Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Development of a Story


I went in and out of Peru in 1984. It was quick. I left no traces. I loved it. I attributed my clean sneak to reading the South American Handbook and heeding the warnings.
I was a single man then, and I met two single dames, fellow travelers. Libby and Maureen, a tall brunette and a short blonde. Both were swell. We were all on separate tours, but our character arcs were interwoven. I'd spend time with one in Lima, another in Arequipa, and so on. The girls were never in the same town, but there was usually one where I was.
I had some wonderful moments rattling along on the train through the Urubamba River Valley. I spent the night at the sanctuary hotel in Machu Picchu, back before it was a Belmond property. Ran into a little trouble in Arequipa, but nobody got hurt.
When I returned to the Black Lizard Lounge, I tried to write a short atmospheric travel vignette about it. I thought it was a decent first piece in an engaging voice. But no one wanted to publish my short travel vignette, no matter how atmospheric. I held on to it in here, where writers hold on to their stories.
I began to write private eye fiction in 2005. I decided to revamp the Peru travel piece--weave it into a noir tale. That version flopped, derailed by an online writing workshop when something I wrote garnered this feedback (true quote): "That really got my hackles up!" And that comment degenerated into an online thread of two-weeks duration entitled "Nipples." "It was chilly that morning in Cusco," I told them. They didn't want to hear it.
Well, thanks to EQMM, I began to have a little success with my series private eye character, Frank Swiver. I showed Frank the Peru material.
"OK, I'll do it," he said.
"This is just the old version. You haven't even seen your role yet. I haven't written your lines."
"Doesn't matter," said Frank, putting out his Camel in my Tommy Bahama ashtray. "I like the dame in it."
Frank's always been a rogue, and he recognized a rogue-ish part when he glammed onto one. So I wrote the story for Frank.
Going through the material again helped me get some things clear in my mind. Like an ending, and a less muddled middle. Frank really straightened the story out for me.
I thought it was swell stuff now. I showed it to a few old pals as a sanity check. The pals "got" the story, and seemed to sincerely like it, too. I showed it to three writers. The writers unanimously condemned it.
Writer 1: "Your p.i. has lost his moral compass."
Writer 2: "He has no moral compass."
Writer 3: "We hate your protagonist. We'll never read another Frank Swiver story."
That didn't move Frank. "Hey, I did what the client asked, didn't I? It's a job."
"I'm taking you off the case, shamus," I said.
"You can't do that."
You can let your characters take you all over the map in a story, but you can't let them tell you what to write. I took Frank off the case. But now, who to give it to? There weren't many dicks in my bag of dramatis personae. I reached in and pulled out a Basque-American from Boise, Igor Oxtoa. Igor'd been working the other end of Post Street from Frank for a couple years, and was ready for prime time. 
Frank has had some good fortune with the women in my stories. But Igor has never had any luck with dames. He's shorter, stockier, and just not a smooth operator, like Frank. But that added a new dimension to the seduction. It was fun writing, but more importantly I think folks could be more sympathetic with Igor than they were with Frank.
I sent it in to EQMM last August. "Too much explicit sex," was the reply. D'uh. I knew that! I don't know what I was thinking, sending an R-rated piece to Ellery Queen. All I can figure is brain fade.
"What if I take out the explicit sex? Would you read it again?" Yes!
I sent off the PG-13 version. EQMM came back, "You need to cut back on the drug use."
"What do you mean? I quit years ago."
"In the story, bright boy."
Arrrgh! There is a murder, a stabbing, and an unnatural death from a train, but cocaine smuggling is the crime that drives this tale. It was tough to clean up the coke and keep the story line on track. The interesting thing though about working with Janet Hutchings, each time after I made requested changes, I had a better story, with pace, tone, dramatic scenes and a fine balance. Best of all Igor and the rest of the cast were giving me 100%. The little Basque was a natural. He took to the scenes like a llama takes to the Inca Trail.
Intended result: EQMM and I finally agreed on a story, "Courvoisier and Coca Tea," and it will appear in the Sept. / Oct. double issue as the Black Mask feature.
Unintended consequences: my wife has planned a family trip for us to Peru in July.
We get questions all the time here at the Black Lizard Lounge. "That's quite a story. How long did it take you to write it?"
Let's see, I started in 1985, so about 20 years, I guess. I wasn't working on it the whole time though . . .


