Death in Nostalgia City

By Mark S. Bacon

Help! How can I get this thing started?

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Where, or, more accurately, how do you start a mystery novel? Certainly not with the familiar dark and stormy night, the now-cliched beginning penned 185 years ago by British novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

When I began writing my mystery/suspense novel, Death in Nostalgia City, I, like many authors, agonized over the first few sentences.   I tried one thing then another, turning to help from writer friends and finally settling on something, only to change it just before I submitted the manuscript to my publisher.

First sentences are something like first impressions when you meet someone. Writers try to impress, intrigue, attract. They have a story to tell and they want to begin in a way that encourages you to dig in.

With a mystery, there’s usually murder involved.  Why not start with that?

“Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.” That’s how Graham Greene began his dark 1938 tale, Brighton Rock.

Jonathan Kellerman used a short murder sentence to begin The Murder Book, his 2002 novel.  “The day I got the murder book, I was still thinking about Paris.”Web-opti-gun-&-paper-Es5914

Short, declarative sentences. That gets your attention and draws you into the story. Here’s another one, this from noir master James M. Caine. He began his famous, The Postman Always Rings Twice this way: “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.”

First sentences can do more than just attract attention. Some writers and editors suggest first sentences that introduce readers to a character, a setting, or both.

An excellent example of this comes from an acclaimed, but non-mystery writer, William Kennedy. The beginning of his 1983 Ironweed accomplishes these objectives with grace.

     Riding up the winding road of Saint Agnes Cemetery in the back of the rattling old truck, Francis Phelan became aware that the dead, more than the living, settled down in neighborhoods.

Elmore Leonard famously said, “Never open a book with weather,” but that’s exactly what many authors have done, including Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep:

     It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.

Mystery writer Lilian Jackson Braun used weather to begin The Cat Who Tailed a Thief in 1997: “It was a strange winter in Moose County, 400 miles north of everywhere.”

Leonard himself was no slouch with beginnings. In his 1988 novel, Freaky Deaky, he introduces his character and setting in one sentence that has you immediately engrossed in the story:

     Chris Manowski’s last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb.

I don’t think there’s a single formula for a successful beginning, but I think some of the most successful have discernible objectives.

In his 2007 mystery, Tahoe Silence, writer Todd Borg uses his first sentence not only to introduce the title character of the book, but also to draw us into the world of the autistic girl named Silence.

     At the first roar of the motorcycles on Pioneer Trail, Silence shut her eyes, tucked her sketchbook under her left arm and plugged her ears with her fingers, turning inward, retreating to her safe zone.

The objective of just attracting your attention quickly can be effective and a quotation can be an easy way to do it.

      “Not a bad-looking burglar,” he said. “I don’t suppose you’d happen to have a decent alibi?”

That’s the way Lawrence Block began, The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams (1994), using a light touch. Humor can put a reader in a good mood to continue reading and, at the same time, introduce a setting or character as Nevada Barr does in the beginning of 2001’s Blood Lure:

     With the exception of a nine-week-old Australian shepherd puppy, sniffing and whining as if he’d discovered a treasure chest and sought a way inside, everyone was politely pretending Anna didn’t stink.

I wanted to use a light touch to introduce my story and my protagonist, ex-cop Lyle Deming. The book’s retro focus comes from the theme park, Nostalgia City, a re-creation of an entire small town from the late 1960s / early 1970s. Lyle, who drives a cab in the park, fits in due, in part, to his view of modernity. I wanted to show this, and introduce him in the beginning.

     Whose idea was it to replace the chrome knobs and push buttons on car radios with touch screens?   Lyle didn’t have a clue.

Noir didn’t end with Spade and Marlowe

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In this guest post, mystery author Jack DeWitt examines the basis of noir films, comparing them to dark movies of other periods.  DeWitt’s diverse writing background includes a study of hot rodding, “Cool Cars, High Art: The rise of Kustom Kulture” and several books of poetry.  He wrote an irregular column, “Cars and Culture” for “ The American Poetry Review” for a number of years. He taught at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia where he is now professor emeritus.

