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SO HARD, SO NOIR: CHARLES ARDAI

CharlesArdai

CHARLES ARDAI is one of those people whose energy, acuity, and achievements make you wonder what the heck you’ve been doing with your life. He’s won the Edgar, Shamus and Ellery Queen Awards, plus he is the author of five novels, including Little Girl Lost and Songs of Innocence. As the founding editor of the acclaimed pulp fiction imprint Hard Case Crime, he has published the works of authors ranging from Stephen King and Michael Crichton to Mickey Spillane, James M. Cain, and Gore Vidal. He also created the Internet service Juno and was one of the writers and producers of the TV series Haven. On Wednesday, September 21, Charles will talk classic mysteries as part of a special MWA-NY panel at the prestigious New York Society Library (details below). We recently sat down at his Manhattan office to talk about that event and about his passion for hard-boiled crime fiction.

Tom Straw: If I were Ernst Stavro Blofeld, I would say, “You confuse me, Mr. Bond.” You graduated from Columbia, summa cum laude, with a degree in English romantic poetry, yet you’re neck deep in pulp fiction. You had an internet startup, but then you went back to the most throwback thing you could do, which is paperback books.

Charles Ardai: I am a man of contradictions.

TS: Explain yourself, sir.

CA: The distinction between the romantics and the hard-boiled writers is not as great as people might think. When Wordsworth and Coleridge wrote lyrical ballads, they were trying to rescue poetry from being something distant from the language of ordinary speakers and write poetry, as they put it, in the language of a man speaking to men. Now how different is this from Raymond Chandler talking about returning violence to the people who commit it for a reason — and not with poison-tipped darts of curare in the vicarage? So I think the impulse is the same, to tell stories ordinary people can relate to. In fact, many of the earliest noir experiences I had, not counting Oedipus, I suppose, and King Lear, came from poems like Browning’s. Now, Browning is generally thought of as a Victorian, but in “Porphyria's Lover,” about the man who strangles his lover and sits up with the corpse, he is astonished and says, “And all night long we have not stirred, And yet God has not said a word!”  So there’s noir to be found, even in old art. But having said all that, the truth is, I just like different things, you know? I grew up reading crime fiction, and I always loved it, and even when I moved onto fancier stuff in college, I never stopped reading it. I like to think that it is not only possible, but healthy, to mix the high and the low, and we try to do that even in our own line.

Accepting the Ellery Queen Award from Stephen King, 2015

Accepting the Ellery Queen Award from Stephen King, 2015

TS: When Stephen King presented you with the Ellery Queen Award, he recalled his youth and spinning the dime magazine rack, which is very visual, very Stephen King. What did you spin on the magazine rack that hooked you?

CA: Oh, gosh.  Well, as a kid, the magazine racks were literally wire racks full of comic books. There were magazine racks, but there were no fiction magazines anymore except Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock, and I did grow up reading those.  I mostly got old back issues at yard sales.  I lived in Manhattan, but my parents would take me up to the Poconos for vacation, and we’d go yard saling, and next to all the ceramic salt shakers and needle point cats were boxes of 25-cent paperbacks and issues of Reader’s Digest and Ellery Queen. I read through hundreds of Ellery Queen issues and fell in love with writers like Stanley Ellin and Jack Ritchie and Donald Westlake and Lawrence Block, who I eventually got to meet and work with, which was a terrific honor. I was born too late to read the pulps — you know, Black Mask and Argosy — but I found them in the Poconos, in cardboard boxes, smelling of mold, and I would read old Erle Stanley Gardner serials as best I could when I had non-consecutive issues from a box. So I fell in love with the literature of an earlier time and wanted to revive it. You asked about the Internet startup . . .

TS: Yes.

CA: I started a company called Juno and ran it for seven years. My head of graphic design there was a guy named Max Phillips, who was also a novelist and a good friend of mine and a brilliant graphic designer. And he also had a childhood reading these old paperback novels with the gorgeous painted covers, and he also was born too late to write them. One night after we arranged the sale of Juno, we sat in the Blue Bar of the Algonquin Hotel, a suitable literary spot, and talked about what to do next, and we both kept coming back to these old books, and, finally, with one too many drinks in me, I said, “Well why don’t we publish a line of books?” At first we thought about reviving Gold Medal, which was the gold standard of paperback publishers in the '50s, then we realized somebody else already owned the rights. And so we came up with Hard Case Crime. Anyway, if I hadn’t met Max working on Juno, if I hadn’t fallen in love with these books as a child, finding them at yard sales, Hard Case Crime probably wouldn’t have existed.

TS: You've also authored five books as well as a number of short stories. Are you a writer who edits or an editor who writes?

CA: I was a writer before I was an editor. I started out as a teenager desperate to make a little bit of money on the side. My brother was a mechanical wizard who could fix hairdryers and would go to all the salons in our neighborhood and charge five dollars a pop to fix theirs. I couldn’t fix anything if my life depended on it, and I sat down, trying to figure out what I could do to earn a buck, and all I could think of was to write. I contacted magazines to see if they would have me.  Of course, I was 13 years old, so the answer was no. The New Yorker said no. The Atlantic didn't bother to respond.

TS: Heartless bastards.

