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It Was Dark, It Was Stormy, It Was Paradise

Recently, and for no particular reason, I tried to remember the first crime or mystery book I ever read. Since I am a woman of a certain age, it was, of course, a Nancy Drew book. I couldn’t recall which book, but I did remember my childhood thrill at being on a dark and stormy adventure with the girl sleuth. Danger! Daring! Disobedience!

Disobedience. Yeah, that was the hook for me. Disobedience all the way around. Disobedient Nancy, doing daring and dangerous things a respectable, well behaved girl shouldn’t do, like pursuing criminals. And criminals by definition are disobedient, doing whatever they want, usually bad things like theft and murder, but hey, they didn’t ask Mommy or Daddy if they could go out and do it. For a straining-at-the-leash kid like me, Nancy Drew’s world of crime and crime solving was a paradise of disobedience, redeemed by good triumphing over evil.

Adulthood has taken the shine off the good-triumphing-over-evil part. We know — through horrifying headlines, even our own personal experiences and crushing disappointments — that good often loses the game. But for me, and perhaps for many crime fiction writers, the lure of disobedience lingers. It’s not only at the core of the criminals we create and the criminal acts we have them perform, disobedience can also power crime solvers: all those rule-breaking cops and PIs.

As crime and mystery writers, we must find empathy within us for all of our characters in order to give them full human dimension. That means understanding the criminal as well as the crime solver, burrowing inside their disobedience to get to the root of their acts. Like the little kid I once was, I still find that thrilling. I even find freedom. In our real lives, we are constrained by various rules, most of them necessary in order to maintain a functioning society. Many of society’s rules, though, are annoying, trapping us in bureaucratic red tape, computer intransigence, general injustice, and other irritating entanglements. Writing crime, writing about people who disobey society’s rules, provides a liberating relief. I don’t have to ask Mommy, Daddy, or the boss who signs my paycheck if I can vicariously rob a bank, kill someone, or disobey the rules in order to catch a killer. Freedom!

Well, that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it, as they say. If you’re a crime fiction writer or reader, I have a feeling it’s your story, too. We’re all grown up now, we won’t get our hands slapped or sent to bed without dessert for our attitude of disobedience. As writers, we’ll make art of it.

Long live crime fiction and the disobedient souls who write it and read it.

 —Ann Aptaker

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Lambda and Goldie winner Ann Aptaker isn’t shy about telling you how much she loves her hometown, New York City. She swears she even feels its history; all those triumphs and tragedies of the famous and the forgotten. She’s now old enough to be part of that history, which she likes, except for the “old” part, which she’s iffy about. Aptaker is happy to bring you into that history in her Cantor Gold crime series.

Mug Shot: Amy M. Reade

Amy M. Reade is a cook, chauffeur, household CEO, doctor, laundress, maid, psychiatrist, warden, seer, teacher, and pet whisperer. In other words, a wife, mother, and recovering attorney. But she also writes and is the author of The Malice Series (The House on Candlewick Lane, Highland Peril, and Murder in Thistlecross) and three standalone books, Secrets of Hallstead House, The Ghosts of Peppernell Manor, and House of the Hanging Jade.

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What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on three projects: first, a contemporary gothic mystery set in London. It features characters my readers have come to know in the first three books of my Malice series, plus a few new faces. Second, I'm working on a new project which doesn't even have a working title yet. All I can tell you right now is that it's a mystery set in Washington, D.C., in the present day and that I plan to make it the first in a new series. Third, I'm working on a cozy mystery with a Christmas theme.

When and how do you find time to write?
I write every day, usually in the afternoons. I'm up at the crack of dawn, but I’m usually not able to get much writing done in the first half of the day. I use the mornings to work on marketing, promotions, answer emails, and check up on the blogs I follow.

How much and what kinds of marketing do you personally do?
I do marketing on social media several times daily (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram are my favorites), but I also blog every Tuesday (my blog is called Reade and Write, and I interview lots of authors and readers, recommend books, and write posts about topics I find interesting). I spend a good deal of time reading other writers' blogs, and I comment frequently. I've found that's a great way to meet people and I've also been invited to do lots of guest blogs just because I'm an engaged commenter. I also do readings, library talks, school talks, book signings, conferences, book festivals, and book clubs. I'm sure there are things I'm forgetting. As far as I'm concerned, there's no better way to engage with readers than in person. I only wish I had enough time and money to travel more to meet readers.

