Death in Nostalgia City

By Mark S. Bacon

Why writers do what they do

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And why did I write Death in Nostalgia City?

I have heard several writers of books say they write to entertain themselves first.   It makes sense. Why would you spend months—years—of your life writing something you were not interested in? Well yes, for the money (such as it is for writers). But I think people start writing to entertain or challenge themselves. They write, in part, because they have to and they entertain themselves—and their readers.

Such is the case with me. My first books were business how-tos and I thoroughly enjoyed researching and writing them. I loved the challenge and I always tried to pick fresh topics or a new way of looking at something.3-d-cover-web-optimized

Now I’m writing mysteries and I’m entertaining myself more than ever. I entertained myself writing Death in Nostalgia City. I wrote the kind of mystery/suspense story that I like to read. My favorite mysteries have these elements:

- a variety of different, quirky suspects,

- a protagonist who is struggling to make headway–in life and the case at hand–not a James Bond-perfect hero,

- a stage that is not limited to a drawing room or manor house,

- plenty of action (some violence but not excessive) to keep the story moving,

- a protracted chase with the protagonists on the run,

- humor, and

- a twisty-turny ending.

I also wanted to bring some new angles to the murder mystery. Certainly I did that, at least, through its unique setting.

Now I’m busy writing the next book in the series and Kate and Lyle are entertaining me again.

Award-winning 1930s private eye is ready for anything

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Picture a PI’s office in the late 1930s. It’s a third-floor walk-up. There’s a bottle in the gumshoe’s bottom drawer and a .38 just out of sight. If you’re picturing a Sam Spade type character behind the desk, you’d be right—except for her gender.

Maggie Sullivan is a savvy, resourceful private detective who walks the mean streets and privileged neighborhoods of Dayton, Ohio. She’s the creation of author M. Ruth Myers and her latest caper, Don’t Dare a Dame, recently earned a Shamus award from the Private Eye Writers of America. It’s a dandy PI tale with enough surprises to keep you guessing and Myers’s steady hand to tell the engrossing story in rich, nuanced tones.

The story starts with two “old maids” hiring Sullivan to find out what happened to their father 25 years ago when he disappeared during a great Don't-Dare-a-Dameflood. Records were lost during the flood, many of the buildings in the area where the father disappeared are long gone and memories of the events are fading.

Sullivan tells her clients that chances of finding the truth are slim. But in the course of her investigation, Sullivan stirs up old animosities, turns up at the site of a suspicious death that might be related to the father’s disappearance and runs afoul of enough menacing figures to make you wonder what will happen to her in the next chapter.

Authentic depression-era descriptions and language put the reader firmly in the past. For example, her years-gone-by vocabulary includes snazzy and moxie. She describes a man as having “a leading-man moustache.” And Sullivan sometimes gets information by calling people and pretending to be someone she isn’t, a technique that an investigator could use easily in a time long before cell phones and caller ID.

Another feature of pre-war America (still around if you look under the glass ceiling) that Myers uses to good effect, is prejudice. Sullivan is a woman doing a man’s job. The quick detective usually handles slights and snide remarks with aplomb, sometimes letting the reader in on what she really thinks: He shot me a smile that was probably meant to suggest we gals were bright as buttons.

Humor also plays a part in the entertainment value of the book and to get Sullivan’s (Myers’s) gender equity points across.

As Sullivan questions a witness who is walking her dog, the person reveals startling information.

“That wrenched my attention away from her little dog, who was sniffing my ankle and some nearby bushes with equal enthusiasm.”

When someone tries to pick her up on the street, Sullivan has an answer:

“That’s some hat, sweetheart. Want to show it off over a beer and a sandwich?”

“Hey, thanks for the nice offer, but I’m looking for someone.”

“What’s he got that I haven’t?”

“V.D.,” I said.

He took off fast.

Myers handles little details that give a story depth and realism. For example, Sullivan wants to talk to a store clerk when the clerk’s boss is gone. Sullivan waits outside until the boss leaves, but rather than rush in, Sullivan tells us she waited ten minutes more in case he forgot something.

Sullivan enters the variety store and approaches the clerk who was interested in disclosing important facts, however, “[The clerk’s] eyes made a businesslike sweep of the store first, making sure everything was under control.”

I think these are little details make a story come alive. And Myer’s prose is alive with gritty dialog, unusual characters and the first-person emotions and thoughts that have us following Sullivan into every dark alley.  This gritty PI novel is part of the Maggie Sullivan series.  You’ll want to hunt for more.

As a parting shot, here are a few of my favorite noir lines:

“The pub in the bottom drawer of my desk was always open.”

“Because of my work I’d seen more than my share of ugliness that hid in life’s corners. Nonetheless, the Warren’s marital arrangement made my skin crawl.”

“The St. George Hotel fell somewhere between the Ritz and a roach farm. It inclined toward the latter.”

 

So what kind of mystery is it?

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That’s a good question and one I hear frequently when I tell people I’ve published a mystery novel. Mysteries come in so many varieties that telling someone you wrote a mystery is only slightly more informative than saying you wrote a novel.

Yes, there are certain conventions–dead bodies, for example–that mysteries have in common, but the characters, style, language, length, point of view and many other elements differ from one mystery to another and especially from one sub-genre to another. And sub-genres are plentiful, from hard-boiled PI novels to cozy, drawing room mysteries.

But to answer the question of how to categorize Death in Nostalgia City, let me begin with Agatha Christie.   She was the first mystery author I read as I was growing up. I liked the short stories in Alfred Hitchcock’s and Ellery Queen’s mystery magazines, but the mystery novel was defined for me by Christie. I loved the complex puzzles, the multiplicity of clues and the usually large cast of characters. It made me think. But Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot almost always figured out whodunit before I did.

Gradually, however, my taste changed and I wanted a little more action, a little more suspense to keep me turning the pages. I read, not only to find out who were the bad guys, but to follow imperiled protagonists and see them safely through the story. In sum, I like Two-brochuresWeb-opti--5902mystery stories with intricate puzzles, twists and turns that challenge my cognitive abilities (such as they are), but also those with swift action and continuing threats to the detectives (amateur or professional) that appeal to my emotions.

Raymond Chandler, the famous detective novel writer–creator of Philip Marlowe–said he didn’t care for manor-house mysteries because the entire value of the book is contained in the final chapter, the denouement. He said each chapter of a mystery should be rewarding itself, without regard to whodunit.

One of the ways a mystery novel can do that, in addition to providing compelling characters, believable dialog and necessary action, is to include secondary mysteries and physical challenges for the protagonists. I like to read mysteries that continually throw obstacles in the way of the main characters so they must solve intervening questions before they can ultimately succeed.

To me then, the best mystery stories appeal to the head and to the heart.

That’s what I tried to do in Death in Nostalgia City. The book has 74 chapters in just more than 300 pages. Each chapter is not self-contained, but it includes something unique, something that puzzles, challenges, or startles the reader or keeps the plot moving quickly forward.  Anxiety ridden–some say crazy–ex-cop Lyle Deming and Kate Sorensen, the gutsy theme park PR director and former college basketball player, are constantly tested and their progress hindered by circumstances and the mystery they’re trying to solve. At times they’re also in physical jeopardy.

There’s always something happening.

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Next time: Checklist of elements for a good mystery

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