News & Views

Page 4 of 44« First...23456...102030...Last »

On All One Case and Ross Macdonald

Loneliness and frustration
We both came down with an acute case
When the lights came up at two
I caught a glimpse of you
And your face looked like something
Death brought with him in his suitcase
—Warren Zevon, “The French Inhaler”

I don't exactly know why I took Kevin Avery and Jeff Wong's It's All One Case: The Illustrated Ross Macdonald Archives off the shelf the other day. Truth to tell, no reason is needed; anyone who's seen this marvelous tome knows that it's a continuing source of wisdom and delight, well worth dipping into at any point in time.

A bit of background might be helpful for the uninitiated. In 1976, journalist Paul Nelson recorded almost 50 hours of interviews with Ken Millar, better known as detective novelist Ross Macdonald, for a Rolling Stone article. The article never happened, and the tapes languished. Macdonald died of Alzheimer’s Disease in 1983. Nelson died in 2006.

Kevin Avery, a writer who venerates Nelson, published Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson, in 2011, bringing the critic and his work newfound attention and respect. Avery was approached by artist and illustrator Jeff Wong, a friend of Nelson's and the owner of an extensive collection of material (books, manuscripts, letters, etc.) by and about Macdonald. Wong had a transcript of the 1976 interviews. Would Avery like to read them?

Avery said yes, and the result, ultimately, was It's All One Case. Avery skillfully edited the interviews. Wong selected hundreds of mouth-watering items from his collection and designed the coffee-table-sized volume for Fantagraphic Books. Visually stunning, intellectually provocative, Case is a triumph. Flipping through its pages, the reader finds gem after gem.

Discussing Mickey Spillane and his followers, Nelson observed: "It seemed like the hardboiled style went into excess very fast."

Macdonald answered: "Well, it's very hard to keep it clean, to keep it morally clean, because simplicity is the most difficult of all tools to use. When you're writing what purports to be the spoken word, you're constantly having to differentiate between what's valid and what's ephemeral . . . Most slang dies, for example, so you have to be very careful. You really have to write a purer style in a sense than the literary writers write; and I think Hammett does write a purer style than most of his literary contemporaries. His style in his best work is amazingly pure and accurate and simple. Well, that's not what I aim at, of course. I don't aim at simplicity."

Nelson: "Do you think you’re a prisoner of complexity in a way?”

Macdonald: “Yes, but a willing prisoner. It's sort of a happy imprisonment, though, to be imprisoned in something that you've made yourself.”

Readers familiar with Macdonald’s staggeringly complicated plots will agree: It's a pleasure to be caught in his imaginative web.

I could quote at length from Nelson and Macdonald's conversations, but — like Macdonald's novels — the cumulative effect is more powerful than any given moment, striking as it may be.

The last decade has been good to Macdonald. His books are back in print. A number of his works have been included in the prestigious Library of America series. Meanwhile There Are Letters, a collection of his correspondence with Eudora Welty was published in 2015. His reputation, which had declined in the years following his death, is once again on the rise. The reputation of Margaret Millar, Macdonal's wife, is also on the upswing, and her works are now available from Syndicate Books. Jeff Wong designed the covers for the Millar re-issues.

Warren Zevon was a rabid fan of Macdonald's. (For more details, see Nelson’s piece on the singer-songwriter in Everything Is Afterthought.) Zevon never achieved his goal of writing a detective novel, but he drew from the hardboiled perspective time and again in his songs. I've always liked the lined quoted at the top of these remarks, and you can hear them here:

— Joseph Goodrich

Joseph Goodrich is an Edgar Award-winning dramatist whose plays have been produced across the country. His fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and Noir Riot. His most recent play, an adaptation of Rex Stout's Might As Well Be Dead, recently closed a successful run in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Obsessing over Typewriters and Libraries

David Mamet once observed that writers are obsessed with office supply stores. The things these stores contain — pens, pencils, inks, paper — are the only visible proof of what we do.

