Monday, July 26, 2021
Friday, May 28, 2021
I’m a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock. Of Patricia Highsmith, I was never as enthused. But after reading Strangers on a Train, I’m enthused enough to re-read Ripley.
Why, you ask? Well, Hitchcock made a really masterful film, Strangers on a Train, in stunning black & white. Two men, Guy Haines, a tennis player, and Bruno Anthony (Charles Anthony Bruno in the book), meet on the pre-Amtrak passenger train running between D.C., where Guy lives, and New York. Through both the dialogue and the visual storytelling Hitchcock was so good at, we learn Bruno is a psychopath, who wants his mommy to himself, and would like to be rid of her wealthy capitalist husband—”the Captain,” she calls him—whom Bruno hates. Guy wants to divorce his wife, and but she’s refusing to sign the final divorce papers. One of Bruno’s hobbies is plotting perfect murders, and he proposes one to Guy—swap murders. You do my murder, I’ll do yours. Criss-cross. Bruno thinks it’s brilliant because, no one can connect Guy and himself, therefore, he’d have no motive for killing Miriam Haines, just as Guy has no motive for killing Bruno’s father. Guy absolutely refuses, but Bruno has another hobby, drinking, and ignores Guy’s objections.
|Murder at the Amusement Park|
Shortly after they meet, Bruno travels to Metcalf, follows Miriam, and in a classic scene still studied by film students, strangles Miriam (in a reflection in her eyeglasses) in an amusement park. He gets away clean, and proudly tells Guy what he’s done, and asks Guy to keep his part of the bargain, the bargain Guy never made. The film ends with another classic scene, (one which I like because it is so over the top), with a terrifying out-of-control merry-go-round ride, cops who shoot first and look out for bystanders later, children trapped on tons of whirling machinery, manic carousel horses, and a struggle to the death between Guy and Bruno.
Much as I love this film, which I’ve seen numerous times over the last 40 years, I am now in awe of the novel which I just completed for the first time. Whereas my man Hitch builds suspense through visual storytelling and action, Patricia Highsmith rachets up the tension in her writing by increasing the psychological pressure on the protagonist.
Patricia Highsmith is hard to like. She was a drunken, atheist, lesbian, who hated blacks, Koreans, and Jews. I’d previously read and enjoyed The Talented Mr. Ripley, but felt while it was a clever idea, it was too wordy, too introspective, and too slowly paced. In a word, overrated. And frankly, I spent several weeks trying to get traction in Strangers, falling asleep each night wondering how long Highsmith could drag out the initial scene on the train.
Recorded books seem to make all the difference for me on these slow-paced introspective books. I bought Strangers on Audible, and the opening flowed as easily as the movie version. Soon I found that some of those boring bits I’d rather skip when I’m reading show the characters’ psyches and in the case of Bruno, his psychosis. Guy is a contrast to Bruno in every way. Guy is sober; Bruno is a drunk. Guy is in love and planning to marry Anne; Bruno hates women, except his mother. They’re opposites. Or wait, as the book goes on and Highsmith weaves her web, maybe they’re not opposites. Maybe they’re opposite parts of the same character. Maybe they’re doppelgängers.
A key difference between the Hitchcock film and the Highsmith book is that just a few pages past the midpoint of the book, Guy gives in to Bruno’s demand that he fulfill his part of the bargain—the other half of the double murder. Guy kills Bruno’s father. From there on Guy becomes guilt ridden and increasingly like Bruno.
It’s fair to say Hitchcock and Highsmith take the Train on two separate tracks from this point on. There is no tennis match in the book, no return to the amusement park, no final shootout, no merry-go-round disaster, no resolution of the plot in a final burst of action. In the book Guy is consumed with an ever-growing sense of guilt.
Charles Bruno’s father employed a full-time detective, Arthur Gerard, (suggestive of Inspector Javert) on his staff. Gerard knows Bruno hated his father and knows of his hobby of plotting murders. The story is set in the days when people wrote down names, addresses, and phone numbers of their acquaintances, and it’s not long before Gerard is asking Bruno, “Who’s Guy Haines? When did you meet him?” Gerard learns Haines’s wife Miriam was murdered not long after Bruno met Haines. Hmmm.
Bruno continues to foist himself on Guy and Anne, and Gerard, relentlessly, gathers in the threads, forms his theory. What’s most interesting though is how Highsmith entangles her characters, Guy and Bruno, in their webs of lies. Will they get away with it? Or will Gerard trap them? Highsmith builds suspense by dragging out Guy’s internal dialogues to the limit, keeping emotions heated to a fever pitch, and delaying the denouement, (or is it the actual climax?) Truly, she’s a master of suspense like Hitch himself, and in a way I might never have thought possible. In the end of the book, Gerard extracts a confession from Guy, a guy who could have committed the perfect crime if he’d kept his nerve.
Patricia Highsmith wrote a short book called Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, which I read several years ago, hoping it might help me learn the writing game. The book contained plenty of anecdotes about short stories--she was a big fan of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine as a market for her work, and thus far in my career, it’s been the best market for my short stories—but I thought it was a little light on the “how to.” One takeaway though is the precept, “The starting point for a chapter outline should be the question to oneself, ‘How will this chapter advance the story?’” I perceive in Strangers on a Train, Highsmith advances the plot by progressively pushing the characters’ emotions to the point of no return, through strongly written chapters showing how their internal tensions build.
This little essay is primarily about what I learned about writing suspense from reading Highsmith. But here’s a sidebar. Many of Hitchcock’s films were adaptations from existing literature. Over the years, have read Robert Bloch’s Psycho, Daphne du Maurier’s “The Birds,” John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, Vertigo (D’Entre les Morts) by Boileau Narcejac, and “Rear Window” by Cornell Woolrich. I had no overarching plan in reading these. They fit in with my interests. Then last winter, I took a class called “Alfred Hitchcock and Adaptations,” and read
· Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
· “The Song of the Dragon” (Notorious) by John Taintor Foote
· The Wheel Spins (The Lady Vanishes) by Ethel Lina White, and
· Rope by Patrick Hamilton
Some of the Hitchcock films follow the writing closely, others use the text more as a jumping off point. But in all cases, it’s been fun to look at the similarities and disparities between the different mediums, and see how Masters of Suspense work in their art forms.
Wednesday, March 31, 2021
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
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.)
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”
Farewell, My Lovely
Head of the asylum
Corrupt chief of police
Violet Lu Shamey
Beulah / Vivian Baring
Mrs. Philip Courtney Pendergrast
Velma Valento / Helen Grayle
The big man
The shine joint on Central
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.