Nostalgia City Mysteries

Mark S. Bacon

About mbaconauthor

Mystery writer and journalist; former newspaper police reporter.

Have you read Lawrence Sanders’ McNally books?


Review: McNally’s Caper  

Mystery and PI novels often feature clever, sympathetic detectives, people you like or at least respect. McNally’s Caper doesn’t. Unless Inspector Clouseau is your idea of a stylish sleuth.

These are harsh words from someone who has never read any other books by this Edgar-winning, million-selling, near-legendary author. Sanders became famous in 1970 with The Anderson Tapes, a crime novel quickly adapted to film. Before his death in 1998 he’d written more than two dozen crime and mystery novels including The First Deadly Sin.

Published in 1994, McNally’s Caper is one of seven books in the McNally series written by Sanders. Another author continued the series after Sanders’ death. The book stars Archy McNally, son of a wealthy Palm Beach, Fla., attorney. Archy dabbles in detection while he pampers himself with the good life in the Florida sun. There’s nothing wrong with dabbling. Many accomplished amateur detectives were dabblers. Jane Marple dabbled. Archy, however, is a different sort.

The book is written in first person so Archy runs the show, and show off he does. Okay, maybe the comparison to Inspector Clouseau is unfair. Archy is not a bumbling fool but a spoiled, smug, part-time PI. He spends an inordinate amount of time describing items in his colorful wardrobe—such as a peony-patterned sport jacket—and the gourmet meals his father’s chef serves up. (Thirtyish Archy lives at home with his parents.)

Archy suffers no inferiority complex, something he demonstrates repeatedly, and his personality so dominates the narrative that the mystery becomes secondary to the protagonist’s preening and his dashing about South Florida from his club to the crime scene and back again, dressed in an ever-changing palette. 

Archy’s style is difficult to separate from the author’s. Halfway through the book I realized exactly what bothered me. I was reminded of an admonition by Strunk and White in the classic writing manual, The Elements of Style.  Reminder #9 Do Not Affect a Breezy Manner:

The breezy style is often the work of an egocentric, the person who imagines that everything that comes to mind is of general interest and that uninhibited prose creates high spirits and carries the day.

That’s a description of Archy’s chronicle. I could only see him as a self-indulgent, foppish ne’er-do-well. Now possibly Sanders was having us on, and he intentionally created a self-indulgent, foppish ne’er-do-well. If so, McNally is a coherent character.  But he’s also insufferable.

Occasionally speaking directly to the reader is a part of Archy’s persona. 

To refresh your muzzy memory [Fern Bancroft] was the twitchy maid who had discovered the half-strangled Sylvia Forsythe…. Do try to pay attention; I hope no more reminders will be necessary.

Inexplicably, women can’t seem to stay away from him.  He beds a few attractive young ladies (one of whom was a suspect in the murder case) while making grandiose pledges of fidelity to his girlfriend Connie.

The plot of this McNally adventure is competently, if predictably, constructed. Archy is summoned by Griswold Forsythe II, a client of Archy’s father, to investigate the disappearance of various valuables from the Forsythe castle-like mansion. Forsythe II suspects someone in the household, servant or family member. The fun-house Forsythes are appropriately dysfunctional as are some of the staff.  When Forsythe II is murdered, his son, Forsythe III, the housekeeper, and a suspicious stable hand are among the suspects.

The denouement is logical and more or less satisfying but hardly worth the journey.

If you have a different opinion of Archy and his hijinks-laden exploits, please let me know.

Ross Macdonald’s ‘The Chill’ — Convoluted, complex or chilling?


It wasn’t until recently that I discovered Ross Macdonald named his detective Lew Archer after Sam Spade’s partner, Miles Archer.

Makes sense. Many critics identify Macdonald as the literary heir of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, as the writer who polished and redefined the classic detective hero.  Macdonald said Chandler was one of his (other) main inspirations. He took Philip Marlowe and added a layer of psychosocial depth. But not right away. 

According to a variety of writers, the early books in Macdonald’s 18-novel series were more hard-boiled, cynical. Later, perhaps after his sixth novel, according to today’s mystery critics, Lew Archer developed a stronger social conscience distancing him from Spade and Marlowe.

Debatable. Sam Spade has a code which he explains or demonstrates more than once in The Maltese Falcon.  In one of the final scenes, Spade says,

“When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.”

Hammett explored the theme of duty more extensively in another book, The Glass Key. But regardless, a number of Macdonald’s later books examined the responsibilities and consequences of personal relationships, especially family relationships gone bad, skeletons, black sheep, sometimes covering more than one generation.  To solve his crimes Archer looked at family and community allegiances and probed the psychological makeup of suspects and victims.

The psychological element in crime is twisted and turned and studied in The Chill, Macdonald’s 11th Archer novel. One of the initial suspects is even kept under the care of a psychiatrist for much of the book.  The plot moves from one suspect to another with a string of three murders, one dating back twenty years; another, ten years; another, two hours.  Are they connected?  That’s one of many questions Archer has to answer.

