Monday, October 12, 2020

The Letter

Yes, I’m a big fan of mystery short stories, not only the hard-boiled work of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but even the Victorian-era Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle. I have also long been enamored of the short fiction of W. Somerset Maugham. It doesn’t hurt that Chandler apparently read Maugham and gives him a tip of the hat in his great story, “Red Wind.”

I have four Penguin volumes of Maugham’s stories, (including Volume 3, the adventures of Ashenden, a secret agent of the British intelligence department during the First World War). Though his prose often seems old-fashioned and formal, he could always tell a story in a clear and straightforward manner. His stories teem with hypocrites, drunks, and murderesses. Although I pattern my writing more after Hammett and Hemingway, I have even tried my hand at a couple tales done in the style of Maugham. His stories often concern morality or moral principles and hypocrisy. People act out of passion, just as in a good murder mystery.

I won’t say Maugham’s stories are plot-driven rather than character-driven, but I believe they are more often about the tale he tells rather than about the moment of epiphany (as in the more “modern” style of Joyce or Chekov). The story itself seems paramount in the telling. What I like best about Maugham’s work is that they are melodramatic, and often heavy with irony.

Perhaps serendipitously, our movie in film class this week was The Letter, starring Bette Davis, based on Maugham’s story and stage play of the same name. Maugham had a habit of inserting thinly-disguised characters from real life into his literary works—such as Paul Gauguin in The Moon and Sixpence—and “The Letter” was based on a real-life scandal involving the wife of the headmaster of a school in Kuala Lumpur, who was convicted in a murder trial after shooting dead a male friend in April 1911.

In the original story, the female lead, Leslie Crosbie, shoots and kills a man named Hammond, who she says tried to rape her while her husband was away for the night. Leslie was “fragile . . . graceful . . . delicate . . . quiet . . . pleasant [and] charming.” She seemed well-suited to the lonely life of a planter’s wife in remote Malaya. In any event, “She was the last woman in the world to commit murder.” The British community in Singapore learns after his death that Hammond had taken up with a Chinese woman. Thus the white planters are quite prepared to accept Leslie’s story that Hammond was a sex-crazed rapist. Leslie is jailed but her acquittal seems a foregone conclusion. However, her attorney learns she had written Hammond a letter the day of his death telling him her husband would be out all night and inviting him to come by. The attorney buys the potentially incriminating letter from the “Chinawoman,” using the husband, Robert’s, life savings.

The endings of the story and the movie are different. In both, Leslie is acquitted, but the story ends with a subtle scene which shows Robert understands his betrayal and their marriage is finished. Leslie recounts to her lawyer shooting Hammond (six times) and her face becomes “distorted with cruelty, and rage and pain. You would never have thought that this quiet, refined woman was capable of such fiendish passion.” Then, “those passions, . . . were smoothed away as with your hand you would smooth crumpled paper, and in a minute the face was cool and calm and unlined . . . She was once more the well-bred and even distinguished woman.” A moment of epiphany, in the modern storyteller’s style. Hypocrisy, and great melodrama.

But in 1940, we had a motion picture production code, and The Letter failed on two counts—it contained adultery and an unpunished murder. And so in the film, in the last couple scenes, Leslie/Bette Davis finds a knife on the matting on her patio. She leaves it there. Robert abandons her.  When Leslie walks out into the garden, Hammond’s Chinese woman is waiting with an accomplice and stabs her to death.

So it goes.   

My film class rabbi (seriously) put forth the proposition that The Letter is William Wyler’s effort at film noir. As supporting evidence, he cites:

     •   Shadows

     •   Venetian blind lighting

     •   A McGuffin (the letter)

     •   A crime

     •   A femme fatale

Interestingly, I might make the argument that Maugham’s more open-ended short story is true noir. The main character, Leslie Crosbie, is alive and acquitted at the end of the story. But her husband Robert knows the truth and has walked out, the implication to me being that he intends to abandon her. Leslie’s lawyer has burned the letter, but it’s easy to infer that in the society she inhabits, the truth of her affair will seep out and she will become an outcast, shunned by colonial society, like her murder victim Geoffry Hammond had become when he took a Chinese woman for his mistress. Like most noir protagonists, she’d be better off dead. 