 

Noir is an attitude, a mood, a genre, a style or it can be just a set of values. The name came from French critics writing about the raft of dark-themed movies that emerged from Hollywood during and just after WWII, movies like Out of the Past, The Big Sleep, Murder My Sweet, and The Postman Always Rings Twice. They were films of the night shot in black and white on mean streets in dark shadows that gave the genre its name.

Jack-De-Witt-mug-Web-opti

Jack DeWitt

But it is hard to find a war that didn’t leave noir elements in its wake (even the Odyssey has it noir moments). The aftermath of World War One’s stupidity and senseless slaughter produced the Lost Generation and Hemingway’s alienated heroes. The Vietnam era produced its own versions of darkly paranoid heroes trapped in equally dark and threatening worlds in films like The Parallax View, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Conversation, and Death Wish. The year 1982’s John Rambo in First Blood could have been a classic noir hero if he weren’t pumped with so many steroids and if the film weren’t just silly.

It is notable that even a “good war” like WWII left the West suffering a crisis of belief—the horrors of Fascism were matched by the equal horrors of the atomic bomb and communist expansion. The competing systems of thought– Fascism, Capitalism and Communism–all seemed bankrupt in the late 40’s.   Noir films dismantle the innocent enthusiasm that characterized so much of the war effort—GI-Joe has PTSD and Rosie the Riveter has become a femme fatale. It is a bleak and hostile world.

As an almost universal response to war and periods of economic dislocation, noir features men, mostly, disillusioned by war, crippled by guilt, fueled by lust, and trapped in a universe of malevolent forces. They are victimized by sheer chance and their own limited capacity to act. They are betrayed by friends and enemies, wives and lovers, and crooks and cops. In noir the moral underpinnings of the world have been stripped away and the hero/anti-hero can, at best, rely on only the bare bones of a personal code–like Spade’s refusal to accept his partner’s murder despite the fact that he disliked him and was sleeping with his wife—or on the base human drives of greed, desire and revenge.

“Gi-Joe has PTSD and Rosie the Riveter
has become a femme fatale.”

It is not surprising after two recent failed wars, we find a re-emergence of noir themes embodied in alienated yet amazingly skilled men and women who, even when cybernetically or genetically altered, are just as alienated and morally ambiguous as the drifters, con-men, psychopaths, thieves, private eyes, and outsiders that populate the classic noir of the Forties.

Today we see hit men, trained assassins, ex-GI or CIA, computer hackers all caught up in a dangerous world where the enemy is as likely to be the US Government or a major corporation as a foreign terrorist organization or an enemy state. This contemporary noir is very dark, paranoid and disillusioned, but it differs from the classic noir in that it still holds the possibility of effective action by the individual hero. Agent 47, Bourne, Hannah, Wolverine, Nikita, and Marv of Sin City—all triumph against impossible odds. But they are pumped up, genetically or mechanically manipulated, trained and equipped with exaggerated cartoon-like skills. They are products as much as persons. They dispatch the villains, derail the plot, expose the conspiracy, get revenge and then retreat toDeWitt-book-cover-Web-Opti the sidelines until the next threat appears.

There is a lot of retro-noir available like LA Confidential, Hollywoodland, The Black Dahlia, Mulholland Drive, and, the best, Chinatown, that preserve the classic elements of the original noir while adding increased sophistication and better production values.

I prefer classic noir because it resists the appeal of the final triumph—the satisfying resolution. Its heroes or anti-heroes are never super-men or women. Much contemporary noir is what I call comic book noir whether or not the hero is a superhero or derived from a comic book. For me these heroes are too skilled, too competent and too lucky to compel my interest for long. My own hero, Varian Pike (Delicious Little Traitor), who takes cases in the 40’s and ‘50’s, is a very human investigator. He often makes mistakes and frequently finds himself in over his head. Even when he solves a mystery involving the power elite, things change very little. He is a limited man in a limited world that is frequently out to get him. But he does have a code. And it’s a good code.

–Jack DeWitt

Delicious Little Traitor A Varian Pike Mystery will be available on Amazon, iBookstore, B&N, and from BlackOpalBooks.com, on Jan. 10.

Visit DeWitt at: www.jackdewitt.com

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.

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