CA: Heartless bastards that they are. But I found, during the first explosion of video games, when the Atari came out in the 1970s, suddenly there were ten magazines on the newsstands covering video games.  Pac Man, Donkey Kong, Space Invaders — they needed people to write about these games, and no self-respecting adult who could write for The New Yorker was going to write for them.  So I started writing about video games. I wrote a quarter of a million words about video games.

TS: In your50-FiftyToOne teens?

CA: Teens and twenties. That’s how I got started.  That was before I ever edited anything. But eventually I got a job as an intern at the publisher of Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock and Isaac Asimov Science Fiction Magazine. I was a high school student. I got a free unpaid internship, and at some point the editor of Ellery Queen, Eleanor Sullivan, was putting together an anthology of stories that involved cooking or food. And I overheard and said, “Well, what about ‘Just Desserts’ by Stanley Ellin? There was a soufflé in that.” Th
ey were astonished to discover that this sixteen year old kid had read issues of Ellery Queen dating back to the 1940s and remembered the story. So they would come to me and they’d say, “Mysteries with cats,” and I’d come up with four or five. And that’s how I began editing, and I fell in love with it.  But my first taste of editing on the line editing level was from Eleanor Sullivan, when I started writing stories and submitting them to Queen, and she was very nice. She accepted two or three of my stories and then edited them very heavily to show me how to do it right. Or how to do it less wrong. And so that was my introduction to editing: how big a difference her kind attention to my words could make in the quality of my stories. And I like to do that now for other writers. People don’t always appreciate it, but an editor can make a real difference.

TS: Let’s talk about Hard Case Crime. You have a very clear sense of who you are — and aren't.

CA: True. Hard Case Crime harkens back to the classic pulp paperback crime novels of the 1950s, which were high velocity, short books.  They told very concise, typically linear stories.  There are, of course, exceptions.  You often had a dead body on page one, and if it got to page ten without one, there was something wrong with the book. Either that or a sex scene, or both. You had a plot hook that clicked early for the reader and basically pulled you by the lapels through the book until it deposited you limp and breathless on the last page.  The cover art was always painted, and it was always lurid, and the price was the price of an impulse buy — typically the price of a movie ticket. So when movies were a quarter, books were a quarter.  And we set out to do the same thing: short, tight, concise, fast, sexy, fun books that you could buy for a throwaway price. And, even when they’re set in the present day, we try to tell the sorts of stories that kept people reading book after book back in the old days.

TS: When you have a form that is so well known, what’s the difference between a submission that’s spot-on versus spit on?

CA: Well put. Sure, if we get another submission that opens with the busty silhouette of a dame through the pebbled glass of a downtrodden detective’s office door while his feet are up on the desk and the whiskey bottle’s in the lower drawer, we will reject it without getting past page one, literally.  And we do get those.  That’s not the only cliché we see, but we do see it.  We get a lot of submissions from people saying, this is like Carl Hiaasen or this is like Elmore Leonard.  We get a lot of submissions from people saying it’s about Russian mobsters. And anytime you see a lot of something, it’s very hard for any one example to break out, to stand out as clearly better than the rest.  As a rule, anything that is too familiar, too similar, is unlikely to be good.  So the goal here isn’t pastiche, and the goal very much isn’t the elbow-in-the-ribs, air quotes, ironic version of noir, where it’s done for a laugh. “Isn’t this old timey stuff cute?” We don’t do that. We’re trying to produce books that are indistinguishable from the real thing, indistinguishable from the old stuff, so it’s not a modern writer’s take on the old stuff.  It really should feel like a book that could have been published intact in 1953, even if it’s in a present day setting.  And what that means is the emotions are the emotions of classic noir: the despair is real despair; the fear is real fear; the sense of hopelessness of struggling against corruption is real.  These are the great things of literature.  That’s what makes a book noir.  Not the trappings.

TS: The '50s was a repressed era. And there weren't a lot of media. Now a reader has seen Dexter. No Country For Old Men. The first season of True Detective. How does that inform your editorial view, and does it pollute the waters for a reader now?

127-TheKnifeSlippedCA: It’s a good question. It’s not so much that it pollutes, but inform is a good word. I think you read any book on the back of the other books you’ve read before it, and so something that would have felt novel and fresh in 1953 might feel unduly familiar today through no fault of the author’s. And so there are books that might have been the first to use a given trope but we can’t reprint now because people will say, as the apocryphal high school student said of Hamlet, “It’s all quotes from lines I’ve heard before.” So we have had to leave a couple of good reprints on the shelf because the plot gimmick or the central situation was just too familiar.  But, having said that, there are always new variations. Lawrence Block wrote a book called The Girl With the Deep Blue Eyes for us recently, and the basic outline is the most familiar noir story in the world.  Beautiful woman married to an unattractive older man. Has an affair with a tough guy who she seduces to kill her wealthy husband. That’s a very familiar plot. That’s the plot of every James M. Cain novel ever written.

TS: But it’s in the hands of whom?

CA: It’s in the hands of Lawrence Block, who is a brilliant writer and also a brilliant improviser when it comes to plot, and he, like Mozart, can improvise a hundred variations on a single theme. And he came up with a new twist on this one that I didn’t see coming. I was very happy to publish the book because it felt fresh in spite of the familiar premise.

