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.