into a career as a magazine journalist. Although I wrote about pretty much any subject under the sun, I was always fascinated by crime and even worked on a true crime book called Dead End. But I never stopped writing fiction and about 25 years ago what started out as an experiment in writing what a friend of mine called, “an anti-detective novel” ended up as a novel called Swann’s Last Song. The novel begins with a murder having already taken place and there are several other random unconnected killings along the way, but it’s really about identity since Swann, who abhors violence and whose specialty is finding lost people, winds up not trying to find the murderer but rather to find out who the victim really was and, along the way, who he is. I, of course, thought it was a brilliant idea, but agents and publishers didn’t share my enthusiasm. And so, for twenty years the novel languished on my computer, until I dusted it off, updated it, and finally “sold out” by having Swann solve the crime. Boom! It sold. (You can actually find my original ending in the paperback edition.)

Although written as a one-off (in the original version Swann becomes so disillusioned he quits the business), to my surprise it was nominated for a Shamus award and when I lost I got pissed off enough to decide I’d keep writing them until I won something.

With no offense to my fellow crime and mystery writers, because I admire so many of them, I decided to take a different path within the genre. Each Swann novel was going to present me with a different challenge. To me writing the traditional detective mystery, where there is a dead body, a host of likely suspects, the detective solves the crime and the book ends, was a kind of death in itself. The truth is, I couldn’t do that even if I wanted to, because I’m not particularly good at tight plotting nor with lining the pages with clever clues for the detective and reader to follow.

Instead, I decided to not only focus on character but also push the envelope in terms of what people might expect in a detective novel.

For instance, in the second in the series, Swann Dives In, not only are there no dead bodies but the reader isn’t quite sure what the crime is until more than half-way through the book and by the end of the book isn’t even sure a crime was committed.

In the third in the series, Swann’s Lake of Despair, I set myself another challenge. I would have Swann investigate three separate cases at the same time, each unrelated to the other, none of them involving murder.

Why? Because to me murder is overrated. On TV each week the viewer is assaulted with perhaps twenty to thirty murders—and in a show like The Following, there can be that many murders in a single episode. But in real life, how many of us are actually affected by murder? Sure, we read about them in the newspapers and hear about them on the television news, but for the most part, it’s not our reality. On the other hand most of experience or even commit other kinds of crimes every day, sometimes more than one. They might be petty crimes, like stealing supplies from where you work. Breaking a loved one’s heart. Cheating on a test. Lying. Misrepresentation. These crimes might not be punishable by a stint in prison, but they are crimes nonetheless. And they can be very personal crimes: crimes that might hurt us deeply.

These are the kinds of crimes I’m more interested in writing about and these are the crimes Swann is called on to solve.

Thinking back, I realize I was profoundly influenced by a 1960s television series called The Naked City. What would be called a police procedural today, there was, of course, a crime committed every week. But often these crimes did not involve murder. Instead, the show, which had “eight million” stories from which to draw, focused on character, deceit, unhappiness; on broken hearts as much as broken heads.

This is what I tried to capture in Swann’s Lake of Despair. In one case Swann is hired by a distraught fellow whose girlfriend has disappeared. His heart is broken, he feels betrayed. In another, Swann seeks to find a lost journal that might shed light on an eighty-year old death that might or might not have been murder or suicide. In the third, he’s hired to find a portfolio of lost photographs by a long since deceased photojournalist. The latter was inspired by a friend and former student of mine, Julia Scully, a wonderful writer whose second memoir in progress (her first was called Outside Passage and was published to wide acclaim), told about her life as an editor in the world of photography in the 1950s and ‘60s. Julia allowed me to ransack her life for this plotline.

And so, if you’re looking for dead bodies, you probably won’t find them in my Swann books. But then again, I love to break rules, even my own, and if it just “happens” organically in the plot, well, you never know, blood might just flow someday.

© 2014 Charles Salzberg

Monday, October 13, 2014


Robert Frost said something to the effect that writing poetry without rhyme or meter was like playing tennis with the net down. I think the same could be said about “genre” writing in general and detective fiction in particular. In C IS FOR CORPSE, by Sue Grafton, the net stays up, but most of the volleys don’t manage to clear it.

The “net,” or the rules of detective fiction, while it may restrict in some ways, is there because it gives us the chance to create something truly compelling. Still, if all you do is follow the rules, you won’t say anything new or original or vital enough to hold anyone’s attention. All you would have done then is to repeat a witty or funny or moving thing someone else said, which of course is no longer as witty or funny or moving just by virtue of its being said the second (or third) time around. Grafton’s novel is certainly not novel, but is more like a joke that has been told so many times it is no longer funny.

I often think of writing as a long conversation between not only writers and their readers, but between the works the writers create. The urban hardboiled and noir schools of the thirties and forties can be seen as a reply to the kind of polite, upper class mysteries of writers like Agatha Christie, where crimes are committed by members of the gentry and solved by the impressive cerebrations of a genteel detective. When Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett wrote their Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade mysteries, they were consciously playing with the genre as it then existed, making a snarky, even periodic, reply to writers like Agatha Christie, by creating not armchair detective types who solved crimes as if they were puzzles, but tough guy detectives who found out what was what by diving into a cesspool of crime and coming up with a culprit in their teeth.