TS: You’ve got a great catalogue. Mickey Spillane, Donald Westlake, James M. Cain, Erle Stanley Gardner, among many, but you also have impressive current authors for Hard Case: you mentioned Lawrence Block. There’s also Stephen King, Harlan Ellison, Ken Bruen —

CA: Yes, together with Jason Starr, collaborating.

TS: I would imagine, given what you do, it’s not too hard to get these people to say, “Yeah, sign me up.”

CA: Authors might love what we do, but whether they decide to play depends in part on how prolific they are.  An author who only writes one book every eight or nine years, like Thomas Harris, might love what we do but isn’t likely to devote eight years of his life to producing a book for us.  And then the other thing is how deeply entwined is the author with another publisher? Megan Abbott is a fan of our books and a friend, and I’ve wanted for awhile to have a book from her, but the first one (she originally wrote Queenpin with us in mind), Simon and Schuster outbid us for it, as any publisher can outbid us for anything if they try. And she’s been tied up ever since.  So there are some authors who I think would enjoy doing something with us, but they have other commitments.

TS: Your titles are arresting.  You say that this is not ironic or tongue in cheek, and yet here are a few: Say It With Bullets. So Nude, So Dead. Losers Live Longer. House Dick. Blood on the Mink. And, of course, everybody’s favorite, I’m sure —

CA: The Corpse Wore Pasties?

TS: Exactly right. Are these titles a result of some parlor game?

CA: No. Some of those titles go back many decades. So Nude, So Dead was not the original title, but it was a book by Ed McBain we resurrected. I think the original title was something like The Guilty Sleep, which isn’t bad, but isn’t nearly as exciting. Say It With Bullets and The Corpse Wore Pasties are both comedies, and so you have a little more leeway to title something in a slightly amusing way there.  But we favor books that take themselves seriously, tell serious stories, and do very few comedies. But the titles can be fun.  It’s a little bit like the naked and half-naked women in the art; it’s what people expect of us, and it’s part of what makes the line fun.

TS: They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but you throw that maxim out the window, don't you?

CA: Yeah, we125-QuarryInTheBlack say, by all means, judge a book by its cover. We want to publish books that people are embarrassed to read openly on the subway. That’s our goal. Back in the day you would have two dozen pulp magazines vying for the same dime in someone’s pocket, and they’d try to outdo each other in terms of how lurid and how fascinating their covers were.  And we have embraced a similar style with our art.  We’ve gone to some old-time painters who are still working, like Robert McGinnis, who’s ninety years old and still paints beautiful colors for us, and some younger painters trained in a similar classical style.  And we want covers that make your palms sweat.  We want the money to fall right out of them.

TS: Talking to you, it’s so clear that you get personal satisfaction out of the whole package.

CA: I do, I do.

TS: And we’re doing our MWA-NY panel a few days from when this blog posts. You, Julia Dahl, Parnell Hall, Joseph Goodrich, and Elizabeth Zelvin will be at the New York Society Library talking classic mysteries.  For anyone in that audience who may not be into classics, where will your enthusiasm point them?

CA: Oh, there are writers who, although dead for decades, their work reads as fresh as if it were written yesterday.  If you read books we’ve published from the 50s like A Touch of Death by Charles Williams, or Branded Woman by Wade Miller, the cousins who wrote Touch of Evil, which became the Orson Welles movie, those read like a house on fire, and you will not be able to put them down. You won’t go wrong with authors that have survived the test of time. Erle Stanley Gardner, for example, was the best-selling author of his era. There’s a reason so many people read so many millions of his books.  They were a lot of fun, and when we discovered a lost Gardner manuscript from 1939 that had never been published, we were thrilled because it’s a chance for people to discover a new book by this old author.  Classic novels are one of my great pleasures, and I think people who resist reading something just because it’s old are like people who won’t drink a bottle of wine because it's old.

TS: What’s new at Hard Case that we should be looking for?

CA: Max Allen Collins, who wrote Road To Perdition, which became the Tom Hanks movie, has a series of novels about a hit man named Quarry. Now he has a TV series coming up on Cinemax about this character, and we’re bringing out a brand new Quarry novel in October, which is timely, not only because the TV series will be going on, but also because it’s set in the weeks leading up to a controversial presidential election. In this case, McGovern-Nixon in 1972. But Quarry, the hit man, is hired to murder a civil rights leader who’s stumping for the democrat, refuses to do it, and investigates to find out who hired him.  Turns out to be a racist group from Ferguson, Missouri, of all random places. So if you think there might be some commentary on the modern day in this book, you’re probably right.

126-SinnerManAlso, we have a discovery. A lost book by Lawrence Block called Sinner Man, which he wrote around 1960, and lost.  It was published under a fake name, under a different title.  He didn’t know what name; he didn’t know what title.  He didn’t even know what publisher, and spent years looking for it until one of his fans finally found it and recognized it based on the glimmers of recollection Block had about the plot.  So we dug up a copy, Larry went back and made revisions, and we’ll be bringing that out as a kind of Christmas treat in November. And then the Erle Stanley Gardner, which is called The Knife Slipped, in December.

