Nostalgia City Mysteries

By Mark S. Bacon

Author Hagerty mixes historical fact with mystery fiction

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David Hagerty has penned four books in the Duncan Cochrane mystery series about an ambitious businessman who decides to run for Governor of Illinois. Six weeks before election day, his daughter is murdered in his mansion along the Chicago lakefront. All four books detail the fallout from that case on his family and his state. 

Hagerty presently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Here he talks about his approach to the mystery genre, his real-life settings and his inspirations.

 

What inspired your series?

All of my books started with real events. The first, They Tell Me You Are Wicked, was inspired by the murder of U.S. Sen. Charles Percy’s daughter six weeks before his first election in 1966. It is the most famous crime in the history of my hometown, Kenilworth, Illinois, and one that allowed me to blend my pet themes of crime and politics.

The other books riffed off Mayor Jane Byrne’s decision to move into the city’s most infamous housing project after a series of sniper killings there, the Tylenol poisonings, and the Innocence Project. For me, these events hold as much prominence in Chicago lore as the bootlegging of Al Capone or the death of John Dillinger. 

 

Why set your mystery series in the 70s/80s?

In Chicago, it constituted the end of an era in politics. Richard J. Daley, who’d held the mayor’s office and the city for nearly two decades, had just passed away. His democratic Machine was fragmented by conflicting interests and a vacuum of leadership. It seemed the perfect time to introduce an ambitious, naive aspirant to the Second City’s throne.

 

Since your books take place decades ago, you can’t use some of the modern crime fighting technology.

I’d rather not depend on science in a story. Cell phones, CSI tricks, and modern science dilute the story and rob the characters of agency. I prefer the style of Foyle’s War, where the detective has to figure things out from clues. Thus, setting a mystery in an era before DNA appealed to me.

 

Why do you use pop culture in your books?

When I started this series, I struggled with how best to capture the time. Unlike TV or movies, where visual cues often identify the period, I didn’t want to spend too much ink on describing the blender or the telephone a character is using. Instead, I pulled in references to cue the reader, such as the movies or songs that are playing.

David Hagerty

I also used period slang for several of the characters, both because I think it spices up the dialogue and because it’s true to the time. Not every character, of course. I don’t want the attorney general saying “groovy.” Just enough so everyone has his or her own sound.

 

You also have a penchant for real places.

Chicago has so much history and so many iconic places, I decided it was better to include those than to fabricate a locale. So I used the Palmer House and Drake hotels, two of the city’s most prestigious. My characters eat at Manny’s Deli and the Billy Goat Tavern, two local dives popular with politicians and journalists. They live in the Marina Towers and work in the John Hancock Center. I want readers to learn about the city’s past and its famous (and obscure) habitats.  Continue Reading →

“Detour” – Worst noir film ever?

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“Did you ever want to forget anything? Did you ever want to cut away a piece of your memory and black it out?”

That’s what nightclub piano player Al Roberts asks viewers in the 1945 film, Detour.  And it’s what you may say after you’ve seen this low-budget noir movie filmed in a week or so with cheap sets, cheesy dialog and shortcuts in staging that make it treasure trove of cinema bloopers.

It’s not quite bad enough to be unintentionally funny—like some campy 1950s sci fi flick—but close. I’ve written about many of the superb noir pictures from the 1930s and ’40s and thought it would be interesting to look an example at the other end of the genre’s quality spectrum.  Is Detour the worst of the worst?  Some critics say no, even praise the film.  Roger Ebert, however, was not one of them.

Detour is a movie so filled with imperfections that it would not earn the director a passing grade in film school,” Ebert wrote.  “This movie from Hollywood’s poverty row, shot in six days, filled with technical errors and ham-handed narrative, starring a man who can only pout and a woman who can only sneer, should have faded from sight soon after it was released.”

But it hasn’t.