Friday, September 11, 2020



     (Bless you!)

Way back in 2015, when I was still a young lad, I took a brief seminar called “Literary Detective Fiction.” It was a small but good class (four of us) with a good instructor (John Straley), in a lovely setting (Pebble Beach, Calif.)

John Straley ( shared with us that he keeps a journal and writes a haiku each day. “A haiku has the same virtues as a murder mystery,” he says.

Often focusing on images from nature, haiku emphasizes simplicity, intensity, and directness of expression. A traditional Japanese haiku is a three-line poem with seventeen syllables, written in a 5/7/5 syllable count. John doesn’t care about the number of syllables. But he looks for a seasonal reference in the first two lines and an emotional turn/surprise ending. (The emotional turn helps me with the Aristotelean reversal I strive for in a good mystery or suspense story.) Finally, the ego of the writer should be invisible, which is also important for me to remember when writing fiction.

Beginning with a "nature" image seems consistent with John’s thoughts on writing:

  • Ecology is about place.
  • Everything starts with "the place"
  • Characters evolve from place
  • A story has to know where it is in time and place. 

I managed to start a journal and write haikus (on and off) for about five months after the class.  I enjoyed it. Here are a few of mine:  

Evergreen trees pop

Against a fierce blue background

Not just for the rich.

We held most classes outside, and when I wrote that one, I was looking up at the underside of this tree:


Sunday, I found a few other Catholics and we went into Carmel, to church.

Early mass, warm sun

Shines bright on Carmel Mission

Not quiet but hushed.


From something said in class:

Surfaces in rain

Appear, shiny and poppy.

Vivid when wet.

Back in Maryland:

Dog days dragging on

Nothing moves, chiefly the air,

But including me.


Into a humid

Day I sink, like a warm bath.

I like cold showers.

2015 was a year of locusts here.

Late summer chirping,

Buzzing in the morning air.

Noisy li’l’ buggers.

Me (and War) on literary fiction:

Existential angst!

Hooie! What is it good for?

Absolutely naught.


Wife’s office upstairs;

I work down here. Ought to keep

In touch more often.


Anyhow, that was fun. See if you can use the comments section to post some of your own haikus.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Pandemic Games:

Reading The Magus by John Fowles 

“A lot of people” have written about their pandemic activities. Some catch up on housekeeping—disposing of evidence forgotten in the basement these last twenty years, replacing the front rotors on the ’67 Porsche 911, or burying the cat. There are self-improvement types—they learn Mandarin, bake sourdough bread, or start on that Charles Atlas course they bought off the back of a comic book. They take online classes or write a memoir. Some of my more literary acquaintances say, “I’ve always wanted to read War and Peace (or Ulysses), and now I finally have the time.” 
As a retired person, I don’t find myself with more discretionary free time than I had pre-pandemic. But I do have this book that I’ve wanted to read for more than fifty years and have never managed to get traction in—The Magus by John Fowles. Will 2020 finally be the year for The Magus and me? I really loved the 1965 movie The Collector, based on Fowles’s literary debut of the same name. All right, I admit, my 16-year-old psyche was transfixed and inspired by the beauty, vulnerability, and toughness of Samantha Eggar (Victoria Louise Samantha Marie Elizabeth Therese Eggar to her close friends). I also enjoyed the cunning psycho played by Terence Stamp, (just as I used to enjoy Oliver Reed, Alan Bates and other moody Brits who appeared in British-American films of the era). I  bought the book, The Collector, and it was a swell read. So when The Magus came out in ’65, I was eager to read it. 