TS: Last question. You’re boarding a TWA prop plane to a desert island.  You’ve got a flask of hooch, a dame, and a dirty secret.  What book do you take for the flight?

CA: I’ve got hooch and a dame and I’m gonna be spending my flight reading? [laughs]

INTERVIEWER’S NOTE: Charles Ardai did name his desert-island classic mystery novel. To find out what it is, come to the MWA-NY panel at the New York Society Library, 53 East 79th Street (at Madison), 6-8pm, September 21. This event is free and open to the public, but advance registration is required: Call the NYSL at: 212.288.6900 x230 or go online to events@nysoclib.org. Light refreshments will be served.

—Tom Straw

Tom Straw is an Emmy and Writers Guild of America nominee for his TV writing and producing. He joined the Mystery Writers of America in 2007 on publication of his first book, The Trigger Episode. Subsequently, under a pseudonym, he has authored seven New York Times Bestsellers. He currently serves as a board member of the MWA-NY chapter.

GONE (BUT NOT FORGOTTEN) BOOKS

dandyThe Internet, as we’ve all discovered, is a mixed blessing. One of its decided pleasures, however, is the ease with which books can be found. When I worked in a bookstore in Los Angeles over 20 years ago, if a book was out of print, there were only two options for the reader: look for it at every bookstore you stepped into, or ask a bookstore with a search service to make those inquiries for you.

That's all changed, and today that cherished paperback the dog chewed up — that precious tome you left on a bus in Spain — that volume you saw in Jackson, Mississippi and didn't buy — almost anything and everything is readily available. (You might pay through the nose for it, but it's available.)

Recently Derek Marlowe’s 1966 spy thriller A Dandy in Aspic was brought back into print after decades out in the cold. Marlowe was an underrated writer who never repeated himself, which is one of the reasons his other books never achieved Dandy's great success. He moved to Los Angeles in the mid-'80s and worked in film and television.

Which is where I met him.

He frequented the bookstore I worked at, you see. And though I can’t claim to have known him, our lives intersected. The dandy from London and the boy from small-town Minnesota inhabited the same world for a few years.

I left Los Angeles. Marlowe had planned to do the same. He was going to return to London and the novelist’s trade.

Pauline Boty's portrait of Derek MarloweBut illness and death intervened. Marlowe never made it back to London, and only a chapter or two of that novel exist.

Luckily, his other books are easily located, thanks to the Internet. I’d recommend Nightshade, Echoes of Celandine, Do You Remember England?, and The Rich Boy from Chicago to any reader interested in Marlowe's work . . . as well as the book that started it all, A Dandy in Aspic.

Scottish writer and producer Paul Gallagher has written a marvelous and touching piece about Marlowe. When he was a teen, Gallagher wrote to Marlowe — and Marlowe wrote back.

It's something any writer can relate to, and you can find it here.

By the way, the illustration accompanying these words is Pauline Boty’s portrait of Marlowe.

— Joseph Goodrich

Joseph Goodrich is the author of South of Sunset: Nine Plays and “Incident on Clinton Street,” which appears in the January/February 2016 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

THE BIG BOOK OF OTTO PENZLER

sherlock cover big Otto Penzler knows his sleuths. Recently published, The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories is the twelfth anthology he has edited for Vintage Crime/Black Lizard (Random House).

For those without a scorecard, Penzler has also won two Edgars, a Raven, and an Ellery Queen Award; served fourteen years on the Mystery Writers of America board; and is proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop in Tribeca. He will appear June 14 on an MWA-NY panel, Sherlock Holmes: 125 Years of Perfection in Detection, marking the 1891 publication of Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia. The event at the Mid-Manhattan Library (details below) includes fellow experts Lyndsay Faye and SJ Rozan plus moderator Susan Rice of the Baker Street Irregulars. It seemed a logical occasion to sit down with Mr. Penzler and talk Holmes, which we did earlier this month in the clubby basement office of his legendary bookshop.    — Tom Straw

 MBkShp1TS: Hemingway said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Would you say for mystery literature it springs from Sherlock Holmes, or would Doyle be in a jump ball with Poe?

OP: Well, Poe obviously created the character, created the form, created most of the tropes that we know of the detective story and did it in a single short story, which is borderline miraculous. Now the three real mystery stories that he wrote were not all that successful. He didn’t create anything major. There was no desire for other people to start writing mystery fiction. So while he was innovative, he was not transformative of a form of literature. There were other mysteries written also generally with very, very little success. Various elements of mystery used perhaps not as fully as we’ve come to know the detective story. But generally without much success until Sherlock Holmes.

Everything changed with Sherlock Holmes. But even then it didn’t happen with the two novels. Study in Scarlet in 1887 and The Sign of Four in 1890, where we look back now and say, “This is where it all came from.” But what transformed the genre was the beginning of a series of short stories in The Strand Magazine in 1891, and they became so incredibly successful that publishers started looking for more stories. Writers tried to emulate it — emulate the style, the form, the structure — and obviously the most important figure in the history of the success of the detective story. However, I think Poe still has to get credit as the most important person because he invented it.

TS: As I hear you talk, there really is a higher level of intellect happening with these stories than just “whodunnit,” isn’t there?

