Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Two Nadas, Please

I have been struggling over a new blog post for a couple weeks. I feel like writing about baseball. I could pull it off, but many interested in “A blog about my writing” follow “From the Spitbucket.” A couple months ago, I subjected them to a post about nude swimming in high school. Too soon to do baseball.

My writing has been stuck for a while, as it often is when Osher—a lifelong learning program I’m enrolled in at Johns Hopkins—classes roll, and we’re five weeks into a semester now. This semester, I’m taking Shakespeare with Jim Blue, a retired physicist who seems to enjoy the challenges of the bard. We’re just finishing Comedy of Errors, which I find delightful. Reading something like Comedy of Errors gives me a lift because, right or wrong, I perceive it as a piece of entertainment, exactly the sort of thing I like to write. Comedy of Errors is a lot of fun. Starting next week, something completely different, Titus Andronicus.

I’m also taking “Alfred Hitchcock and Adaptations,” with Mary Dutterer. Mary is an associate professor of English at Prince George’s Community College who had a minor in film studies. I enjoyed her class on the Coen Bros., and I love Hitchcock. So many of his films were adaptations of works written as short stories, novels, or plays, and I like the idea of looking at what he did with pre-existing texts, and how. My agent, Lawrence Jordan, has put the idea in my head that my fiction would translate well to a screen, and I’m enjoying looking at a written work and then at what changes in the Hitchcock movie, and what stays the same. Interestingly, I’ve already read a few works that Hitch adapted—The Birds, by Daphne du Maurier, Psycho by Robert Bloch, and Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith, but we’re not covering those in this class.

My last class on “Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway,” has been the most exciting. It didn’t take long—the instructor, Robert Jacobs, mentioned the iceberg theory the first week and that knocked me on my butt. It was not so long ago—2016? 2017—that the iceberg theory was near to my heart and I hoped in the back of my mind when I would sit down at my humble cathode ray tube to write. But somewhere during the last three years, I lost the iceberg theory and started writing to the “movie in my mind” (MIMM) hypothesis. Under the MIMM, I try to paint for the reader some characters in a scene that he can visualize, and then try to keep the reader engaged in the action while the characters take it from there. It’s a fun way to write, and it seemed good enough for what I wanted to do—produce a piece of entertainment (viz. Comedy of Errors, above). But I frequently had the nagging feeling that I was leaving something out. Perhaps more correctly, that I was not leaving enough out.

I had some early success—my first two stories were published by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Perhaps I got cocky or careless. Sure, it’s swell writing a fun story that readers can visualize. I’ve continued to have some successes, (more published stories in EQMM, agents offering to represent novels), but some failures too, which make me wonder if I’ve kept the literary quality up.

The revelation, the reminder to remember the iceberg, comes at a good time for me. I was slouching through a humdrum section of a WWII novella, trying to make it with only my characters, but even the characters weren’t fully alive. They were slouching toward a murder attempt at Lake Tahoe. I didn’t know enough about my plot to know what to write next. But since I was already thinking about Hemingway, the answer came to me, “write one true sentence.” Following which, it should be easy to write another. And another.

So much for any writer’s block.  

After I finish this story, I’ll go back and work it again, (and maybe again), and fill in the rest of the iceberg. But that’s not all. A writer learns a lot from revisiting Hemingway’s short stories. Figuring out what is being said in a Hemingway short story and what is being not said tells the would-be author what he needs to know about the iceberg theory and how to use it. We’ve read stories about suicide, madness, adultery, abortion, impotence, and cowardice, from which we learn the writer must show the whole story, the wretched and horrible along with the beautiful. And watching how Hemingway slips into the internal dialogue of a broken mind shows you the depth of “one true sentence.”  

I look forward to the Ken Burns documentary “Hemingway” beginning April 5 on PBS.  


Friday, February 5, 2021

The Second Murderer

Second Murderer: What, shall we stab him while he sleeps?