Anthony Quinn as Conchis; Michael Caine as Nicholas Urfe

I think The Magus was the first book I ever tried to read that I found too difficult to finish. There had been plenty of novels during my distinguished career as an English major that I threw across the room (Great Expectations), or bailed on and read the Cliff’s Notes (Moby Dick). Nonetheless, I thought I was a pretty bright kid, and had never met a novel I couldn’t beat. But The Magus was a challenge. First off, it is long. My current volume (I’m reading Fowles 1977 “revised version”) is 656 pages, and I’m a notoriously slow reader. Secondly, it’s a “literary” novel, not a thriller like The Collector, so it’s a bit of a slog. But it’s supposed to be good—The Magus made the Modern Library’s list of 100 best novels, and hit #67 on the BBC’s “Big Read” chart. Above all though, it is a mystery, which is perhaps one reason I’ve stuck with it.
Literary slog or not, there is discernible action, but the plot tends to get murky at times, not in the least because Fowles is introspective and wordy. A young man, perhaps in his late 20s, Nicholas Urfe in jolly old England has a brief affair with an Aussie girl, Alison. He doesn’t think he loves her and seeks to get away. He takes a job teaching English at a boys’ school on a Greek island, Phraxos, and there he meets—what else—a wealthy Greek, Conchis. Conscious—oops, pardon me—Conchis (about 60 years of age?) lives in seclusion on Phraxos, and there are hints Conchis may have betrayed Greek partisans or collaborated with the Nazis during WWII. Conchis invites Nicholas to his secluded house, Bourani, where he entertains him with stories of his life. Conchis—and Fowles—also engage Nicholas in an abundance of philosophy, psychology, misdirection, and trickery. Nicholas meets a beautiful twenty-ish girl, Lily, at Bourani, who Conchis says was his lover during WWI. At night Conchis tells stories, while ancient gods, like Apollo, chase Lily through the garden with erect phalluses. 
Why do I keep trying to read this book? Well early on, I connected with Nicholas Urfe. Although he’s a bit of a self-centered bastard, Nicholas seems to be Fowles’ Everyman. He has a degree in English lit, like me, and he’s young, apparently handsome, and scores with the dames. But none of these things satisfy Urfe. He’s also disillusioned, depressed, even suicidal. 
Where will Conchis and Lily lead Urfe? I’ll have to read on, but one thing I know—after college, I would have liked to have gone off to a Greek island to teach English. Further enticement: there’s an appealing undercurrent of eroticism throughout, and an exotic setting to match. And the reader wonders, who is Lily really? 
Yes, The Magus is a mystery. I have tried to read this book at least three times. Once I gave up while still in England. A couple times I got to Phraxos. No matter how far I’ve read, I can’t figure out what will happen next. So I read on. This time I have the help of recorded books, and hearing The Magus read aloud seems to help unpack its density. This time, I’ve read further than ever before, and I've climbed Mt. Parnassus with Nicholas and Alison. This time I think I’m going to make it to the end. 
The ancient Greeks say that if you spend the night on Parnassus, you’ll either become inspired or go mad. Perhaps reading The Magus to the end will have similar results.

Have you ever read The Magus? What's your pandemic reading?  

Friday, August 14, 2020

Changing My Tropes

I’ve been writing a series for some years now about a private detective named Frank Swiver, who walks the mean streets of San Francisco circa 1948-’50 (so far). I became comfortable using private eye and noir tropes, such as

  • characters driven by loneliness, anger, sex, greed, ambition
  • cigarettes (everybody smokes)
  • gabardine suits, trench coats, fedoras (all the men wear them)
  • the femme fatale
  • characters haunted by the past
  • an unhealthy relationship with alcohol

Last year, I began to think, how did Frank become a private dick? Kind of like a comic book superhero origin story. I took an opening shot at it last year in “The Road from Manzanar,” (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, March-April 2019), set way back in 1942. In “Manzanar,” Frank, a pacifist ever since his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, is trying to convince the draft board he’s a conscientious objector. Well, stories sometimes take the writer places he hadn’t planned to go, and this one turned out to be a fun, complete adventure before I ever got where I was headed about the origin of Frank’s Old Vine Detective Agency.

But I was headed for a time before “Manzanar,” when Frank took the first steps on his ultimate career path. It happened in Spain in August 1937, when he did a little investigating while he and the Abe Lincoln Battalion were bivouacked around Bujaraloz, preparing for an offensive against Zaragoza, capital of Aragón. This month I wrote a first draft of that story, “Friends of Durruti.” It was great fun writing, even though I found myself adrift in new sub-genres—a bit of Hemingway-war-drama/romance, and a bit of Alan-Furst/Somerset-Maugham-espionage/intrigue. Whatever it was, it did not use all the same tropes as stories from P.I. Central.