OP: Of course. Every time someone writes a first-rate, truly outstanding detective novel or short story it is generally described or too frequently described as transcending the genre. Everything really good transcends its genre. To try to say, “Oh, this is so much better than just a mere detective story,” doesn’t understand the notion that there are many brilliant writers who have tried their hand at detective fiction. And in a more general sense, a broader sense, at mystery fiction which includes crime and suspense and other subgenres of mystery. Everybody who does it brilliantly transcends its genre.

It’s true of most great mystery fiction. They’re novels first. They’re about characters. They’re about passion. They’re about stylistic prose of the author. They’re about all those things and, oh yeah, they happen to involve a murder and detecting a murder. But somebody like Dashiell Hammett, for example, who’s writing books about the social era in which he was working, they have an ambience and a character of their time that is more true than most of the so-called general novels of the same time. So does it transcend the genre? No, it’s just a great example of the genre.

TS: Let’s talk about The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories. Which it is. Damn, it’s big.

OP: It lives up to its name.

TS: What was your mission as the editor?

OP:  My mission, and this sounds just a trifle arrogant, but I’m comfortable with that, was to put together the greatest anthology of Sherlock Holmes ever. And, in all humility, I succeeded. It’s the biggest and the best, ever. Now there have been many good Sherlock Holmes anthologies. And I read just about every story in every one of them because I wanted to make sure that I had all the best. So there are certain other anthologies from which I used three stories, or four stories. I picked the best of the stories from those anthologies as well as collections of stories by other authors, magazines, etcetera, to pull all this together. But yes, it was a very simple mission. I wanted to do the best ever. The ultimate.

Otto

Otto Pendler in his office at The Mysterious Bookshop

TS: I can’t help but think that the job of selection is tough. Were there any choices that were really hard to make?

OP: You’re getting to the heart of what it’s like to be an anthologist. And it’s never easy.  It’s easier when the book is big because you have to make fewer hard cuts. Random House has been so generous to me. They let me do whatever. Whatever I deliver, that’s what they publish. They don’t say, “Oh, well, keep it under 600 pages; keep it under 30 stories.” They don’t do that. This book is 83 stories—83. And it’s 800 and something pages. But it’s more than that because it’s oversized, big. It’s eight by ten, and it’s double column. It’s like ten books, you know.

And so I didn’t have to leave out anything that I really wanted to use, which is really a blessing as an editor of an anthology to be able to do that. I included (and I had the freedom to do this) several bad stories because they had some historical significance. If it were a small book you wouldn’t see the four or five bad stories, weak stories, silly parodies that really weren’t all that original, but they had their time, or they were by somebody very major. I mean, I think the story by AA Milne, for example, is a really awful story. It’s just awful. And I say that in my introduction. It’s mercifully short, it’s one page, mercifully short. But how do you leave out a story by AA Milne, a Sherlock Holmes story? So because it’s only one page and because I have the freedom to have so many pages, I could include a few bad stories.

I read, somewhere… I lost track… somewhere between 400 and 500 stories to cull, to get down to the best that I could do, and I’m very proud of the book. I love my book.

TS: What’s your favorite in there?

OP: You know, it really is hard because it might even change according to my mood at the moment. But probably the one that I am happiest about having in the book is the one written by Davis Grubb. Not a very well-known writer, but he wrote a very well-known book and movie called The Night of the Hunter, which is a very noir movie with Robert Mitchum, one of the darkest movies ever done. And he wrote a Sherlock Holmes pastiche that is utterly brilliant. And it’s not over-printed. People haven’t seen it in many anthologies and I was thrilled to discover this and it really is first rate.

TS: Are you confident that people will continue to write Sherlock Holmes stories?

OP: Yes, definitely. The Sherlock Holmes, you know, it never goes away. It ebbs and flows a little bit. Sometimes it’s more. There’s more of it usually because of either a successful film or television series or even a book. Like when Nicholas Meyer wrote The Seven Percent Solution, there was a deluge of Sherlockian stories and books that followed on its heels. And then it waned a little bit, you know, but now here we are again with Elementary and with the Sherlock series with Cumberbatch. So it’s at a peak now. It’ll probably wane again a little bit, but it never goes away. Even at its lowest ebb there’s still tremendous interest. And, you know, things like the Baker Street Irregulars and the Sherlock Holmes Society of London and the many scion societies, they all continue. You know, they don’t lose their enthusiasm for it. And I’m happy about that.

TS: Let’s play a game. We’re going to play Knee Jerk on portrayals. Rathbone or Brett?

OP: Rathbone.

TS: Brett or Cumberbatch?

OP: Brett.

TS: Downey, Jr. or Cumberbatch?

OP: Cumberbatch.

TS: Jonny Lee Miller or Nicole Williamson?

OP: I like Nicole Williamson, but I’ve never seen Elementary… Now, the best Sherlock Holmes—you didn’t ask me the best, you just asked me to compare.

TS: OK... Who was the best Holmes?

OP: George C. Scott in They Might Be Giants. I thought the first half of that movie was among the great films of all time. It fell apart and became just totally silly but Scott was absolutely perfect as Holmes.

TS: And Joanne Woodward was…

OP: Dr. Watson.