Tom Neal plays Al Roberts, the piano player.  He and his singer girlfriend, Sue, work in the same New York club.  He wants to get married but Sue tells him she wants to go to Hollywood to become a star.  They discuss the future as they stroll down a fog shrouded street. 

A location shot in New York must have been too expensive, so a fog machine clouds the Hollywood back lot so heavily that the scene could be New York. Or Bakersfield. There  aren’t even any establishing shots of Time’s Square or the Empire State Building.

Regardless, Sue heads for California and Roberts stays behind long enough to get lonely and decides to hitch hike across the country to see his girl.

To show Robert’s route, scenes of him thumbing a ride are interspersed with shots of a US roadmap.  The camera naturally pans along the map from right to left—east to west.  And when we see Roberts getting lifts, the cars are traveling right to left too—a cinematic convention to show westward travel.   

The problem, however, is that the vehicles all appear to be right-hand drive, traveling on the left side of the road—English fashion.  Ebert theorized that director Edgar Ulmer flipped the negative when he realized that conventional film grammar would call for right to left travel when moving west.  As a result, in one scene when a truck stops to pick up Roberts, he jumps in on the driver’s side.

Eventually the direction of travel straightens out when Roberts is picked up by a guy named Haskell who tells him he’s a bookie on his way to California to make money so he can make a triumphant return to Florida where he lost everything on one race.

 “One race.  Thirty eight grand. They cleaned out my book,” Haskell tells Roberts.  “How do you like that?”

 “That was tough luck.”

“Yeah and I’m supposed to be the smart guy. You just wait. I’m going back to Florida next season with all kinds of jack.  You watch those stinkers run for cover.”

Ann Savage and Tom Neal on the way to California pouting and sneering.

Roberts doesn’t seem to know what to make of the snappy repartee, but he sticks with Haskell who has been gulping some sort of pills that he keeps in the glove box.  When Roberts spells Haskell at the wheel, he’s forced to pull over during a rain storm to put up the car’s convertible top.  He gets out of the car and goes to the passenger side where Haskell is apparently sleeping.  But when Roberts opens the door, Haskell’s unconscious body falls out, his head hitting a rock. He’s dead.

What is Roberts to do?  Drive the body to the next town and call police?  Flag down another motorist for help?  Wish that cell phones had been invented in 1945?

Inexplicably, he feels trapped and reasons that asking for help and telling the story to police, is a bad idea. “They’d laugh at the truth and I’d have my head in a noose,” he says to himself in the self-pitying tone of his narration that runs throughout the movie.  So what else was there to do except hide the body, steal the man’s money, car and clothes and take over his identity.

Later in his journey Roberts is reluctantly mixed up with Vera (Ann Savage), a scheming young woman with a taste for alcohol and a penchant for tantrums. Nothing good—or interesting—happens to anyone through the second half of the picture.

Poor acting, clichéd writing and threadbare sets aside, Detour has a following. Fans laud the film’s overarching, non-stop bleakness as perfect noir.  But the plot’s wretched, dead-end future is only because Roberts is unbelievably foolish, taking the wrong turn at every crossroads. 

At least one critic—and fan of Detour—deconstructs the plot and theorizes that Roberts is not telling us the truth. In literary terms he’s an unreliable narrator.  Thus when he decides to dump Haskell’s body because the cops will surely blame him for a death that was likely of natural causes, he’s really misleading us.  His motive is strictly greed, but he gives viewers a more sympathetic, less selfish (albeit farfetched) excuse. 

 Whether Roberts is stupid or greedy is immaterial.  He’s still a sap—a name Vera uses on him later—in a plot that has nowhere to go. Deconstruction is not a tool to be applied to Detour.  That would be like analyzing the existential subtext of Gilligan’s Island.

But it’s not all bad.  One scene in Detour introduces a plot twist that’s so ingenious, so unexpected, it belongs in a different movie.  Hitchcock could have built an entire film around this twist.  In Detour, it’s quickly swamped by Vera’s hysterics, Roberts’ bad choices and the film’s general sloppiness.