These efforts seem to work for me, but like every other author, I'm still searching for that holy grail that will see my marketing results skyrocket. I think the best approach to marketing is one that involves a combination of lots of different activities.

What fictional detective would you like to be and why?
I don't even need to think about it — Nancy Drew. She's got good friends, a well-placed father, a housekeeper who loves her, an awesome car, a great wardrobe, and she’s smart. She always finds a way to get out of danger while still keeping her cool and she always gets the bad guy.

In five words or less, what advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Work hard; don't give up.

Investigate Thyself: Patrick Modiano’s Missing Person

Patrick Modiano’s Missing Person focuses on a private detective, introduced as Guy Roland, who investigates himself. The location is Paris, the time period, the mid-1960s. I say “introduced as Guy Roland,” because from page one of this novel, we comprehend that we are dealing with a detective narrator with little sense of his own identity. “I am nothing,” is how the book starts. “Nothing but a pale shape, silhouetted that evening against the café terrace, waiting for the rain to stop…”

The head of the agency he works for, a man named Hutte, is retiring. The agency is closing. But Hutte is keeping the lease on the apartment where the agency operates, which means that all the “street-and-trade directories and year books of all kinds going back fifty years” will remain there. Hutte, who brought Roland into the agency eight years ago, who taught him how to be a private investigator, has described these volumes as “the essential tools of the trade,” objects he’d never discard. Roland asks about them, and when Hutte asks Roland what he intends to do with himself, Roland says that he’s following something up. You think that he’s talking about a case that needs closing and that he wants access to the volumes for his work, but then he tells Hutte what he’s really talking about: “My past.” Hutte understands – “I always thought that one day you’d try to find your past again.” – and gives him a key for free use of the premises while’s he off to retire in Nice. Though Hutte asks him whether finding his past will be worth it, he does nothing to dissuade Roland from beginning his stated quest; he, too, it seems, suffers from a strange amnesia.

At some point, both these men lost contact with a whole part of their lives, and as Roland will eventually suggest, the memory blur dates back to World War II. What happened then to trigger the amnesia? Beyond the fact of the war itself, was there a shared trauma? Why doesn’t Roland know his real name or anything about his life before Hutte took him under his wing and even secured a “legal identity record” for him? At that time, Roland was living in a fog, lost in his amnesia. Hutte gave him a direction and a job. But with the closing of the agency, Roland is on his own again, and, in essence, he has decided to hire himself to investigate the mystery of his own existence. Missing Person has the succinct prose, clipped dialogue, and moody first person narration of many a private eye novel, but from the first chapter, we get the impression that this book is not going to take us through the usual private eye environment.

At first, without question, Roland proceeds like a typical detective. Pursuing information, he sets up a meeting with a man he feels can help him. But when Roland tells us that he needs a cognac to calm himself merely to make a phone call, that the phone call has brought sweat pouring out of his temples, we know we’re not dealing with an investigator who exudes the strength of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. It's evident also that absurdity will mark an aspect of his quest; he’s a detective who doesn’t know himself.

Roland is a man in search of a history, and his nebulous sense of self leads him to keep changing his thoughts on who he is and where he comes from. Early in his investigation, he has reason to believe he was once Howard de Luz, a Frenchman from a rich family, and he learns that this De Luz lived an idle life, becoming associated with a silent film star. He likes the idea:

Howard de Luz. It might be my own name. Howard de Luz. Yes, the sound of it stirred something in me, something as fleeting as moonlight passing over some object. If I was this Howard de Luz, I had shown a certain originality in my life style, since among so many more reputable and absorbing professions, I had chosen that of being John Gilbert’s confidant.

What's fascinating is how Modiano plays with the concept of detective work as an act of imagination. From Holmes, through Maigret, to hardboiled characters like Lew Archer, detectives have always solved cases by making connections others don’t see.  From these connections come narratives the detectives build. In a book filled with contradictory narratives, many of them false, incomplete, or incorrectly remembered, the detective is the person who constructs the final and dominant narrative. But what if the detective, try as he might, cannot find the “real” narrative?

