Deceased and Residing in Oakland

Deceased, And Residing In Oakland - Philip James

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Deceased and Residing in Oakland is a mystery thriller in the tradition of American Crime Fiction, set twenty-five years after the beginning of the zombie apocalypse. San Francisco is a city under siege — it’s heaving with refugees and it’s seething with crime — but it’s still a city. It’s got cops and courts and commerce, and it’s got one burned out cop in particular living a careful life a bay away from the rot that still stalks the suburbs, looking for a heartbeat. All he wants is a quiet life, but when he’s hired to track down the mysterious daughter of one of the city’s elite and the case starts killing his friends, he’s forced on a high-velocity ride among the eccentric citizens and dangerous diversions of fortress San Francisco and all the way back to the last place he ever wants to be.

The story is a fast-paced genre-mixer presenting a hard-boiled mystery in the style of 1940s noir but with characters, twists and tension that can only occur in a Bay area struggling to sustain the remains of civilization. The result is a world-building exercise that depicts a thorough and convincing city of high-density, multi-purpose buildings, Frankenstein cars and an economy based on dark entertainments and goods retrieved from the suburbs by daredevil privateers.

Author Philip James makes no effort to hide his admiration for preceding pulp greats and the narrative regularly veers very close to homage, with an endless supply of Chandlerisms like “Mean in a feral, fundamental way. Mean the way cats are stealthy and bees are industrious and vultures are indiscriminate diners.”,  “She finished her drink and brought the glass down like the gavel of a hanging judge” and “There was a night behind her that was more than mere darkness.”

But the attention to noir narrative doesn’t make this any less a zombie thriller, and the style extends to the undead as “like an army of macabre marionettes made of broom handles and sack cloth” and “staggering and broken and with parts missing and debris acquired, like a taxi that’s just driven madly through a dense jungle.”

The plot and poetry are matched by the population of eccentrics including a one-armed barkeep, a philosophy professor preaching Nietzsche beneath the ruins of the Golden Gate Bridge, a alluring blonde pinup girl who can out-drink the toughest detective, a ruthless villain with a sadistic henchman, the world’s luckiest pirate and a shell-shocked former zombie-squad officer with an overdeveloped sense of symmetry and paralyzing fear of the undead.

Lightly On Sacred Ground

black_eyed_blonde_coverRaymond Chandler’s dead so he won’t object if I speak for him with regards to how he’d react to The Black-Eyed Blonde, the second effort to appropriate his voice and most famous creation, Philip Marlowe. I’m quite certain that he wouldn’t give a shit.

Chandler was an iconoclast, unimpressed and unintimidated by what were considered the giants of literature, even when he was forcibly inducted into their number, so he could hardly have objected to an irreverent cannibalisation of his own canon.

However that’s not what this is. The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black (the nom de pulp of high concept Irish writer John Banville) is a meticulous homage, and it shows. It’s not a rip-off nor a convincing forgery. It doesn’t take Philip Marlowe into uncharted territory and it doesn’t subvert the genre. And all that would be fine with both me and Mr. Chandler, I’m quite sure, if it achieved the only goal that could logically remain — to read as though it was written by Chandler.

The inventory is fully stocked. There’s a knock-out dame, naturally, and ruthless heavies and even a MacGuffin imported wholesale from The Long Goodbye. There’s a mystery within a mystery that has Marlowe searching for a man that’s supposed to be dead and turning up improbable links to those that definitely are. There are killings and beatings and a vibrant sexual tension between the main characters. Above all Chandler’s narrative style, punctuated with original and evocative similes, is faithfully duplicated.

But the Black-Eyed Blonde doesn’t try too hard, it tries way too hard to sound like Chandler, and the result is inorganic and arrhythmic. If you’re familiar with the original lore the constant reminders of people and places and events from previous books becomes quickly tiresome and heavy-handed, and if you’re not you’d presumably be misled into thinking that these diversions are in some way relevant to the plot. Why is Marlowe arguing with this random doctor that he called to discreetly look into an apparent overdose? Well obviously because some animosity remains from the affair that Marlowe had with the doctor’s wife in the Long Goodbye.

The narrative never rises to heights of “…a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back” (The Long Goodbye) or “She had eyes like strange sins.” (The High Window) but it’s not for lack of earnest effort. So instead we get overwrought exhibitions like “the rain was making the water in the lake look like a bed of nails.” and “the rain was coming down now like polished steel rods.” It’s not the Beatles, but an incredible simulation.