Buenaventura Durruti

By tropes, I mean plot, character, or setting expedients that help make the story run, and that the reader recognizes as a device or trope. What I like about tropes is the familiarity. In a P.I. story, I can describe a mysterious woman as tall or short; but either way, if she’s the femme fatale, the reader knows she has gams and they’re long enough to reach the ground; whether she’s a blonde or a brunette, she has desires for sex, money, or escape from the constraints of her life—uncontrollable, all-consuming desires that will lead to her destruction, (and if he’s not careful, to the P.I.’s demise, too).

Here are a couple tropes that you won’t find in “Friends of Durruti:” 

  • there is no client, bringing a case to the P.I. to be investigated. 
  • there are no cops, so hapless that the P.I. is the only guy around who can solve the case. (In “Durruti,” Frank is in a war zone, and the only “police” at hand are the Soviet NKVD.)

Some things remained the same, or similar. Frank’s style, language, and fashions tend to be anchored in the 1930s and 1940s. In Spain, he’s traded in the shabby gabardine suit, trench coat, and fedora of his future P.I. days for a mismatched and shabby uniform (and fedora). He can’t get fresh Camels, so he rolls his short unfiltered smokes with Spanish Picadura tobacco.  

Other tropes remained. I continued to write about Frank’s struggles with demon alcohol. (Is that a P.I. trope or what?) Frank’s friend Max brought him to fight in Spain to get him away from the wino tendencies that were causing him to slip into darkness. But his deep and intense relationship with alcohol continues in “Durruti” as the femme fatale introduces him to absinthe—legal in Spain.

And the femme fatale, one of my favorite tropes—we have one in Durruti. Felina, a dame driven by loneliness, sex, and desire for a better life. Frank must determine—is Felina a good Catholic girl? Or a duplicitous cortesana?

A not uncommon trope of mystery/P.I./noir fiction is characters haunted by the past. A slight twist in this story: Frank is living the past that will haunt him in his P.I. days.

And some things barely changed at all. Frank’s a tough, cynical guy with street smarts. Not strong in deductive reasoning, Frank solves mysteries with dogged persistence.

Perhaps the main trope in “Friends of Durruti,” is not from the P.I. sub-genre specifically, but from noir--disillusion, pessimism, and the unhappy ending. In Frank’s noir-ish P.I. world, his quest to solve a mystery often leads him into a shadowy world of betrayal in which clients and criminals can blur. In Republican Spain in August 1937, Frank and Max fought for the Second Spanish Republic, whose military consisted of all manner of left-wing militias--Socialists, Communists, Anarchists, Social Democrats, and Trotskyites, along with the International Brigades, all led by Soviet officers and Spaniards trained by the Soviets. Their enemies were the Nationalist army of Spain and the Spanish African troops, the fascists, Falangists, Carlists, Requetes, and Catholics, and the Italian troops sent by Mussolini and Hitler’s Condor Legion. Frank Swiver’s allies and his enemies blur among the complex and shifting alliances, and he and Felina do not live happily ever after. 

Thursday, July 30, 2020



By Harley Mazuk

I take a detective fiction class at Johns Hopkins for Old People (hereafter: “J-Hop”), most every year, and it’s been a consistently good class, due in no small part to the instructor, Melinda Kramer, a personable doctor of English from Purdue. My main complaint over the years is that Melinda expects us Old People to do too much reading. But this year Dr. Kramer has chosen her reading list from among top mystery novellas—supposedly books of around 200 pages or fewer that you can read in an afternoon. I happily signed up for this fall.

Our first short novel is The Girl in the Green Raincoat, a Tess Monaghan Novel, originally published: January 18, 2011, author: Laura Lippman, a well-regarded Maryland writer and fellow member of my Mid-Atlantic Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. (Haven’t seen her at any of the local meetings yet.)

Ms. Lippman writes in an afterword of sorts, “. . . of course . . . the book . . . owes much to Rear Window . . .” referring to the popular Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name. While I love Hitchcock’s films, being a writer, I thought I’d look at how Green Raincoat compares to Hitch’s source, the short story, “It Had to Be Murder,” by pulp fictionist, Cornell Woolrich.

