Death in Nostalgia City

By Mark S. Bacon

Glass Key: A lesser known Hammett Classic

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The Glass Key
Dashiell Hammett
Vintage 214 pages
$9.99 Kindle, $11.38 trade paper

Tall, lean Ned Beaumont smokes green-dappled cigars. He’s a gambler and sometimes deep thinker. Absently, he strokes his moustache with a thumbnail. Professionally, he’s a fixer for big-city political boss Paul Madvig. Beaumont is not above violence, a little blackmail and the necessary bribery that goes into keeping a metropolitan political machine running. He has a code, however expedient it might seem, and Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key is all about how far Beaumont is willing to go to protect and serve Madvig.

There’s enough seedy, dark atmosphere here for several noir novels, but Hammett is the father of the genre, so you expect nothing less. Reviewing this story, which The-Glass-Key-new-cover blends murder, politics, blind love and friendships pushed to the limit, from a perspective of more than 80 years after it was first printed, poses problems. Because Hammett pioneered scenes with street lights casting deep shadows across people’s faces, furtive looks and street-tough, depression era dialog, you get the feeling you’ve heard this all before. For example, the little we learn of Beaumont’s background is that Madvig picked him up out of the gutter and gave him a job. Heard that before? Perhaps Hammett lifted the line from Dickens or someone else, but in The Glass Key, he owns the tough-talk dialog and everything that came later is just a copy.

The story is relatively simple, again something we’ve seen bits of before in later dramas and novels. Madvig wants to put his political power behind Senator Henry for re-election. Beaumont counsels against it but realizes that his advice will not likely be heeded because Madvig is in love with the senator’s daughter. When the senator’s son is found murdered, there’s enough suspects to go around.

Beaumont is not a detective, but his knowledge of the unidentified eastern city’s underworld—and crooked politicians—gives him several leads to chase. Before he can start sorting out the murder, however, he has to find a bookie, Bernie Despain, who has scrammed with $3,250 of Beaumont’s winnings. That accomplished, Beaumont is beaten up, tortured and lied to, not necessarily in that order, as he deals with a sycophantic DA, a sadistic mob boss and women who are not quite what they seem.

Hammett relies on facial expressions to communicate characters’ personalities and emotions.

His hair was a florid stubble above a florid, pugnacious face.

He moved the corners of his mouth impatiently.

His face was tired and sallow.

Her face was a tinted statue’s.

The-Glass-Key-vintage-coverIn combination with facial expressions, he gives the reader a generous dose of noir dialog.

“How far has this dizzy blond daughter of his got her hooks into you?”  

“What’s the idea,” He demanded. “What’s the idea of talking to the little lady like that?”

The Glass Key was written in 1931, just after The Maltese Falcon and before The Thin Man, two of his more famous novels. It was turned into two films, a 1935 version with George Raft and a 1942 movie with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Neither film is available on Netflix and only the 1942 film can be found on Amazon.

Hammett takes Beaumont on a circuitous journey–almost Kafkaesque at times–to find murderers, to find the truth and to find himself. It’s a journey most readers will enjoy and for students of noir it offers similarities and stark differences with the Falcon which preceded it.

Questions will haunt you until the last page

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Tahoe Ghost Boat
Todd Borg
384 Pages
Thriller Press
$14.97 trade paper / $3.99 Kindle

Owen McKenna has been in tight situations before but this might top them all.

McKenna gets a frantic cellphone call from a woman who says she’s being followed on the highway at that moment. After tangling with the woman’s pursuer, the Tahoe private eye meets his new client: Nadia Lassitor. She tells McKenna that her husband is dead from a boating accident and she’s being threatened and blackmailed via anonymous emails asking for $2 million—the amount of her husband’s life insurance. Nadia is self-absorbed and focused on clothes, cars and make up and McKenna tells her so.

But this is mostly the story of Nadia’s daughter, Gertie O’Leary, who lives with her father, Nadia’s ex-husband, because Nadia didn’t want custody. Gertie’s father is neglectful and sees his 15-year-old daughter when he’s not at work or at a bar.Tahoe-Ghost-Boat

Author Borg gives us the sad but not hopeless life story of this lonely teen as she becomes the focal point for a deadly, violent conflict involving several seemingly deranged murderers including Mikhailo the Monster, as the FBI calls him, a mixed martial arts expert.

Nadia’s deceased husband, Ian Lassitor, a less-than-ethical Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and a reclusive old woman who speaks to McKenna only through her front door figure into the story that steps up its pace quickly and doesn’t slow down until the end.

Two elements of the book particularly shine: the exploration and development of Gertie’s abilities, dreams and doubts and the book’s conclusion that ties everything together—even things you forgot about—into a tight package.

And of course Borg doesn’t neglect the light touches: “He answered with a six-pack slur in his speech.”

This solid 12th installment of the series raises your interest (and excitement) level with each page.

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.

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