Monday, April 13, 2015

Corsican Vendetta Knives, Frank Swiver, Pulp Fiction

Read an interview w/ me about Frank Swiver and my pulp fiction on the Dead Guns Press blog -- visit, then select the link "e-zine," click on Smoking Room.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Drowned Phenician--Pulp Fiction

My Novelette--The Drowned Phenician            

I like long-ish short stories and I often struggle to keep my work short enough to meet the word limits of modern journals and magazines. Give me the longer range into which many Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler Black Mask stories used to fall. Hammett's novels, Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon, and The Dain Curse were originally serialized in four-parts in Black Mask, and some of my favorite Chandler short stories such as "Red Wind," and "Goldfish," fell in that 15,000 to 18,000 word-range too.   
About a year ago I decided to let myself go and write a pulp fiction story of no pre-determined length--however long it came out would be right.  I didn't know what I'd do with it after I wrote it, but I got lucky. J Thompson, the gentleman who runs Dead Guns Press, liked it and offered to publish.
When I say "pulp fiction," I'm thinking of something along the lines of this quote from Raymond Chandler:  “The emotional basis of the standard detective story was and had always been that murder will out and justice will be done. Its technical basis was the relative insignificance of everything except the final denouement. What led up to that was more or less passage work. The denouement would justify everything. The technical basis of the Black Mask type of story on the other hand was that the scene outranked the plot, in the sense that a good plot was one which made good scenes. The ideal mystery was one you would read if the end was missing.”
That fits The Drowned Phenician--to a P. And Dead Guns likes pulp fiction.
Buy it at Create Space:   


Thursday, October 30, 2014

Ice / Joe's Last Scratch

Two of my Frank Swiver private eye tales, "Ice / Joe's Last Scratch" are now available as a "twofer" in the Kindle Store on Amazon for readers to purchase at:
"Ice" originally appeared as Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine's Black Mask feature in Sept./Oct. 2012. EQMM doesn't archive stories online, so this is the first time since then that the story will be available. 
"Joe's Last Scratch" follows the same characters shortly after the events in "Ice." (One of the joys of writing about a "series" detective is using and re-using characters.) "Joe's" is previously unpublished. I think of the two as pulp fiction. I also categorize them more as noir than hard-boiled. I hope you'll enjoy them.  

Please help my marketing effort by posting a review on Amazon, or share the link to the book on your favorite social media.

Thank you for your support.  

Monday, September 1, 2014

Queenpin by Megan Abbott

"Noir is all about drives," says Megan Abbott, author of Queenpin.  "Drives we have that we can't control."
The unnamed protagonist of Queenpin has drives all right. A blue collar Catholic girl, keeping the books in the Tee Hee club, in an unnamed burg along a river–

 "I was ready for more. I wanted more," she says in the first chapter. 

She hitches her wagon to Gloria Denton, a star, a queenpin, and moves money around for the mob while she learns from her ruthless boss. But another drive she has puts her in the sack with a gambler, loser and con men, and our girl double crosses Gloria, hoping to help her young man get off the hook with some gamblers.  Gloria takes violent revenge on the boy friend, saying, "Don't worry," says Gloria. "We'll find someone else for you to fuck."
The plot unfolds with the clarity of Raymond Chandler, but it's clear enough for the reader to understand there's trouble.  And that's really all you have to know.  It's a hard-boiled story, about a couple hard-boiled dames who are unrelenting in their drives and merciless.
The strength of the book is the prose, which rat-a-tats along with an economy reminiscent of James M. Cain, or of Albert Camus. It left me with the impression that the story moved not from plot point to plot point, but from emotion to emotion.  Good writing, and the kind of approach I can learn from.

It's brief--less than 200 pages--and it doesn't ask much of the reader. Just hang on for the ride.
See Megan or this review on Goodreads
All my reviews.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

A Coffin for Dimitrios – Eric Ambler

Alan Furst, in the May 29, N.Y. Times Book Review, says the best spy novel ever written "would have to be Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios." I'm very fond of Furst--he has that atmospheric style I'd love to achieve, and I'll probably buy and read his latest, Midnight in Europe.  So I had to re-read Ambler's Dimitrios.

A Coffin for Dimitrios is a strange book.  As Furst says, it "has an anti-fascist antihero, a writer of mystery novels, set amidst gangsters and secret police in an eve-of-the-war setting, moving from Istanbul through the cities of Europe."  The idea of the protagonist being a writer of mystery novels appeals to me. But it's not as simple as that.  The writer, Charles Latimer, is as much an old-fashioned narrator, the author's voice, as he is a protagonist, though almost by default he is the protagonist, too.  He's an ordinary man, out of his depth in a world of political intrigue, assassination, and drugs from Istanbul to Paris, much like Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest is an ordinary man in over his head. 

