Thursday, July 30, 2020

Suspense

Suspense

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 . . .


Monday, May 20, 2019

Interview with R.M. Greenaway

R.M. Greenaway

I first met R.M. Greenaway when she sent me an e-mail asking me about noir. I don’t know if my reply was helpful, but noir is a favorite subject of mine, and I immediately liked R.M. for asking. 
Born in Battersea, England, R.M. spent her childhood in the Toronto area, and later Vancouver, B. C. She has worked a variety of jobs, including as a court reporter. We sat down, a continent apart—R.M. lives in Nelson, British Columbia—for this interview.

From the Spitbucket: What writers influenced you to become a crime writer?
R.M. Greenaway: Ed McBain taught me to love the police procedural, and that writerly rules may be broken. Ruth Rendell taught me that the mundane can be just as fascinating as the flashy, and that humour lurks in dark places. Donald Westlake taught me, well, too much to describe here!

Spitbucket: What moves you most in a book you read?
R.M.: When the real world recedes and I forget that I'm reading. That probably first happened with the Narnia chronicles when I was a whole lot younger, and happens less and less with time, so when I do get sucked into a book these days, I consider it a gem.

S: You're organizing a dinner party.  What three writers, living or dead, do you invite?
R.M.: Harley Mazuk, because I have a feeling we'd have lots to talk about. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as I'm so interested in the world he lived in, and he'd be so interested in where things have gone since his death. And Ruth Rendell, because she was such a great writer and so prolific, and I'd like to find out how she did it, and maybe kiss the ground she walks on.

S: Do you have an agent?                                                                                               
R.M.: Yes, thank goodness. She takes care of all the stuff I wouldn't have a clue about.

S: Do you outline meticulously before beginning to write a novel? Or do you write by the seat of the pants? Or something in between?
R.M.: In between. I try hard to know where I'm going, and usually fail. But the failures always end up more pleasing than the meticulously worked out bits. Seems the men and women I'm writing about often like to go their own way -- and I'm more than happy to let them do so.

S: Are you a disciplined writer? Describe a typical writing day? Do you go for a particular daily word count?
R.M.: My first answer to this question is “LOL,” followed up by “Oh, how I wish.” Honestly, I haven't written a useful word in over a month, and that's because of Left Coast Crime, a birthday party, Noir-at-the-Bar, travel, day-job deadlines, a fence that needs building to keep out the bears, and more. My ongoing resolution to go for a walk in the morning followed by a couple hours of writing keeps getting pushed further along. But I MUST get serious soon, or I won't have my draft ready by publisher's deadline. And really, getting back to Book 6 is what I look forward to most.

S: Bears can climb fences, can’t they?
R.M.: Yes, well, halfway through building that fence (at my son's house, actually) the neighbour strolled over to tell us the bears will just jump over. But I think bears, like the rest of us, prefer the path of least resistance. At least we're hoping. 

S: What themes do you like to explore in your writing?
R.M.: Relationships is a big one with me, both in reading and writing. A book that doesn't delve into relationships doesn't really grab me. I love relationships that collide, e.g. oddball matches, misunderstandings, mistrust. Building and breaking up friendships is one of my megalomaniacal passions, along with creating and solving wicked crimes.

S: Tell us about your B.C. Blues series.  (Do the B.C. Blues wear blue? What happened to the red dress jackets of the RCMP?) Is your series character-driven or plot- driven?
R.M.:  It's true, RCMP still wear the smashing scarlet tunics, but only for special occasions. The workaday clothing for uniformed members is mostly navy blue. The "Blues" in the series title is an allusion to atmosphere more than anything, though. Plus I love the blues (music)!

The series is set in the Pacific Northwest -- more specifically North Vancouver. Maybe you know the area... if you don't, it's kind of a fast-sprouting city, though not so much of a throbbing metropolis as Vancouver which sits just across the strait waters. North Van is hard to describe. It's traffic-snarled but serene. It's surrounded by mountains, rain forest, and ocean. It's veined with rivers and creeks and countless hiking trails. I like North Van as my main setting as it can vary widely within a few minutes' drive, from dock yards to high rises to woodsy canyons.

