Nostalgia City Mysteries

Mark S. Bacon

About mbaconauthor

Mystery writer and journalist; former newspaper police reporter.

Escape Covid-19; Get lost in a book

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Survival guide part 2

Spring is here, and no one is celebrating.  

But once you’ve taken all the sensible precautions and are staying home and safe (and have on a clean pair of pajamas) you have options to make life more enjoyable.  A positive attitude is a good start.  You control what’s going on in your head.  Why not focus on something other than the virus.  Pick up a book.  

Welcome to my survival guide, based on simple things I’ve been doing to offset the grim news.

My coping advice began with cookies (see part 1).  Next, dive into a good novel and get transported away. Getting lost in a mystery lets you take a brief but necessary vacation from reality.  The respite can revive and help you reassess priorities. If you’re working outside your house or are busy home schooling your kids, squeeze in an hour or so of reading when you can. It’s an easy and inexpensive way to escape the uncertain present. 

My wife and I were away from home in California when the Covid-19 alarms belatedly started to sound and Governor Gavin Newsom issued one of the first lock-down orders in the country. To get home we had to drive through the Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevadas, but a series of snow storms had taken up residence. Add to that I had acquired a sinus infection—something that had me taking my temperature every few hours to be sure it wasn’t you-know-what. I was sick and  stuck in our tiny vacation rental, so I turned to books.

Here are recommendations and a caution.

Praise for Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is everywhere.  It’s a beautiful coming of age story, an invitation to explore and appreciate nature—from frolicking microscopic life to squawking gulls—a love story of sorts and a meditation on social isolation. It’s also a mystery. Blended seamlessly, these elements create a story that will carry you away to the coastal marshlands of North Carolina and make you forget just about all else.  It was the first book I read when the lock-down began and was just what I needed.

 

Next, when the bad news completely seeped into my consciousness, I reached for The Plague by Albert Camus. I’d read it years ago and still had it on my Kindle. Very timely I thought, but I couldn’t read more than a few chapters.  It’s too realistic. First, the rats start dying…  It’s a classic by the French existentialist author, complete with allegory, but not for now.

 

 

I’ve been working my way through Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer PI series and picked up The Zebra Striped Hearse. This complex story, published in 1962, begins with a rich ex-military man hiring Archer to dig up dirt on his daughter’s fiancée who he suspects of being a gold digger. The repressed 24-year-old daughter has fallen for an itinerant artist who’s been traveling under a variety of aliases.

Macdonald displays his Chanderesque style—“The officers on duty took turns looking at my license as if it was something I’d found in a box of breakfast cereal”—and propels his protagonist through multiple deaths and locales from rural Mexico to Malibu to Tahoe. It’s an emotional ride populated mostly by melancholy characters and it comes with a twist-upon-twist ending. The book appeals to your head and heart. 

The Cohen Bros are reportedly working on a film version that, from early accounts, will carry the novel’s name and little else from the book.

 

Takeoff by Joseph Reid is a thriller with mystery elements revealed gradually through the fast-moving story.  The foundation of the book is the well-rendered relationship between Max, a rising sixteen-year-old female rock star, and Seth Walker an emotionally vulnerable federal air marshal assigned to protect the recalcitrant phenom on a cross-country flight.  When they land at LAX instead of handing off Max and getting back to his regular job, Walker and his charge are greeted with automatic weapons fire. The two go on the run, pursued by unknown gunmen while Walker suspects betrayal by federal agents.  Walker is an electrical engineer with more than a dozen patents to his name and uses his ingenuity to keep he and Max alive while he tries to uncover details in the young girl’s past that may be influencing her present.  Likable characters in bad trouble make for an engrossing read.

 

My next read, after we’d finally made it home, was a book I’d purchased a few years before and never had much time for.  Know the feeling? The Big Book of Pulps is a collection of dozens of noir stories from the 1920s through 1940s. The table of contents looks like a directory of the best authors in the genre.  Rather than begin at the beginning, I started with my favorite authors. The book contains three stories each by Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich and Dashiell Hammett. Other authors include James. M. Cain; Carroll John Daly, credited with writing the first U.S. detective novel; and Earl Stanley Gardner. In one Gardner story, Ken Corning, precursor to Perry Mason, leaps on the running board of a car and battles gunmen. Not the deft courtroom-style exchange you might expect from watching Raymond Burr.

Each story is introduced with commentary by Otto Penzler, editor and owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City.  He provides useful biographical information on the authors, background on the stories and when and where each was originally published.  As the book’s title suggests, all the stories were first published in inexpensive pulp mystery magazines such as The Black Mask.

At 1,163 pages and weighing more than two pounds it requires two hands, a table or bookstand to read comfortably.  Each page contains two columns of type so the book may actually be much longer than its page count indicates.  In addition to short stories, the book includes two complete novels.

The last episode of my survival guide, on movies, will arrive in this space tomorrow

What to eat, read and watch while you’re quarantined

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Part 1

My survival kit includes Toll House cookies, good mystery novels and classic noir films

 

I’m a slow learner.  But yesterday I dredged up useful cooking tips from a silt-laden inlet of my brain to help me turn out a batch of Toll House cookies.  They are the quintessential homemade comfort sweet to help you through the days ahead.  Chocolate is a mood enhancer; dark chocolate contains antioxidants.  So let’s talk cookies. 

While I’m at it, I will recommend some good mysteries I’ve been reading and offer a few words about streaming noir. Here is my survival guide, a delicious tonic for your confined isolation and a supplement to the daily dose of numbers TV news so efficiently serves you.