TS: Yes, the psychologist helping him out.

OP: I loved it. When he deduced that the reason you’re not saying anything is you have nothing to say… And just his attitude, the arrogance, the overwhelming intelligence that is so evident there. I just, I loved it.

TS: Let’s go back to stories by Doyle. This upcoming panel is celebrating A Scandal in Bohemia, which became A Scandal in Belgravia in the Cumberbatch series. It kicked off the first of 56 short stories. Is there one you can think of that really grabs you?

OP: The Red-Headed League, perhaps because it was the first that I read. I was probably 10 years old, and we had library in school. We had an hour twice a week where you would leave your classroom and go to the school library and the librarian would talk to you about books and how to properly care for books and that sort of thing. And for the second half hour you were allowed to read anything you wanted in the room. You could take it off the shelf and read it. And I pulled an anthology off, and it was the adventure of The Red-Headed League. Sounded really interesting. And I started reading it and I was about halfway through — two-thirds through — and the bell rang. And I couldn’t stand not knowing what happened.

And it didn’t make me a Sherlockian right away or a mystery fan right away, but that story stuck in my memory so vividly. I could not wait to get back to that room and finish that story. I loved to read from the time I was a little boy. And years later, when I’d been an English major at Michigan and reading the things that English majors read — things that you wouldn’t read for fun on your own — one of the first things that I wanted to do after was to start reading [again]... but read for fun and not hurt my brain any more the way that James Joyce does, for example. And I picked up The Complete Sherlock Holmes, and I just loved every . . . the worst stories in the book were great. And the great ones remain memorable.

TS: I’m stating the obvious here, but your passion is coming through on this.

OP: Oh, yeah.  There’s no question.

TS: This has been in you all your life, hasn’t it?

OP: Yeah. Perhaps because of that short story but also perhaps because of the Doubleday two-volume Christopher Morley introduction that Doubleday published in 1930. I loved that, and in those days I had more time. I had a regular job — not like now when I work seven days a week, 12-hour days. But I could read anything I wanted. And I probably read the canon three, four, or five times within three, four, five years.

TS: Anyone who has read a lot of Holmes is bound to bump into all sorts of pastiches, rip offs, and fan fiction. Now, there is a positive side. I cite two people who are going to be on the panel with you on this June 14th event we’re having: Lyndsay Faye, who wrote Dust and Shadows, which is an exceptional pastiche; and S.J. Rozan, who did the critically-acclaimed short story "The Men with the Twisted Lips." What do you think makes for a really good adaptation of a Holmes story?

Lyndsay Faye

Lyndsay Faye

OP: Well, first you need the same thing that would make a good any-kind-of-story: you need a good plot. You already have a good character, so you’re halfway home. You need a good plot, and you need to be able to write well. I mean that’s immutable. That’s true for any piece of fiction. So the better the story, the better the plot, and the better you are as a writer, as a stylist, the better story you’re going to get.

SJ Rozan

S.J. Rozan

TS: Let’s get to the juicy part then. Where do people go wrong? How do you know it’s a stinker?

OP: In a more general sense, it’s because they have a lousy story. Their story is boring. Or trite. I think the biggest mistake, assuming that they can write. I mean, when you talk about fan fiction, everybody and his uncle thinks that they can write a short story. And mostly they think they can write a Sherlock Holmes parody or pastiche because it’s so recognizable that you feel, “Oh, I can do that. I just have to use the character.” But let’s say at the minimal level you’re a good writer, a decent writer — I think the biggest mistake that people make when they’re writing pastiches is to try to get it all in. They want Moriarty, they want Mycroft, they want Mrs. Hudson, they want Watson, of course. They want the cocaine use. They want him on the violin. They want to use some of the same usages like, “The game is afoot.” Or, “Elementary, my dear fellow.” That sort of thing. And you try to get it all into a short story, say, and you become a parody even though you haven’t tried to write a parody. And I think that’s one of the weaknesses that I found most frequently when I was reading pastiches.

You know, you don’t have to fit it all in. We know the character, we know it’s 221b Baker Street. You don’t have to describe the room. You don’t have use the same language that Holmes used over 60 stories. You don’t have to use it all in one book. Yes, he repeated several phrases more than once, more than twice. But, you know, he didn’t repeat them in every single story. He didn’t say, “The game is afoot” in every single story. Whereas, in half the pastiches that I’ve read, that line comes out.

TS: Would you say then… keep it elementary?

OP:  Keep it elementary. Lighten up.

You can ask your own questions and hear more from Otto Penzler and expert panelists Lyndsay Faye and S.J. Rozan by coming to the MWA-NY event: Sherlock Holmes: 125 Year of Perfection in Detection, a lively discussion of the staying power of this iconic figure.

Mid-Manhattan Library, Scene of the June 14th MWA-NY Sherlock Holmes Panel

Mid-Manhattan Library
Scene of the June 14th MWA-NY
Sherlock Holmes Panel

 

WHEN & WHERE

June 14, 2016

6:30 – 8p.m.