Missing Person won the Prix Goncourt, France’s highest literary prize, in 1978. For his body of work, Modiano won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014. Now 70, he has written about 30 books over a nearly 50-year career, and if one thing can be said about his writing, it’s that he’s exhibited a remarkable thematic consistency over those decades. Indeed, you might call his concerns an obsession. I’ve read a handful of his novels, but each one explores the same areas. They wrestle with the question of identity and the murkiness of the past. Or as James McAuley writes in a recent New Republic article about him: “...nearly all of them are variations on the theme of missing persons, either murdered in the German Occupation of France or adrift in its uncertain aftermath.”

Luckily, because of the Nobel Prize, Modiano’s books are now easier to find in the United States than the traces of a beach man’s footsteps. He’s easy to read, but thought-provoking, contemplative, and frequently humorous. His literary credentials need no burnishing, but the crime lit aficionado will appreciate his inventiveness with genre. You can admire how he articulates an idiosyncratic and personal vision through the lens, albeit a skewed one, of detective fiction.

—Scott Adlerberg

Excerpted from a longer version published in Criminal Element.

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Scott Adlerberg lives in New York City. He co-hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series each summer at the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival in Manhattan. He blogs about books, movies, and writing at Scott Adlerberg’s Mysterious Island. His most recent book is the psychological thriller Graveyard Love.

I Can’t Say Goodbye to Ross Macdonald

Some writers keep drawing you back to them. Among crime writers, one who does this to me is Ross Macdonald. I first read him when I was 13 – the novel was The Goodbye Look, a Lew Archer mystery from 1969. At the time I read it, the mid-'70s, the book was contemporary, and I remember the enjoyment I felt reading a hard-boiled private eye story that was not Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler – in other words, that type of mystery story but not set in the past. I liked Hammett courtesy of Red Harvest and the Continental Op short tales I’d read, and I adored Chandler from reading Farewell, My Lovely (that cool, cynical voice!), but Macdonald felt different. I recall thinking that Macdonald’s characters were people I might actually meet.

The Southern California suburbs he described were different than the suburb I lived in north of New York City, but the problems and issues he explored seemed familiar: parents and children who struggle to communicate, husbands and wives arguing, unhappiness despite comfortable surroundings, families with secrets, the importance of psychology and psychologists in apparently everybody’s worldview.

I recall, too, from that particular read, that the complicated plot held me enthralled. I’ve read a number of Archer books since adolescence, of course, and The Goodbye Look twice more, and I have to say that the pleasure of sifting through Macdonald’s plots is one that has never diminished. Nor has the emotional satisfaction I get reading Macdonald at his best. In his full maturity, Lew Archer has got to be as compassionate a private eye as ever existed, and the people he investigates have a psychological richness that draws you into their stories. Through Archer, you feel their pain.

The first six Archer books are enjoyable. Macdonald writes classic, terse Southern California mysteries in the Chandler tradition.  That’s a key point: from The Moving Target (1949) through The Barbarous Coast (1956), Macdonald’s talent is obvious but so are his influences. In The Moving Target, for example, Archer’s narrative voice has a self-conscious toughness barely present in the later works, and the dialogue often works too hard. Macdonald pushes to be witty in the literary street patter style of the day. Take this stilted exchange:

“The name is Archer,” I said. “Do you use bluing when you wash your hair? I had an aunt who said it was very effective.” His face didn’t change. He showed his anger by speaking more precisely. “I dislike superfluous violence. Please don’t make it necessary.” I could look down on the top of his head, see the scalp shining through the carefully parted hair. “You terrify me,” I said. “An Italianate Englishman is a devil incarnate.”

A little farther on, Archer says that he hates being touched by a man because “his hands were epicene.” There’s no way the Archer of the '60s and '70s would express this contemptuous and macho a sentiment, and more than once in The Moving Target, Archer suddenly finds himself kissing a seductive young woman whose “lips were hot on my face.” You could get this kind of stuff in any private eye tale of the day.

By the third book, The Way Some People Die (1951), Macdonald as a hard-boiled craftsman is working on all cylinders. I'd even say that this novel is among my favorites in the series. It has a relentless quality and an overall sense of nastiness. In a case with a high body count, Archer has to outmaneuver the police and the mob while moving from one seamy location to another, and it's here that we first get a glimpse of the Archer to come – a thoughtful man who keeps his composure amid deception and dysfunction, familial and otherwise, of the worst sort.