So the relationship between Marlowe and the sad-eyed Clare Cavendish is forced and inexplicable, the villains lack clear motivations and the inevitable similes are sterile and unrelated to the story. And the plot pays dutiful respect to this gallery of artifacts, even to the point of taking literally Chandler’s advice: “In writing a novel, when in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns.”*

Having said all that, Chandler and I are going to have to lean toward recommending The Black Eyed Blonde. It’s definitely Chandleresque and so long as you’ve already read everything else in the canon plus Hammet, MacDonald and Himes, it’s the closest thing you’re going to find to a new book by Raymond Chandler published in 2014.

*1950 April 15, Saturday Review of Literature, The Simple Art of Murder by Raymond Chandler (There’s a 1944 version that doesn’t include the quote “When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”) http://www.unz.org/Pub/SaturdayRev-1950apr15-00013

Cheaters And Their Readers

By 1944 Raymond Chandler had written The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely and the line “She had eyes like strange sins” and he was accordingly at the top of his game when he wrote “The Simple Art of Murder” for Atlantic Monthly and sank the sturdiest and most explicit signpost at a major turning point for pulp fiction.

Since then the essay has held its ground as an important and seminal summary of what’s good and bad in fiction in general and detective fiction in particular, at least from the perspective of one of the genre’s recognised greats. It amounts to a declaration of victory for a certain type of rigorous realism and American-style iconoclasm, especially with regards to the insufferably mannered, formulaic and imperious English forbears of detective fiction. Chandler takes on Dorothy L. Sayers and an editorial he describes as an “essay in futility” as representative of the pompous view that detective fiction can never be real fiction.

There are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that.

Chandler also takes issue with E.C. Bentley’s “Trent’s Last Case” and condemns Freeman Wills Crofts, S.S. Van Dine and, naturally, Agatha Christie for the lead-handed cop-out that is “Murder On The Orient Express”.

They do not come off intellectually as problems, and they do not come off artistically as fiction.

And he’s particularly merciless with the progenitor of Winnie The Pooh, AA Milne, for his crime against fiction “The Red House Mystery”. The problem with the Milne Story is that it’s implausible and relies on far too many very unlikely or unnatural or irregular occurrences. Chandler picks the story to pieces, in fact, and the best he can say about it is that it’s “not a deliberate fraud”.

In short, Chandler dislikes a cheat. And this is the meat of the essay for any writer who cares about adding to the modern canon as begun by Hammett and sustained by Chandler and MacDonald (but clearly not Spillane). It needs to be realistic. This doesn’t mean that mad things can’t happen and that character and morality can’t be tested to limits beyond that which most readers will ever see, but it has to be logically consistent and you can never go back and try to fill in a litany of plot-holes with the cheap pitch of coincidence and oversight and the assumption that your readers are lazy or stupid.

That means no deus ex machina, no sending Hastings down to London in chapter three to return at the denouement with evidence of a secret twin or a second will or true likeness of the deceased, no squadrons of policemen too stupid to notice that which the amateur detective picks up on instantly. It means, simply, that your reader has to stand a chance to solve the problem with the evidence presented. You can misdirect your reader, as Hammett does so originally in the Maltese Falcon, or shock him as Chandler does so cynically in the Little Sister, but you can’t lie and you can’t cheat and you can’t deprive the reader of a fighting chance.

You don’t need to like the advice or follow it to be a good writer unless part of your take on that means being a good writer according to the harsh and authoritative definition of Raymond Chandler. Or if you simply agree with the hypothesis that rigour in writing inevitably surfaces as quality then you could certainly choose a worse measure than an obligation to reward your readers for their attention all the way through to the end.

Just Another Twist

GangsterStories193112Margie Harris might on her own represent two or three of the most intriguing unsolved mysteries in pulp fiction.

The first and most confounding is simply this — why is Margie Harris not an icon of pulp fiction? And indeed why did her entire share of the genre — gangster fiction — have such a short and incandescent golden age before dying out altogether?

Harris wrote prolifically for shamelessly and deliberately provocative monthlies with names like Gangster Stories and Gangland Stories and Racketeer Stories and Conflict, many of which regularly fell foul of government censors and had to be reminded that crime doesn’t pay or at any rate must never be shown to. Her career paralleled these pioneering anthologies and she contributed to them from their start in 1930 to their demise in the middle of the decade and short-lived comeback in 1939 and she was a natural:

Jimmy should have remembered that Smooth, before going to Ossining for a ten spot jolt, had been known as being stingy with words, lavish with action.