I thought of Mamet's remark after seeing California Typewriter, a fascinating new documentary about the titular shop in Berkeley, California. Computers may rule the day (these words are being written on one), but they are, I think, essentially inscrutable: We don't know how they work, and God knows we can't fix them when they break down. The computer is a cross between science-fiction and witchcraft.

There's nothing occult about the typewriter, however. How it works is apparent. You push a key. The key slaps ink on paper and, letter after letter, words form into sentences. It's a supremely satisfying physical act, typing. You roll in the sheet of paper and start typing. The carriage moves. The bell rings . . .

Along with a look at the typewriter store in Berkeley, the film offers thoughts on the creative process from the late Sam Shepard; Tom Hanks, whose typewriter-mania is well-known; non-fiction author David McCullough; the terrifically annoying musician John Mayer; the intriguing Jeremy Mayer, whose sculptures built out of old typewriter parts are strikingly strange and objects of beauty; and others.

California Typewriter is well worth viewing — especially if, like me, you love the old machines. I have two of them, and I still drag them out on occasion. Here's a link to the NPR review.

Ex Libris: New York Public Library, Frederick Wiseman's new (and lengthy) documentary about the NYPL  is a less satisfactory cinematic experience. That I was looking forward to seeing it goes without saying; a writer is, first of all, a reader, and I’ll bet most of us have spent many happy hours in libraries, reading, thinking, writing, or just daydreaming. I have a particular fondness for the NYPL, having spent the better part of a year in its Rare Book and Manuscript Division, where I happily researched a project.

Wiseman captures lengthy fragments of activity in the Schwartzman Building on 42nd Street, but he also wanders into other, smaller branches. The manifold activities housed by the Library is staggering. We sit in on board meetings, talks by distinguished authors, witness performances at Lincoln Center, join in community discussions in Harlem — to name only a few.

For all its scope and length, the film seems slight. I don’t ask for a conventional narrative, but one should feel some sort of dramatic arc, and Ex Libris fails to deliver on that count. Here's a rather more positive take on the film, courtesy of The New Yorker.

There's something primal, something Proustian about libraries. I think about the one in my hometown in southwestern Minnesota. It was housed in something called the Nobles County War Memorial Building, which also contained, in the basement, various items of the Historical Society — samples of barbed wire, coonskin caps, flags with bullet holes and most terrifying of all, an iron lung.

I can see those shelves and smell the old books. I’m back in the mystery section. Stanley Ellin – yes, I've heard of him. Mystery Stories. Introduction by Ellery Queen. Hmmm . . .

— Joseph Goodrich

•     •     •

Joseph Goodrich is an Edgar Award-winning dramatist whose plays have been produced across the country. His fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and Noir Riot. His most recent play, an adaptation of Rex Stout's Might As Well Be Dead, recently closed a successful run in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The Path to Publication at Sussex County N.J. Library

Within the historic valleys and state parks of New Jersey’s northernmost county lives an active public library system with a burgeoning community of aspiring writers and, even better, mystery fans. And when a community of mystery loving readers and writers asks for an opportunity to hone their craft, MWA-NY answers the call — no matter the distance.

On Saturday, September 23 MWA-NY members Mistina Bates and Karen Katchur will discuss "The Perilous Path to Publication," at the Sussex County Main Library, 125 Morris Turnpike, Newton, New Jersey, from 1 to 3 p.m. The authors will share their unique experience navigating the perilous, and sometimes mysterious, path to publication. The program is free and open to the public, but you are asked to register by phone 973-948-3660 or at the library website here. Seating may be limited.

A member of the MWA-NY board and the editor of the chapter's newsletter, The Noose, Mistina Bates (pictured, left) will offer advice and insight from her own fiction writing and as founder and president of Market it Write, a content marketing agency based in northern New Jersey. Karen Katchur (pictured, right), from the Eastern Pennsylvania region of our chapter, will be sharing her experience of publishing her novels The Secrets of Lake Road (2015) and The Sisters of Blue Mountain (2017) with Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press.