First Murderer: No; then he will say ‘twas done cowardly when he wakes . . .

Second Murderer: Faith, some certain dregs of conscience are yet within me.

            —Richard III, Act I, scene 4


Raymond Chandler quotes the above lines from Shakespeare in his letter to Blanche Knopf, of Alfred A. Knopf his publisher in the summer of 1939, reporting progress on his novel-in-progress, The Second Murderer. A year later, he had dropped that working title. The Second Murderer was to become Farewell, My Lovely.

Like other Chandler novels, Farewell, My Lovely (FML) (1940) was based on, cobbled together, or “cannibalized” (Chandler’s term), from three of his previously published stories—“The Man Who Liked Dogs” (Black Mask, 1936), “Try the Girl” (Black Mask, 1937), and “Mandarin’s Jade” (Dime Detective, 1937). Those latter two were Chandler’s only sales in 1937, and as such appear to be his sole source of income for the year.

Chandler had not yet developed the name Phillip Marlowe when writing the short stories. The detective in the first two was named Carmady, no first name given. The detective in “Mandarin’s Jade” was John Dalmas. But they were all Marlowe-in-training. Philip Marlowe—Chandler’s white knight, who was to be the best man in his world, and a good man in any world. Carmady and Dalmas narrate their stories in a similar first-person voice, with the same cynical sense of humor that Marlowe would later employ. They have a tough time hewing to their knightly chivalry in a world of gambling, booze, drugs, double-crosses, and most of all corruption. But they never stray from their personal code.

The plots of the individual stories have some twists and turns, but each plot feels resolved at the end of the story. In “The Man Who Liked Dogs” (TMWLD), Carmady is trying to find a kidnapped or runaway teenage girl, Isobel Snare, who was last seen with her large police dog. Carmady traces the dog to a machine-gun toting killer, Jerry “Farmer” Saint, the man who liked dogs. Carmady is hit on the head and comes to in a private psychiatric hospital, where the corrupt police chief keeps inconvenient people locked up and shot full of hop. He busts out and finds Isobel, who has secretly married Saint, on a gambling ship outside the three-mile limit.

“Try the Girl” (TTG) opens with Carmady down on Central Avenue, where he meets a giant of a man in exceptionally loud clothes, Steve Skalla. Steve just did eight years in the joint, and he’s out, looking for his girl, Beulah, in Shamey’s, a dive where she used to work. Shamey’s is under new management, no longer a white establishment, but a spot for the “colored folks.” Skalla gets too rough with the boss, and flees, hiring Carmady to find Beulah. Carmady’s search leads him to Shamey’s widow, an old lush. She’s heard Beulah singing on radio KLBL under a different name. Detective work at KLBL leads Carmady to Beulah’s house. But by the time Carmady arrives, Skalla has already found the house and killed the radio station exec who was having an affair with Beulah. The radio executive’s pre-psychotic widow shows up and pumps four .25 caliber slugs into Skalla’s belly. After they take him to the hospital, Beulah comes home. Carmady beats her up, so that she can say she shot the radio station exec in self-defense.

"Mandarin's Jade” (MJ) tells the story of a late-night ransom exchange for a jade necklace, during which p.i. John Dalmas takes a sap to the head, and he loses his client, Lindley Paul. (Lindley, by the way, lives on Quinonal Avenue in Castellmare, at the top of the 270 steps behind Thelma Todd’s sidewalk café. Dalmas climbs them.)

Castellmare in "Mandarin's Jade"
Montemar Vista in Farewell, My Lovely 

Paul was carrying a cigarette case of special rolls—possible jujus—and those lead Dalmas to Soukesian the psychic. Soukesian chloroforms Dalmas, who shoots a foul-smelling Hollywood Indian. He meets Mrs. Philip Courtney Pendergrast, the young, blond, hard-drinking wife of a very old, very rich man. Mrs. Pendergrast owned that jade necklace. In a barfight, Dalmas is hit on the head with a full bottle.