Alex Kincaid hires Archer to help him find Dolly, his wife of less than 24 hours.  The couple, in their early 20s, were spending their honeymoon at a Southern California beach hotel when Dolly disappeared.  Rebuffed by indifferent local police, Kincaid spends almost two weeks searching for Dolly in vain. Archer finds the runaway bride after only a day’s work, but the trouble for Archer and his client is only beginning.

Paul Newman was Lew Harper, not Archer, in two films made from Ross Macdonald novels.

The story takes place in a fictional Southern California city, Pacific Point, where Archer finds Dolly attending classes at a local college and chauffeuring part time for a wealthy woman. Shortly after he finds her and reunites her with her husband, Dolly suffers a mental breakdown, and confesses to shooting her college advisor, Helen Haggerty. 

Archer had met the unmarried Haggerty at the university when he was looking for Dolly.  She poured on the charm and invited Archer up her nearby house for a drink.  She tells him she’s received telephone death threats and fears for her life. She asks him to spend the night. He turns down the attractive woman’s offer.  As he drives back to his Pacific Point motel he tells himself there was “no right  thing to do—only sins of commission and omission.”

Here’s where it gets complicated, and complications soon pile on. When Archer hears Dolly’s confession, he drives back to Haggerty’s home to find her dead in a pool of blood.  In the dark he fails to stop a man running from the house.  The stranger manages to drive away, but Archer makes note of his Nevada license plate number.

From here Archer follows leads—family connections of Haggerty and Dolly—that take him to Reno and a small town in Illinois.  He suspects the murder of Haggerty and of Dolly’s mother twenty years ago are connected.  It’s a confusing spiral, but it all makes sense in the end.

As you’re sorting out the complex story, Macdonald entertains you with philosophy and bits Chandleresque humor:

Some men spend their lives looking for ways to punish themselves for having been born, and Begley had some of the stigmata of the trouble-prone.

 _ _ _ _

“You’re entitled to your opinion,” she said, as if I wasn’t.

_ _ _ _

“What are you trying to do, trap me into a mistake?”

“It’s an idea. [I said] What sort of mistake did you have I mind?”

One Goodreads reviewer said the book is “extraordinarily complex but never convoluted.”

Maybe. The last sixty pages make you think, remember. Pour over the clues, the conversations that Archer has in Pacific Point and Reno and Illinois. Is the resolution far fetched? Not really.  Archer solves it by the process of elimination.


Dark Ride Deception– sneaky preview: Secrets revealed!


As I was saying last time, I love theme parks. And since the time I worked for one, I’ve thought a theme park would be a great setting for a murder mystery.  So let’s start at the beginning.

Many, many years ago I was a young copywriter in the advertising department at Knott’s Berry Farm. At the time, Knott’s was an old west ghost town complete with roving gunslingers. It also included a charming combination of carnival type rides, shops and some new, inventive attractions.  Although I spent most of my time in an office writing ads and commercials, I had an opportunities to work on the park grounds, explore behind the scenes, and get to know some of the costumed employees who entertained guests.

Knott’s Berry Farm ghost town

Not so many years ago, when I found a publisher for my first murder mystery, the story was set in a theme park, based in part on my earlier experiences at Knott’s.  But instead of fashioning my theme park like Knott’s—or any other park—I wanted to do something different. I created an entire 1970’s small town, Nostalgia City. It’s a trip back in time, a meticulous re-creation,  complete with pet rocks, leisure suits, disco and period cars from Pontiacs to Pintos.

Four years ago, as I mentioned last time, I went to Disney World with my two grown daughters. It was a trip of a lifetime and I picked up further inspiration. Nostalgia City, I decided, needed new, high-tech dark rides, thus the title of my next book: Dark Ride Deception. A dark ride is simply theme park jargon for indoor attractions.  The old-fashioned boat ride through the tunnel of love is a dark ride dating back more than a century.

Is this the type of theme park ride that the Perception Deception Effect can create?

To supply Nostalgia City’s new dark rides, the park’s computer genius Tom Wyrick created the Perception Deception Effect. His mind-bending technology could easily eclipse the entire theme park industry. But the ride technology disappeared—along with Wyrick. Nostalgia City’s ex-cop cab driver, Lyle Deming, is drafted to find the computer wiz and recover his secrets.  The obvious places to look, Lyle’s boss tells him, are other theme parks.

Lyle is relatively tech savvy, but the details of the Perception Deception Effect prove perplexing. He gets technical help from a Nostalgia City engineer who becomes a little too over-excited about sleuthing.


The novel focuses not on high-tech minutia but on intrigue and Lyle’s struggles.


The plot is obviously based in part on the science behind dark rides, and one of the book’s characters, a Nostalgia City computer programmer, dissects one of Disney’s most famous, yet relatively unsophisticated rides.  But the novel focuses not on high-tech minutia but on intrigue and Lyle’s personal struggles as he searches for the secrets.  He hides behind a variety of false identities to investigate Florida parks—from the inside—yet when someone threatens to blow his cover…

But that’s enough of a preview.  Like I said, I love theme parks, and I loved writing about them in Dark Ride Deception. 

The book is available for preorder wherever you get your e-books.  It will be released Sept. 20.

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