NYPL Mid-Manhattan Library

Fifth Avenue at 40th Street

Free and Open to All

 

 

 

Tom Straw is an Emmy and Writers Guild of America nominee for his TV writing and producing. He joined the Mystery Writers of America in 2007 on publication of his first book, The Trigger Episode. Subsequently, under a pseudonym, he has authored seven New York Times Bestsellers. He currently serves as a board member of the MWA-NY chapter.

BASED ON MATERIAL FROM ANOTHER MEDIUM

 Lawrence Block

What sparks creativity in you? Music? Photography? Dance? Sculpture? For an upcoming anthology, In Sunlight or In Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper, the editor, Lawrence Block, asked 17 authors to choose one artwork and see what whispered.

We all know Lawrence Block. Whether it’s from the entire shelf devoted to him at most bookstores or from the films that have been adapted from his books (most recently, A Walk Among the Tombstones, starring Liam Neeson). Or maybe you’ve spotted the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master at meetings of our New York chapter, of which he is a member. We got together a few weeks ago to talk about the new book over lunch. I brought my recorder to share some of our conversation about how art and other media stimulate imaginations.

—Tom Straw

TS: On your website I saw one of the great quotes from Edward Albee – “Creativity is magic; don’t examine it too closely.” Well, he’s just going to have to deal with it, because what I would like to do here is examine the magic a little bit.

LB:  Okay.

TS: Since this blog is going to be about inspiration drawn from other sources, what is it that inspired you to this subject?

LB:  I have no idea. You know, sometimes ideas are just there, and I don’t have any recollection of what the previous thought was to it. But from out of apparently nowhere, I thought of an anthology of stories inspired by paintings of Edward Hopper. It just came to me. And, you know, it was just too good an idea to throw away. Anthologies are a very difficult sell these days. They’re also a real pain in the ass to edit. To do the whole thing, you have to invite writers; you have to prevail upon them to write a story they probably don’t want to write for less money than they ought to get. And then you have to put it all together and so on. And this I saw right away would be more complicated than just that because one would also need to secure permissions for all of the reproducible art for all of the paintings.

TS: You accumulated a tremendous group of writers, starting with Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and our mutual friend, Mr. Craig Ferguson. A fine writer he, by the way.

LB: Yes. Indeed.

TS: And look at the rest of your roster. Megan Abbott, Jill D. Block, Robert Olen Butler, Lee Child, Nicholas Christopher, Michael Connelly, Jeffery Deaver, Joe R. Lansdale, Gail Levin, Warren Moore, Kris Nelscott, Jonathan Santlofer, and Justin Scott. Was it your personal relationship with these writers that helped secure them?

LB: No, what it really was was Hopper. Because, as I’d rather suspected, Hopper, he’s popular with all sorts of people, but he is especially popular with writers and readers because I suppose of what gets called the narrative quality of his paintings. But actually I don’t think of him as a narrative painter by any means because his paintings don’t tell stories. They suggest that there is a story there waiting to be told, which is a rather different matter from Bruegel or someone like that.

Hopper's home and studio, 3 Washington Square North

Hopper's home and studio,
3 Washington Square North

Anyway, I drafted a letter and sent it out to a couple of people, whom I wanted in the book, and I kept getting acceptances, and those always said, “I love Hopper. That sounds great.” The refusals were from people who were just overcommitted and there was no way they could do it. But even then, a couple of writers were truly overcommitted but liked Hopper so much that they’re in the book anyway. So that was just extraordinary.

And what I absolutely loved was avoiding a problem with most thematic anthologies, which is that you get a lot of stories that are similar. It is hard to avoid. There was a book out recently called Jewish Noir, a huge book, and good material in it, but it seemed to me that about every fourth story recounted the experiences, presumably of the author, of getting beaten up in the schoolyard by the Gentile kids. That never happened to me… but on the basis of that, I am willing to believe that that was a near universal experience for a generation there.

TS: Hopefully not forthcoming.

LB: Yeah [laughter], but it gave a regrettable sameness to the thing.

TS:  That didn’t happen with this?

LB: It didn’t happen at all. I emphasized that this was not a crime anthology when I solicited things. A lot of the stories are crime stories of one sort or another, but a lot are not. And really the only common thread is Hopper. And they're all different paintings, and they're all different stories. So that was very rewarding.

TS: I imagine your hardest job as editor was to arbitrate who gets what painting.

LB: No, no, no, no. That wasn’t how it worked. When I invited someone, I said, call dibs on a painting. Of all of Hopper’s work, just name something that you want to do. Actually one thing I took off the table, because it is so iconic, was Nighthawks. I thought maybe we should just not have that here. And then towards the end, Michael Connelly was considering, and he had absolutely no time. He was busy with Bosch, the TV thing, and everything else in the world, but I knew he was a very strong Hopper fan and I knew that Bosch was very much a fan of Nighthawks and had mused about it a couple of times. So I suggested to Michael that Nighthawks was available if he wanted to do it. And he did. He has a thing with Bosch in Chicago at the Art Institute, at the painting, and a terrific little story.

TS: Let’s talk about those stories a little bit more. They aren’t all Hopper paintings come to life, are they?

LB:  Oh no, no. They are whatever story occurred to someone as a result of looking at the painting. They aren’t — let me explain what is happening here. So the painting that Craig Ferguson picked is a church on Cape Cod, South Truro church, and there is a spiritual aspect to the story that he writes that is consistent with that but it is not as if the painting clearly illustrates it or anything.