The crater made by the heavy slug gave him the look of some particularly obscene and horrible monster in human form; one possessed of three eyes, all leering with a hellish tolerance on the combined sins of the world.

Margie Harris, Facing the Mob, Gangland Stories, February 1931

Thematically, Harris’ specialty was the over-the-top mob thriller with quick tempers and quicker justice. Stylistically her specialty was the idiom. She employed what may or may not have been legitimate street jargon lavishly and yet somehow accessibly — you just know without ever before seeing it in this context that a yard is a hundred dollars and a ten spot jolt is a ten year sentence in Sing Sing (the idiomatic name, incidentally, for Ossining State Prison in upstate New York).

Harris deployed her gats and gunsels and molls and meat wagons with an unselfconscious fluency in much the same way that Hammett and Chandler would employ the hard-boiled simile and to similar effect. Her narrative has a lyricism and tempo that accompany the high-octane, revenge-driven plots like a saxophone.

The second great mystery of Margie Harris is who was Margie Harris? All that’s known of her for sure is that she didn’t exist. Margie Harris was the pseudonym of someone who almost certainly wrote gangland stories as an aside to another, possibly more prominent career as a journalist and/or police officer and/or gangster. And the closest thing we have to a clue is a letter Harris wrote to pulp innovator Harold Hersey, publisher of Gangster Stories, in response to the growing curiosity of his readership and their doubts that a woman could write such gritty material.

A biographical sketch of Margie Harris?
Scram, Baby; whaddyuh think I am, a canary —yelpin’ on myself?
I got your slant, though, somebody’s maybe asked “Who’s this frail who cracks wise from the inside?”
Just another twist, sisters and brothers — maybe, but look out for my lipstick. You know some of the sugar Molls carry one for their own use, one for “the other Jane” — and that one has cyanide in it. So look out for my lipstick, too.
How did I get that way? Maybe newspaper work; maybe just associates…

Gangster Stories, June 1931

The complete letter can be found in in City of Numbered Men, the Best of Prison Stories and Queen of the Gangsters: Vol 1: Broadwalk Empire (sic: yes, Broadwalk) along with author John Locke’s compelling and convincing analysis implying that Harris acquired at least some of her facility with gangland culture by association with genuine mobsters.

Harris wrote her last story under the name in 1939 and then left us forever. Maybe she went on the lam or took a powder. I sure hope she wasn’t deep-sixed and I like to assume that we continue to admire her work under her other aliases.

The Strange Case of Klinger v Doyle

Holmes5-Inspector_Lestrade

On December 23rd a federal court in Chicago declared Sherlock Holmes public domain in America, striking down the last obstacle to my dream of writing my contribution to the canon in which Holmes teams up with Dr Who to recover powerful scriptures which have been stolen from the library of St John the Beheaded only to discover that the fiend behind the plot is his own brother, Sherrinford, who is in fact a member of a cult led by a telepathic slug whose plan is to turn all its followers into insect people. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that it had been done.

Holmes fell into the Swiss ravine of public domain in the UK in 1997 with the death of Conan-Doyle’s last remaining direct descendent, the accomplished air force commander Dame Jean Conan-Doyle, who had employed her last years and remaining influence on the Sherlock Holmes industry in the UK to encourage quality world-wide. Now U.S. District Court Judge Ruben Castillo has opened the floodgates entirely to the sea of untreated fan-fic that will doubtless follow his ruling.

And what dross there’ll be. We’ll probably see modernizations about a mental patient who thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes being treated by a psychiatrist named Watson, except that, too, was done in the 1971 play and film, They Might Be Giants. And of course the series Elementary, in which Holmes is a recovering drug addict in current-day New York has been in production for several seasons before Justice Castillo’s landmark decision. And Benedict Cumberbatch’s turn as a Holmes who relies on text messaging and Youtube has somehow found audiences in the US under the dark restrictions of pre-Castillo era.

So it’ll be in the wild-west frontier of electronic publishing where most of the offenses will multiply like rats with no regard to the canon, unlike considered homages like A Time For Sherlock Holmes (1983) in which Holmes and Watson are able to battle Moriarity into infinity thanks to a youth serum. There’ll be no way, now, to distinguish the strictly compliant pastiches that pit Holmes against Dr. Jekyll (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes, 1979) and Fu Manchu (Ten Years Beyond Baker Street, 1984) and Jack the Ripper (The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, 1978) and, of course, Dracula (Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula, 1978).