If you see a coherent thread that runs through these three stories, you’re doing better than me. But consider that Chandler was more interested in writing and language, and in character than in a coherent plot. His success stitching the stories together reminds us that scenes are indeed the building blocks of fiction. We open with the scene from TTG in which Philip Marlowe (Carmady) meets Moose Molloy (Skalla) looking for his girl Velma Valento (Beulah) at Florian’s (Shamey’s). The action is essentially the same—Moose busts up the joint.  This is a great opening scene, and Chandler has pumped it up from five and a half pages in TTG to thirteen and a half in FML. The descriptions in FML are similar, but richer in detail. The characters’ names have changed, and they have more depth.

After leaving Central Ave., Marlowe does a little detective work, and then we have the FML version of the scene in which he questions the hard-drinking widow, Jessie Florian, (Violet Lu Shamey). Later that afternoon, back in his office, he takes a call from a prospective client, Lindsay Marriott, (Lindley Paul of MJ), and we’re off to Marriott’s house—same as Paul’s house, at the top of the steps behind the sidewalk café. Marriott needs a bodyguard for his errand that night, making a payoff for a stolen necklace of Fei Tsui jade. Later that evening, in a deserted canyon, Marlowe waits in the dark and takes a sap to the head from behind. When he awakes, Marriott is dead.

How does Chandler connect Marriott and the stolen necklace to Moose and Velma? That’s one of the mysteries you can ponder for the next 200 or so pages. Basically, Chandler simply drops the scene with Marriott's murder into the story of Moose and Velma. 

It’s not long before the calling cards packed in with Marriott’s special rolls lead Marlowe to Amthor (Soukesian) the psychic. Amthor calls the cops claiming Marlowe tried to blackmail him, but instead of taking him to jail, they knock him unconscious and lock him up in a private hospital run by Dr. Sonderborg (Dr. Sundstrand in TMWLD), a drug dealer who keeps him docile with heroin or morphine  injections.

Chandler combines these disparate plot threads simply by dumping the scenes from the three short stories together and making the characters consistent throughout. Sure, Farewell, My Lovely is about Moose’s search for Velma, a second murder, a psychic, a drug dealing doctor, corrupt cops, a gambling ship, another murder, a ravishing blonde with a secret past, a corrupt police chief, a gambler who runs a corrupt city government, a double cross, and a fourth murder. It’s about scenes that probably have no business being together. If the novel seems consistent and lucid, it’s because the scenes are so well-written and the characters so much fun and so real, that the reader gets the overall impression of reading a swell, coherent novel. As Chandler said of his work, "my whole career is based on the idea that the formula doesn't matter, the thing that counts is what you do with the formula; that is to say, it is a matter of style."


“The Man Who Liked Dogs”

“Try the Girl”

“Mandarin’s Jade”

Farewell, My Lovely




John Dalmas

Phillip Marlowe

Head of the asylum

Dr. Sundstrand



Dr. Sonderborg

Corrupt chief of police




John Wax

Honest ex-cop

Red Norgard



Red Norgaard

Gambling ship

The Montecito



The Montecito





Laird Brunette

Drunken widow


Violet Lu Shamey


Jessie Florian

Femme Fatale


Beulah / Vivian Baring

Mrs. Philip Courtney Pendergrast

Velma Valento / Helen Grayle

The big man


Steve Skalla


Moose Malloy

The shine joint on Central





Marlowe’s Client



Lindley Paul

Lindsay Marriott

Marlowe’s Helper



Carol Pride

Anne Riordan

The Pyschic





Looking at the way I write and the way Chandler stitched the scenes from three divergent plots together, I’m thinking of trying the technique myself with some of my unsold stories.

P.S. Who is the second murderer? That’s one of the mysteries of the book I won’t spoil, but the Second Murderer is the one who killed Lindsay Marriott.