But the stories, as far as genre is concerned, really run a gamut. Some are period, some are contemporary. They are all over the map. Nicholas Christopher did one that is really magic realism if you were going to categorize it. A fellow named Warren Moore, a professor at Newberry College in South Carolina, had done a story for Dark City Lights that I really liked and is a good fellow. And his is essentially a ghost story really.

TS: Your daughter did one as well, right?

LB: Yes, she did. And hers is contemporary relationship type story. Family stuff.

TS: On our theme of art begetting art, can you think of influences on you –  photography, film, statues, architecture, music?

LB:  I don’t know. [Pauses] I don’t know, but probably a lifetime of reading has been my biggest influence. I know jazz musicians will talk about their influences because when they start out they try to sound like other musicians whom they admire. And I don’t think many writers do that consciously. I think the goal of writing is to sound like yourself, whatever that is, and it can take a while to find out. And for some people it is there the first thing when they sit down.

TS: Do you paint? Do you draw?

LB: No. Well… There was a period of time when I was doing a lot of paintings in the manner of Mondrian because I figured that the drafting talent required was within my toolbox. And I had fun with that. And I liked some of the paintings from that time, but I haven’t done anything in 25 years and don’t anticipate so doing. I don’t have artistic talent that way. My mother painted and was quite good. You know, Sunday painter, but she was pretty good at it. But not I.

TS: Tell me about securing rights for those paintings. Hopefully it wasn’t your headache.

LB: Oh, it was indeed. One of the things that I did to make this a little more attractive for a publisher was to say that I would take care of that.

TS: How do you go about that?

LB: Well, I was very fortunate. There is a woman who assists my wife in her business and who has in the past worked at a museum and is familiar with the whole process. So she investigated and corresponded and did everything, really. It took a little while, but that way we were really able to supply the publisher with a complete package.

TS: Were you fairly certain when you started out that you would be able to do that?

LB: One way or the other. The worse that could happen is there would be a painting that you just couldn’t get. In which case we’d have two choices: get another painting and bring it into the story or fucking steal it.

TS: There’s a funny opening for a story in a prison. What are you in for? I used a Hopper painting. [laughter] As much as doing an anthology is a pain, you seem very energized by the outcome.

LB: Yeah. It was exciting. For a while I didn’t see how we were going to sell it. It was not that easy a thing. My agent went around and we talked it around… and publishers hate anthologies. They just hate doing them.

TS: Can you tell me why?

LB: Part of it is what they go through with all the different writers and all of that, which was largely taken out of their hands in this instance anyway. Also they feel they just don’t sell well enough to justify the whole thing. But I must say what a pleasure Pegasus has been. They liked it, they jumped on it, and it is their lead title for the fall — for the whole season. And one of the paintings, the painting that illustrates the Joe Lansdale story, is the cover painting on their catalog.

In Sunlight or in Shadow_CVR-01

TS: That’s great. That is the woman peeking through the drapes up the stairs?

LB: Yeah. At a movie theater.

TS: I am noticing it is available on Kindle and in hardback.

LB:  Right.

TS: You’ve got these luscious paintings.

LB:  Yep.

TS: I wonder which one would be best.

LB:  Yeah. If you’ve got a Kindle that displays in color or if you are using an iPad or something like that, then that would be good. I think this is just going to be such a gorgeous book that it is the kind of thing that I might want it on Kindle to read. But I would also want to own the hardback, especially because it’s a good, hefty book and there are 18 color reproductions, and their hardcover is listing, I think, twenty-five bucks. And I thought it would have to be 30 at least and possibly 35, you know? I mean, you can preorder it now on Amazon for 20 dollars. That’s really inexpensive for what one is getting.

TS: What were the great surprises that you got when the stories started coming in?

LB:  The greatest surprise was that the stories started coming in. [laughter] Beyond that, I don’t know. I expected the work from all of the people I asked to the party. Incidentally, there are 17 stories, but there are 18 paintings. And the explanation is that there was one writer who accepted and who named a painting, and it turned out he couldn’t deliver. And these things happen. Not a problem. But we’ve already cleared the painting. Now we hadn’t paid for it because we got it from an art house that supplies reproducible art and we didn’t have to cut them a check unless we were going to use it. But I had it in the folder of art that I sent over to Pegasus. And the woman there said there is one painting that we don’t seem to have a story for. And Claiborne Hancock of Pegasus, said, “It’s a pretty nice painting. Why don’t we use it for the frontispiece?” I had paid for all the other art, and I said, “If you want to add it, this one is on you.” He said, “Yes, we will pick that up.” So I thought about it, and then the way I ended my book intro was to explain that we had one extra painting we were using as a frontispiece, and the readers were invited to write their own story for it.

But just don’t send it to me because I am done. [laughter]

Tom Straw is an Emmy and Writers Guild of America nominee for his TV writing and producing. He joined the Mystery Writers of America in 2007 on publication of his first book, The Trigger Episode. Subsequently, under a pseudonym, he has authored seven New York Times Bestsellers. He currently serves as a board member of the MWA-NY chapter.

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