Note that there’s one caveat to the ruling and it’s to be the foundation of the appeal to be launched later this month — US copyright has yet to expire on the entirety of the original Sherlock Holmes library. There remain ten final stories released in the US after 1922 which still belong to the remaining Doyle estate. For those planning their own take on the great detective, this means that only features and characteristics established before then are fair game. So you can refer to Watson and Holmes, of course, and 221B Baker Street and Mrs. Hudson and Moriarty and LeStrade and Mycroft and Toby the crime-fighting Spaniel/Lurcher mutt, but you’ll have to craft a plot that somehow steers clear of Watson’s second wife.

So if you’ve been waiting for the legal all-clear to write your Sherlock Holmes/Captain Nemo mashup now you have it. Just try to take an original perspective, if you can find one remaining, and show a little respect for the time-travelling monster-fighting detective who’s kept us safe from the evil machinery of Dr. Moriarty and his space-invaders.

Indefensible Publi…

redhandWe weren’t initially going to do Twitter. Not because Twitter’s not the state-of-the-art in delivering pointlessly curt messages to people who don’t care what you think, but because it feels a little late in the game. There are zoo animals with over 100 000 Twitter followers and as much as we might like a piece of that pie we don’t know that we’re prepared to do what it takes to get it.

But the age of Twitter, for better or worse, is still upon our throats like a career oriented jackal and we’re led to understand that it can get you a few extra sales on Amazon which, in the future, is all anyone will care about and it’ll probably be the only way to get a desirable mate.

So please follow us on Twitter. In return we’ll follow you, of course, but we’ll also only tweet things which are relevant and helpful – specifically we’re going to tweet when we publish a new blog or book and whenever we find a clever bit of pulp fiction writing that we think isn’t already widely known.

A McGuffin For The Age Of The Anti-Hero

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Fiction tends to wear its age either poorly, as does science fiction predicated on the assumption that by the 1990s we’d have achieved faster-than-light space travel and racial harmony — or well, as is the case of the best of hard-boiled detective fiction which grows over the years to be more representational of its era, more evocative and less self-conscious.

And then there’s the rare third way of novels that would be arguably better books if they were written today, like The Maltese Falcon.

Dashiell Hammett produced in 1931 a book that, when initially serialized in the Mask, probably struck readers as a particularly good and remarkably original example of the genre and I’m guessing when I say that most probably didn’t realize just how much harder the author had to work to so quietly and thoroughly evolve the medium.

It could be argued that the anti-hero dates back to at least Don Quixote — so some 400 years before Sam Spade — and the concept is probably appreciably older than that but as a staple of American fiction it was unheard of before the 50s. And this was the uniqueness of the challenge facing Hammett — Spade’s no anti-hero but to make the revolutionary plot work the reader needs to be convinced that’s exactly what he is twenty years before anyone’s heard of such a thing.

Hammett wasn’t inventing the anti-hero, he was moving the utility of misdirection in detective fiction onto a whole new plane. He was preoccupying the reader with a McGuffin and a colorful cast of self-serving characters and a multi-threaded plot about the Knights Templar and Spanish Kings when the real crime takes place on page 11. And to pull it off he had to convincingly present his main character, who would have been universally expected to be law-abiding and moral and chivalrous, as corrupt and mercenary and lascivious.

And he certainly succeeded but a lot of readers probably instinctively saw justice coming, one way or the other. The plot twist as it would be received in the context of today’s books and movies about happy and successful crooks and murderers is that the main character is in fact strictly, selflessly and, indeed, heroically moral.

Writing today, Hammett wouldn’t have to work quite so hard to convince us that Spade is looking out for his own best interests and a modern reader has the luxury of focusing on just how blithely cold-blooded the detective apparently is as he removes his partner’s name from the door the day after his brutal murder and scoffs at the man’s widow. None of that would strike us as strange or suspicious or misleading, all of which it turns out to be, so it would be merely entertaining and we’d fall much more easily for the trick than would have Hammett’s initial audience.

So apart from the obvious handicap of being universal common knowledge the plot twist at the end of the Maltese Falcon works better now than it did in its own day.

Then or now or a hundred years from now The Maltese Falcon will always have been the first detective book to present a narrative that’s mostly one extended charade meant to distract the reader and, for that matter, most of the characters, from the real story, and to teach us to love being fooled.