There are similarities (and differences) between Lippman’s novel and Woolrich’s story. Woolrich, a sad (to the point of tragic), and prolific writer from the first half of the twentieth century, is often called “a master of pure suspense.” I admit, sometimes he’s a bit corny, as in his novel The Phantom Lady, in which chapter one is titled, “The Hundred and Fiftieth Day before the Execution,” chapter three is “The Hundred and Forty-Ninth Day before the Execution,” chapter six “The Ninetieth Day before the Execution,” chapter 19, “The Fifth Day before the Execution,” etc. Corny, but effective. I decided to compare “suspense” in the two works.   

The interwebs says “Suspense is a state of mental uncertainty, anxiety, of being undecided, or of being doubtful. In a dramatic work, suspense is the anticipation of the outcome of a plot or of the solution to an uncertainty, puzzle, or mystery.” In my words, suspense is anxiety about uncertainty. In The Girl in the Green Raincoat, the reader tries to figure out what Don Epstein is doing in his world, over there across the park. But our information is limited to what Tess and her helpers can find out. This builds suspense and increases our engagement in the book and particularly in the story of Epstein and his wives. Epstein’s story of dead wives and girlfriends is certainly enough to make us suspicious of him. Ms. Lippman increases our suspicion and turns the suspense and danger screws by confining our point of view to what Tess knows, and by confining Tess to bed with preeclampsia. The reader gets a sense of claustrophobia, and of being a prisoner, and a prisoner in a cage that confines, but does not protect.  

Hitchcock’s Rear Window is perhaps “iconic” from before that word became so overused. For that reason, one must read “It Had to Be Murder” carefully to be sure that the details you comprehend about the plot and the characters are actually in the text. Much of the Rear Window story exists only in the movie. For example, in the short story, the reader only knows that the protagonist, Jeffries, is laid up for some reason and can’t move about or fend for himself. We don’t find out until the last line of dialog on the last page that it’s a cast on his leg that immobilizes Jeffries.

Interestingly, this reader didn’t care how or why Jeffries was laid up. It’s very sharply done, but the author has everyone trying to figure out what exactly Thorwald is doing, not the backstory of Jeffries. As with Epstein in Green Raincoat, we know that Thorwald is acting suspicious and we desire to know what is going on, yet Woolrich, (who published  “It Had to Be Murder” in Dime Detective under his pen name “William Irish,”) has limited our information by confining our point of view to what a confined man, Jeffries, can find out. This builds suspense and deepens our engagement in the story of the Thorwalds.

I think Ms. Lippman turns up the suspense and tension in the last few chapters as she uses a Hitchcock-like technique—cross-cutting points of view, moving quickly from scene to scene, and from character to character until Tess Monaghan’s winterized sun porch is broached. As Dr. Kramer notes, Tess’s “role as observer and crime solver is turned on its head when the suspected murderer appears at the bedside, breaking through the observer’s protective ‘fourth wall,’ so to speak, and bringing the near certainty of death directly to the trapped detective. In addition to being an ironic twist on the locked room, a staple of mysteries, this is a marvelous example of ‘the biter bitten’ – being treated in the same way one has treated another, usually badly.” The twist doubles the suspense, and the fun.

Cornell Woolrich makes good use of the attractions and dangers of voyeurism and manipulates the reader by making him part of the entire voyeuristic enterprise. Then as in Green Raincoat, he turns the tables:

          “Suddenly, death was somewhere inside the house here with me. And I couldn’t move, I couldn’t get up out of this chair.”

Jeffries is discovered, trapped, and threatened by Thorwald. Though Woolrich is a master of suspense, his craft relating the action is shaky here. He describes Thorwald taking his shot, then trying to escape, but for me the picture Woolrich is painting is hard to follow in this last scene.

Of course, Woolrich’s tale was preceded by H.G. Wells’ short story, “Through a Window,” the setting of which is that of a man, convalescing from an unspecified injury, which prevents him from using his legs, who spends his waking hours looking out of a large window with a view of a nearby river. And by no small coincidence the next book up in our detective fiction class at J-Hop is Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, about a detective with a broken leg . . .