So does Sue Grafton’s private eye character Kinsey Milhone have anything original so say when she joins this long literary conversation about the nature of crime and its detection when she comes upon the scene in the 1980’s? At least in C IS FOR CORPSE, the third in the series, and the only one I think I am going to read, I would say no. Unlike, let’s say, Bruce Springsteen’s version of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” which is a variation on a theme that becomes something worthwhile in and of itself, something that is as much Bruce as it is Christmas-time treacle, Kinsey is a tired distaff retread of Philip Marlowe in THE BIG SLEEP.

C IS FOR CORPSE could have said a lot about crime and women and the zeitgeist of the 80’s, could have created an echo chamber of reference, of call and response, with the 50’s version of the male detective and the aforementioned zeitgeist/cesspool that Spade and Marlowe go swimming in, but it doesn’t. Grafton seems to create a character and a story from a formula she got in a writing class. She knows a lot about the rules of writing, but produces something that is not vital or arresting or fresh.

Imitation can be a sincere form of flattery, I suppose, but imitating too closely only shows that you can ape what someone else can do, and the copy is almost never as good as the original. Grafton sets her story in Santa Teresa, ninety miles north of LA. Unlike in THE BIG SLEEP, Grafton does not make the locale a kind of character in the story, a menacing entity that either reflects the miasma of casual venality and viciousness of LA, or is somehow a contributor to the corruption of the city of angels.

In Grafton’s Santa Teresa, the weather just gets hot sometimes, and then it cools down, and it rains or it doesn’t, and there is no menace implicit in her description of it. The landscape too is just landscape, and the setting becomes not a metaphor but an exercise in locating the action somewhere, anywhere. If that is all it is going to be, I would have preferred Grafton not wasting her time on those descriptions at all.

And the character of Milhone herself is a pretty tepid one. We don’t find out anything too interesting—we know that she doesn’t like working out but does it anyway, that she has a poor diet, and feels virtuous when eating health food even though she would prefer chocolate or ice cream. We got a hint of her motivation for what she does when she tells us she has forever been scarred by the accidental death of her parents, and can’t abide death that occurs on purpose. And that she has always been curious, and used to look through the stuff of her Maiden Aunt’s friends when they weren’t looking. Wow, revelatory stuff.

Unlike Marlowe and Spade’s relationships with women, there is no real heat in her relationship with any man, or if there is, the character, and Grafton, are unable to portray it. She has no great passions, and the one scene where she struggles with her desire is tepid and trite: “He was exuding pheromones like a musky aftershave” and “the only thing worse than a man just out of marriage is a man still in one” and finally, “by the time we finished eating, we’d recovered our professional composure and conducted most of our remaining conversation like adults instead of sex-starved kids.” Wow, now that is some hot stuff. When she passes up the opportunity to be with him, I didn’t really care one way of the other.

Ok, so what about Grafton/Milhone’s use of language? Not too impressive. Instead of similes like Chandler’s (he was as light as a thumb on a scale, the barrel of the luger looked as wide as the entrance to the 45th street tunnel) we get “it was one of those extraordinary moments when automatic recall clicks in and a piece of information pops up like a flash card” and “her breasts looked like two five-pound flour sacks from which some of the contents had spilled.” And these were the only two in the book that I underlined, because they were bad. There weren’t any I thought particularly good, and all the rest were so expected, so hardboiled de rigueur and doctrinaire, that I read right past them like a NYC cabbie rushing past a black man who needs a taxi on a dark and rainy night.

How about plot? Well, the whole thing starts when Kinsey encounters a rich young man who was grievously injured in a car crash and thinks someone is out to kill him, but he can’t remember who. Amnesia, ok, standard device. His family is rich, and Kinsey visits the manse to meet the mother (and the suspects, the cast of characters), but it is not like Marlowe visiting the Sternwoods. Glen Callahan is not the knight or the knave that General Sternwood is, not the witch or angel that would have intrigued me, but is just a very pretty woman with good taste whose most impressive line is “money can’t buy life, but it can buy you anything else you want” (wow). Although there is sex to be found in both plots, the sex in Corpse is hardly shocking, hardly a symbol of something being rotten in the State of Santa Teresa.

One place where Grafton does pretty well, I thought, is in the last scene, where Kinsey is chased through an empty mortuary by a doctor carrying her death in a syringe. The way the doctor sings “Someone to Watch over Me” while he pursues her is blackly funny.

Finally, Grafton tries to establish one character that can be part of Milhone’s life in one installment to the next, her beloved landlord Henry Pitts. He’s a sweet old 90 year old, and she feels both protected by, and protective of, him. So far so good, I guess, but the subplot where he is almost conned by a senior woman con-artist seems like it was grafted (Grafton-ed) onto the plot by a rookie surgeon.

Oh, and one other thing Kinsey tells us about herself is she doesn’t know how to talk to the rich, or how to make small talk at all. Perhaps not a terrible quality in a character, this inability to communicate, but not such a good one in an author.

© 2014 Mike Welch