The Doomsters (1958) and The Galton Case (1959) mark the turning point. In these books, the Archer voice changes into something unique, and for the remaining 10 books, the full-fledged Macdonald conception of a private eye appears. Hammett, non-romantic to his core, had created the tough existentialist protagonist. Chandler’s version was more romantic, the ever popular tarnished knight. Both write stories with sociological overtones, but the emphasis remains on catching the wrongdoer. Motivation is considered insofar as it will help in nailing the culprit. Empathy is not a quality that comes to mind when you think of the Op or Spade or even Marlowe. But for Archer, product of a creator who went to therapy for his own issues (a childhood shadowed by the early separation of his parents, an absent father, and a lot of moving around growing up), trying to get at the why of crime, the root causes, becomes the investigative touchstone.

As Macdonald wrote in his 1965 essay “The Writer as Detective Hero,” Archer “is less a doer than a questioner, a consciousness in which the meanings of other lives emerge.” He comes across sometimes as a therapist as much as he is a detective, a role he acknowledges. And what psychiatric school does he follow? Well, Macdonald is nothing if not a Freudian, and with Freud, for better or worse, the key to psychological problems usually lies in childhood. From The Galton Case on, Macdonald’s plots follow one pattern: trouble in the present, usually involving family tensions, stems from murder and other traumas in the past.

The generations are at odds, the relationships between younger adults and their parents are strained, and the arrogance and hypocrisies of the parents cause no end of damage to their children. People try to cover up and repress past experience, but as every respectable Freudian knows, repression is merely the mother of neuroses. Archer does his probing through these intergenerational webs of conflict, and though he tends to sympathize with the young against the old, he casts few judgments. He knows that repression solves nothing, that what’s buried will bubble up in the present, causing calamity. He explains his view of time's weave in The Chill (1962) – “History is always connected with the present” – and expounds on it in The Far Side of the Dollar (1965), “Life hangs together in one piece.  Everything is connected with everything else. The problem is to find the connections.”

How Macdonald creates a fabric where the past is present and connections are pervasive is through his intricate plots, which are things of beauty. His ideas on plot are essential to understanding him as a writer, and he expresses them best himself in the essay noted earlier.

Here he puts his ideas in context, explaining how he differs from the giant looking over his shoulder – Chandler: "I learned a great deal from Chandler — any writer can — but there had always been basic differences between us. One was in our attitude to plot. Chandler described a good plot as one that made for good scenes, as if the parts were greater than the whole. I see plot as a vehicle of meaning. It should be as complex as contemporary life, but balanced enough to say true things about it. The surprise with which a detective novel concludes should set up tragic vibrations which run backward through the entire structure. Which means that the structure must be single, and intended."

The argument against Macdonald’s plots is that he had only one (from The Galton Case on) and used it again and again. That’s not completely untrue. But it’s a great plot, and what he does in each book is work variations on it. That Macdonald likes jazz is obvious from the jazz player references he makes in his books – people such as Lux Lewis and Mary Lou Williams are mentioned in The Moving Target, JC Higginbotham in The Far Side of the Dollar – and I wonder whether Macdonald saw himself doing something a jazz musician would do, riffing on a theme and continually reworking it, trying in his mind to get it just perfect.

Reading him now, you go into each of the last 11 Archer novels knowing what he’s going to explore in that book and how more or less he’s structured it, yet it doesn’t matter. You still admire the construction, the suspense, and the mastery of language.  You still live with the anguished, striving characters. His characters kill for any number of reasons, but nobody is what you'd call an evil person. He would agree with what the crime writer Ruth Rendell said about criminal motivation, that "Crimes are more often committed out of fear than wickedness. People lead frightened, desperate lives." Macdonald's characters fit this description to a tee, and his understanding of the human weaknesses that lie behind the monstrous acts is what leaves you finishing his books feeling, above all else, as in Greek tragedy, pity.

Macdonald fused plot, character, style, and psychology in the private eye novel like nobody had before him. He used genre fiction to explore his deepest personal concerns and obsessions. As a writer (and I don't even write PI novels), I've come to regard him as one of those novelists you can keep learning from, and as I said, he’s a writer I keep coming back to, reading and re-reading.

Who among crime writers do you keep returning to?

–Scott Adlerberg

Originally posted at Do Some Damage.

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Scott Adlerberg lives in New York City. He co-hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series each summer at the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival in Manhattan. He blogs about books, movies, and writing at Scott Adlerberg’s Mysterious Island. His most recent book is the psychological thriller Graveyard Love.

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