The presentation came about after Sussex County Librarian Louisa Bann reached out to see what MWA could offer their community. "Sussex County and its six branch libraries have a very large community of mystery readers," says Bann.

—Robert J. Daniher

•     •     •

Robert J. Daniher lives in New Jersey where he works as an IT Support Technician for Madison Public Library and Library of The Chathams. He has been a member of MWA since 2009 and assists the MWA-NY Library Committee with planning author events at North Jersey libraries. His short fiction has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine for the Mysterious Photograph Contest and in the annual Deadly Ink Short Story Collections of 2007 and 2008.

The Clue to Character

Where would a story be without a character? Character is the engine that drives the narrative, and creating a character is a magical process. Imagine having the omnipotent power to mold a person on the page. Not only do you get to conjure up the character’s physical attributes and such details as a birthdate, but you also have the opportunity to develop his or her personality.

Evil or noble? Intelligent or foolish? Witty or dull? Take a smidgen of this and add a pinch of that, and, voilà, a person starts to emerge. For a character to be believable, the reader must be given intimate insight into the character’s thoughts and emotions, likes and dislikes. The reader has to understand the motives behind why a character reacts a certain way. Of course, for a character to be fully formed, the author must imbue her or him with both admirable qualities and flaws. After all, in real life nobody is perfect. So too must it be on the written page. Once the author is satisfied with the character sketch, then the real fun begins: unfurling the imagination to weave the tale.

When writing a mystery series, the essential component is a sleuth to solve the crime. Here, the author is presented with two possibilities: professional detective or amateur sleuth. It all circles back to character and the story that the author has in mind for him or her. For my series, I chose the amateur sleuth. My protagonists are journalist Emmeline Kirby and jewel thief Gregory Longdon.

Why a journalist? A journalist is inherently curious about many subjects. His or her job is to ask questions to uncover the truth and ensure transparency. Naturally, a journalist would be intrigued by crime, especially murder. The determination to find answers and see that justice is served are all important.

Now, how does a jewel thief fit into the model of a sleuth? Aren’t lying and evading the law a thief's modus operandi? Isn't this in stark contrast to a journalist's reverence for the truth and justice? Most definitely. That's exactly the point. A portrait in contrasts. Who better than someone on the wrong side of the law to discern the twisted workings of a fellow criminal's mind? A thief immediately recognizes things that the honest person would never even contemplate. In Gregory’s case, he has a certain code of honor. Murder is an offensive transgression. A line that should never be crossed. Thus, I have two diametrically opposed sleuths who are of one mind when it comes to the taking of a human life: the culprit must pay for the crime, otherwise chaos would reign in the world.

To round out my ensemble, I have Chief Inspector Oliver Burnell and Sergeant Jack Finch of Scotland Yard. They represent the law in all its gravitas. While their job is to hunt down criminals, sometimes the law’s constraints chafe and make their task more difficult. That’s why I have Gregory. He is Burnell’s nemesis. They have an adversarial, cat-and-mouse relationship. As a thief, Gregory has more flexibility to maneuver and never misses an opportunity to needle the chief inspector. Burnell, for his part, has been thwarted in his many attempts at catching Gregory red-handed. Will he ever succeed? The jury is out on that question.

There are myriad things to consider when delving into the essence of what makes a captivating and appealing character. The author must much achieve a delicate balance of shadow and light, intrigue and clarity, to give the story meaty substance and an air of authenticity. It’s an ongoing challenge, but one that you as a writer have to explore in every book as you seek to make readers truly care about your characters. Once readers make an emotional connection, you have them hooked because that means they want to know the story behind the character.

—Daniella Bernett

Daniella Bernett is the research manager for a nationally prominent engineering, architectural and construction management firm. Lead Me into Danger and Deadly Legacy are the first two books in her Emmeline Kirby-Gregory Longdon mystery series. She also is the author of two poetry collections, Timeless Allure and Silken Reflections. From Beyond the Grave, the third book in her series, will be released this month.

Page 4 of 44« First...23456...102030...Last »