The books are character-driven but paced to move in a fast yet thorough way through twisted criminal investigations. They also come fully equipped with an evolving backstory -- which you might want to follow along from Book 1—Cold Girl.


 RM’s first novel, Cold Girl, won the 2014 Arthur Ellis Award for best unpublished novel

Cold Girl is set further north, amidst snow flurries and desolate highways, but in Book 2, Undertow, RCMP Constable Cal Dion is transferred back to North Van where he belongs, but also back to the complications he left behind after a seriously bad decision and car crash ... but that's the backstory for you to discover!

Next in the series after Undertow comes Creep, and in March this year came Book 4, Flights and Falls, and I'm now in the editing stages of Book 5, River of Lies along with writing Book 6.

The most recent release, Book 4 in the B.C. Blues series.

As for backstory, though, I try hard not to fall into the trap of letting it take over. I like to deliver what I like to read, which is a strong stand-alone plot with continuing character development. I want my readers to pick up any book in the set and be swiftly oriented to what's going on behind the scenes. I think backstory is important, but should stay where it belongs, in the background.

S: Where can readers find your books? Where can we learn more about your work? How should readers or fans contact you?
R.M.: All my books are widely available, in bookstores, libraries, and online through the major e-book sites.  If you'd like to get a copy but for any reason can't, please do contact me through my website (rmgreenaway.com). Also if you like the books or have a suggestion, drop me a line and let me know, because feedback from readers is the best nitro-boost to the spirit there is!

Thank you for reading, and thank you, Harley, for inviting me to take part! Oh, and yes your perspective when I was writing "A Study in Noir" for the Strand Magazine a couple years back was a great addition, so thank you for that as well!

Noir at the Bar, below, Shebeen Whiskey House in Gastown, Vancouver, B.C. R.M. is second from right:




Links for R.M. Greenaway:
Website:  rmgreenaway.com


Monday, March 11, 2019

The Road from Manzanar in "Black Mask"



My newest story, “The Road from Manzanar,” appears in the March/April edition of Ellery QueenMystery Magazine as the “Black Mask” story. Raymond Chandler’s first published short story, “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot,” in 1933 appeared in Black Mask back when the imprint stood alone as American crime fiction’s greatest pulp. Before Chandler, Dashiell Hammett’s work appeared in Black Mask regularly, including The Maltese Falcon, which ran as a four-part serial.
Max Rabinowitz’s Alfa Romeo 6C 2300B (as seen in “The Road from Manzanar”)

I believe four of my five EQMM stories have run as “Black Mask” features, and I used to think that might be because they were noir or at least noir-ish. However, I’m coming around to the realization that my stories are in “Black Mask” because I write in a pulp fiction style. I’m lucky to have Janet Hutchings, editor at EQMM, because it seems Janet understands the style. Having your stories published means you found the right home for them. For me, “Black Mask" looks like home.


Tenaya Lake, looking at Polly Dome, Photo by Gregg M. Erickson, licensed under the Creative Commons license.

A worthy editor, generous with his time and his feedback, whom I queried with “Manzanar” replied “I'm not going to be able to use it . . . It's too much of a political statement for me in much the same way I don't care for explicit sex scenes or violence porn; when these elements become the reasons for the story itself, they become their own things.” I plead guilty. “Manzanar” is my first work to make a political statement.

To me the political elements aren’t the raison d'être for the story. I’m telling the story of a guy who lines up a date with an attractive blonde. The guy has a camera and the idea that given a spectacular setting and enough Zinfandel, the blonde will take off her clothes for the camera. Beyond that, their private drama plays out against the backdrop of historical events—in this case the internment of Japanese Americans on the west coast—and raises questions about American identity. They’re questions a thinking couple asks in June 1942, questions we still may be asking.

On a lighter note, I once drove my family north out of Yosemite Valley in a rented Dodge minivan, onto the Tioga Road which crosses the northern wilderness area of the park at a high elevation. (Tenaya Lake is at 8,150 feet.) We parked at the campground at the lake and ate our packed lunches. I heard some other folks at the campground speaking German. We were big fans of John Cleese and Fawlty Towers, so naturally, I said to my young daughter, “Don’t mention the war, Molly. I think they’re Germans.”