Chocolate chip cookies are as American as baseball, which regrettably is on hiatus, and they’ve been a hit since 1937 when Ruth Graves Wakefield accidentally invented them. She and her husband Kenneth started the Toll House Inn near New Bedford, Massachusetts, in the 1930s. According to the Facts About Chocolate website, Mrs. Wakefield wanted to bake chocolate cookies one day but didn’t have any Baker’s chocolate.  Substituting, she chopped up a Nestle semi-sweet chocolate bar and stirred it into her dough.  The chocolate was supposed to melt and spread throughout the dough.  It didn’t, and the chocolate chip cookie was born.   

Unfortunately for Mrs. Wakefield, in 1939 she sold the recipe to Nestle for $1, according to a 2013 New Yorker article, although she became a paid consultant for Nestle, published successful cookbooks and her Toll House name will forever be attached to the cookie.

As to the recipe, it has no doubt changed over the years, but the one you find on the back of the yellow Nestle semi-sweet morsels package can hardly be improved upon.  As we live at 5,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada foothills, I modify most cookie recipes for the altitude and I occasionally experiment with different recipes, but for Toll House, I stick to the package.  It even includes perfect high-altitude adjustments. Be sure to stir in pecans.

Over the years I’ve learned a few things to make the chocolate chip baking experience a little easier—mainly on the clean-up. Having baked these addicting treats for more years than I care to admit, improvements in my technique sadly have come but slowly. 

One recent revelation involves the annoyance of being showered by flour dust as you add dry ingredients to the butter, sugar and eggs in a running mixer.  I figured out—all on my own—that if you stop the mixer, pour in some of the flour mixture and use a spoon to cover it with the batter already in the bowl, you can start beating again without the snow storm.

My second epiphany: parchment. Even though I use insulated cookie sheets to prevent burning, Toll House cookies sometimes stick. Simple solution: put a sheet of baking parchment on the cookie sheet.  The cookies will slide right off the sheet.  I realize this is not a culinary secret known only to an exclusive set of Cordon Bleu pastry chefs, but for someone who bakes just two or three times a year, it was a breakthrough.  One tip that might be a little less than a century or two old:  get a non-stick silicone baking mat. 

After you’ve eaten half the batch of chocolate chip cookies, even before you’ve pulled the last cookie sheet out of the oven, you might want a change of pace.  (Full disclosure: I have eaten about seven—no, maybe eight cookies—in the time it took me to write this.)  The change of pace I recommend is one of the easiest cookie recipes I’ve ever seen. I received the recipe for these delicious treats from my daughter in law, Brandi.  Taste them and you won’t believe there’s only three ingredients—and that they are so easy to make:

Brandi’s Peanut Butter Cookies

Ingredients:
1 egg
1 cup of peanut butter – crunchy style optional
1 cup sugar

Mix all ingredients and bake at 350 degrees for 8 minutes or until they are light brown.  As they cool on a rack, the cookies will become firm. I’ve been using massively rounded teaspoonfuls to make a good-sized cookie.

Now that you’re getting comfy with a plate of cookies and milk, (or tea or coffee), the next step is a good book.  My reviews include Where the Crawdads Sing, a sort-of mystery; The Zebra Striped Hearse, an oldie from one of the masters of the PI genre; a chilling story of contagion from a Nobel-winning author; an unabridged-dictionary-size collection of short noir, and more. 

The next episode of my survival guide will arrive in this space tomorrow.

Links:

A history of the chocolate-chip cookie, The New Yorker  https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/sweet-morsels-a-history-of-the-chocolate-chip-cookie

Facts About Chocolate  https://facts-about-chocolate.com/history-of-chocolate-chip-cookies/

Nestle chocolate chip cookie recipe  https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/174864/original-nestle-toll-house-chocolate-chip-cookies/

Rock music: setting a tone for murder?

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The Marijuana Murders

Nostalgia City, the theme park setting for the mysteries in this series, is a 1970s town complete with period cars, clothes, hairstyles, music, fashions, food, fads—the works.  One of the most important of those elements is music.  In The Marijuana Murders (as in the previous Nostalgia City books) I use the names of real songs (and artists) to establish the decades-past setting of the park and sometimes to contribute to the mood of individual scenes or chapters.

It helps if you remember some of the songs or at least recognize the names of the old singers and groups.  Recollection of the music can help you slip into the ambiance of a scene, and nowhere is music more important to a setting than in Chapter 3 when Kate walks into the park’s famous headshop.  Imagine the aroma of incense, the fluorescent glow of psychedelic posters, and the sound of Ravi Shankar’s sitar.

In this book, Lyle has chosen a few bars of Chuck Mangione for his cell phone ringer.  He uses an upbeat section of Mangione’s Grammy-nominated “Feels So Good” from 1977.  Lyle must have chosen the selection on a particularly bright day considering the grief he faces in the novel.

Two other notable songs from the book are “Treat her Like a Lady by the Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose and “Take It to the Limit” by the Eagles.  It’s the rhythm of the former song that sets a pace in a later chapter and the lyrics of the latter song that more accurately reflect Lyle’s general feelings.

The books ends with the light touch of Olivia Newton-John singing “Magic.” The song sat at #1 on Billboard’s pop chart for four weeks in 1980. Other groups and artists mentioned include The Village People, Barry White, The Monkees, The Who, Captain and Tennille, and The Animals. 

Finally, to get into the retro spirit of the book, try to remember these oldies, also mentioned:  “Along Comes Mary” – The Association, “Puff the Magic Dragon” – Peter, Paul and Mary, “Maggie Mae” – Rod Stewart.

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