But there is considerably more action in N x NW.  A Coffin for Dimitrios is a strange book, and a tale strangely told, too.  The plot is not so much based on the criminal career of Dimitrios, or on Latimer's wanderings, but rather it's a skillful interweaving of those two threads into a cause and effect yarn.  Most of the story comes to us in the conversations and some correspondence that Latimer conducts with a loosely connected bunch of journalists, spies, and heroin dealers whom he meets on the trail of Dimitrios, whom he believes he saw in a morgue in Istanbul.  Intrigued to unravel the arch-villain's story, Latimer traces Dimitrios back to Smyrna in 1922, to Sofia, to Belgrade., Twice he encounters a threatening and mysterious fat man, "Mr. Peters," who has unexplained knowledge of Dimitrios. Peters sends Latimer to a retired spymaster in Switzerland, after which, he is invited to meet Peters in Paris re: an unspecified proposition that Peters promises should profit them both. 

All along, Latimer tries to convince himself he doesn't really care, and he's wasting his time, but he's somehow hooked.  A creator of murders in art, Latimer is fascinated to learn about this real murderer--"a dirty type, common, cowardly, scum. Murder, espionage, drugs–"

The book is slow at times, dense with dissemblers telling Latimer their stories, at length.  But it has the atmosphere of danger and fear in dark nights, in shadowy places in European capitals between the wars.  What motivates these people to tell Latimer their stories?  Do they all hate Dimitrios?  Fear him? Or does he have some hold over them as he has attained over Latimer?

The book comes to a surprising but inevitable conclusion in Paris.  Latimer retains the high moral ground throughout. (After all, he's an Englishman.)  Though Ambler writes in a friendly, accessible style, parts of Dimitrios were difficult reading, as much of the political world is no longer current--gone forever--and one struggles to understand the layers of meaning, not to mention motivations.  On the other hand, and sadly, much of the political world still exists, and is playing itself out again.

I also have Eric Ambler's Background to Danger, Cause for Alarm and Journey into Fear, which like Dimitrios, I have read before.  Maybe it's time to look at them again.           

Friday, July 18, 2014

Leonardo Padura – Havana Blue

A fellow in my winter Mystery and Suspense class (w/Con Lehane) recommended Leonardo Padura, a Cuban author of detective novels. The recommendation sounded as if they were something I'd like--atmospheric, Chandler-esque stories set in an exotic locale--Habana--so I tried the first one, Havana Blue, written in 1991, and translated into English around 2008. 

The Havana Quartet features police lieutenant Mario Conde, known as "The Count." The stories are seasonal, and the first, Blue, is winter.  The Count is a likable hero, "a cop who would rather be a writer, and admits to feelings of 'solidarity with writers, crazy people, and drunkards'."  Hmm, sounds like me. 

The author does a good job with the Habana setting, an excellent job with the characters--not just Conde, but also his sidekick Manolo Palacios, their cigar-loving chief, Conde's crippled pal Skinny, and his love interest, Tamara.  He does a swell job with sex, describing feelings of lust and passion without getting too clinical or salacious. The translator, Peter Bush, also seems to have done a better than average job with what must have been challenging prose in the original (despite translating into British, rather than American English.) 

The plot is murky.  A high-placed cadre disappears, apparently a difficult thing to do in Cuban society.  The reason eventually turns out to be theft or embezzlement of international funds from his enterprise.  A woman cop of Chinese ancestry finds the paper trail proving this, but what exactly happened or how is about as clear as who killed General Sternwood's chauffeur in The Big Sleep. 

The book was relatively irritating in an almost total lack of dialog tags, a total lack of chapters, and a shifting of voices sometimes following a blank line.  Although the point of view is generally third person Conde, some of the shifts put us in interrogations in which he's not present--for example Manolo interrogates Maciques, (who turns out to be a murderer), in a section of dialogue in quotes with slashes and ellipses between speakers.  What reader needs crap writing like that? 

So while the language was lovely, the characters charming, and the setting atmospheric, would I buy another? Havana Gold, Red, or Black? (Spring, summer, or autumn.)  Not likely.  Too much difficulty slogging through the thing, too little pleasure in return.