After lunch, we went for a hike on the big rocks and domes north of the lake. When we returned to the campground, the Germans were huddled around one of our front tires.

Was machen Sie da?” said I.

One of the Germans spoke English well. “You have a leak in your right front tire; you were losing air, mein herr.” That was bad—a leak in the tire at a high altitude in the wilderness. There had been no services since we left Crane Flat, though there was a visitor center at Tuolumne Meadows, a short distance east. But the German went on, “Fritz is a tire specialist in Düsselldorf. He has his kit with him, and he has patched and repaired your tire.” Indeed, Fritz had done wonders. Though there was only about 17-18 pounds per square inch of air pressure in our tire, the leak had stopped, and we rolled into the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center and pumped it up. Fritz’s patch held for the rest of the trip, through Fresno to the Central Coast and back to San Francisco.

I've kept the incident in my mind, always wanting to use it in one of my stories. Readers of “The Road from Manzanar” may see a parallel in the carburetors in Max’s car—an  Apache carburetor specialist comes to Frank Swiver’s aid when the mixture in the carbs has to be adjusted for altitude.      


Saturday, December 22, 2018

Saturday, July 14, 2018

How I'm Spending Summer Vacation


Writing is an interesting game, and I’m still new enough at it to observe and track my methods, keeping an eye out for what works. It’s about 60 days since my JHOP (Johns Hopkins for Old People) classes ended in May, and I began to ease into my Daily Writing Habit. I have long felt that I write best and most productively when I write daily.
I figure writing six days a week would be a good target—51 days the last two months, but I have managed only 34. That is about 67 percent of what I should have done, so I guess I get a C- or D+, but it has felt more like B or B+ work. 

I’ve been working on novels, by the seat of the pants. Although I don’t believe it’s wise to work on multiple projects at one time, but I have shifted back and forth between two novels. My goal when I sit down to write is 500 words, which is a good day’s work, but the session generally ends when it’s time for me to put on my toque and prepare dinner for my wife and myself. I’ve averaged 569 words per day those 34 days, and I've passed 1,000 words three times since June 30.

The seat of the pants thing is working well. I start with a character or characters and a scene I might want to write. I try to describe the characters and put them in motion, then follow their leads. For instance the bulk of the writing, 19,000 words, has been The Fall of the Biarritz, in which my series private eye, Frank Swiver, agrees to fill in as house dick at the posh Biarritz Hotel for two weeks for his friend who’s recovering from an appendicitis attack. I think of it as a bit of an ensemble adventure, bringing together a cast of disparate villains and schemers and a taste of international intrigue. I’m really happy with how I’ve started with just a character and situation—p.i. fills in as acting house dick—and the plot ideas just keep coming.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Virtual Book Tour

It's a good thing this is a virtual tour, or we might have been virtually snowed in!

Here's an interview I did at the Dark Phantom Review on my book tour this month.

And

here's my guest post on reasons to commit murder most foul at Lori's Reading Corner.

I hope you enjoy these. There's still time to comment on the original sites, or if you have any questions, you can use the comment feature here, at From the Spitbucket.

Monday, March 12, 2018

A Blue Million Books: FEATURED AUTHOR: HARLEY MAZUK

Here's today's stop on my virtual book tour. I thought I'd post this one because it's, well, different. A Blue Million Books: FEATURED AUTHOR: HARLEY MAZUK: ABOUT THE BOOK 
 During the Spanish Civil War Frank Swiver and his college pal, Max Rabinowitz, both fall in love with Amanda Zingaro . . .
And
Here's an interview I did at The Writer's Life . . .
Q: Welcome to The Writer's Life!  Now that your book has been published, we’d love to find out more about the process.  Can we begin by having you take us at the beginning?  When did you come up with the idea to write your book?

Harley: I heard a story, probably a feature on National Public Radio, about the old cigar factories of Havana and Tampa. Each factory employed a lector—a person who read to the workers as they hand-rolled cigars. Imagine, a factory so quiet that you could read aloud to the employees. I pictured a beautiful woman with dark eyes and dark hair, rolling cigars on a tawny, bare thigh. I knew I wanted to write that scene and put it in my book. Read more . . .