Late in the movie Vera tells Roberts, “Your philosophy stinks pal. We all know we’re going to kick off some day. It’s only a question of when.”

And a question of whether or not you will have spent 67 minutes of your life on Detour.

A new mystery book—sort of     

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Cops, Crooks & Other Stories in 100 Words was published more than seven years ago—about the time I started this website—and I decided to take another look at the book.  The result of this look is a new edition.  I edited and revised some stories, deleted others and added about a dozen new stories with twist or mystery endings.

Can a 100-word story have a surprise ending? Yes, it’s part of the challenge. As I wrote in the introduction to the previous edition of the book, the challenge to tell a complete story in exactly 100 words is the lure of this genre.

Here is the Amazon link for the ebook:   https://amzn.to/2mIfC0s   It will soon be available at barnesandnoble.com and the other places.

Extremely short, tiny, miniscule bits of fiction have been around for a long time.  Aesop’s fables are a good example. Written in the sixth century BCE, Androcles (and the Lion) contains only 265 words, and The Ant and the Grasshopper uses only 150 words. Ernest Hemingway reputedly wrote a six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Welcome to flash fiction.  Books and a broad variety of online literary magazines and some print magazines feature these short-shorts. Actually short-shorts is not an appropriate description  as it often refers to short stories of a few pages or more, not a few paragraphs or a few sentences. Flash fiction seems to be the most commonly used name for these snippets of creative writing, although some online magazines refer to micro fiction, nano fiction, sudden fiction, or quick fiction.

As to the best length for flash fiction, there’s little agreement. Even though the 100-word limit is common, a variety of print and online magazines and published anthologies restrict flash fiction stories to 1,000, 2,500, and even 5,000 words. Compared to a 100-word tale, the longer stories could hardly be read in a flash. Wikipedia does little to establish a common length saying, “flash fiction is a fictional work of extreme brevity.”

Journals such as 100 Word Story and 101 Words need no explanation. Some other online publications are looking for what Wikipedia calls twitterature, that is, stories of 280 characters or less. Everyday Fiction sets the limit at 1,000 words but encourages writers who can tell a story in 50.  

Before publishing the first edition of this book I published stories in a variety of online flash fiction literary magazines, including my favorite, 100 Word Story.  Editor Grant Faulkner says the 100-word limit is an arbitrary marker that “forces the writer to question every word.”

It’s a good discipline. A number of years ago a friend of mine told me his writing group was working on an exercise in which they had to tell a story in just 100 words.  I had never heard of flash fiction before and was intrigued.  At first I wrote cop stories, then branched out into the variety of genres represented in the book.  More than half the stories in the new book have to do with detective work, crime, or general law enforcement.  The balance include humor, speculative fiction and a little romance.

Yes, each story contains exactly 100 words.  And you have to know the rules.  Hyphenated words count as one word and titles are not included in the word count. Numerals, even those separated by commas count as one word. The counting function on MS Word seems to have its own rules, so I count by hand as well.

I agree with Faulkner.  This genre makes you question each word.  But now that I’m spending most of my time on novel-length mysteries, I still try to remember the value of each word.

Here’s a sample story from Cops, Crooks & Other Stories in 100 Words:

 On the House

Starting her workday baking before sunrise always made Sophie’s concentration sag by 9 a.m., but looking across the counter at a gun barrel got her immediate attention.

“Gimme the money,” the gunman said.

Sophie glanced over the man’s shoulder, moved toward the cash register—then ducked.

The cop standing behind the robber threw him against the counter, as another officer grabbed the gun.

“You gotta be the dumbest crook I ever met,” said the first cop. “Okay, maybe you didn’t see our car in the lot, but really…”

“Thanks, Kelly,” Sophie said. “From now on, doughnuts are on the house.”

—————–

“…it is rather remarkable that the author is able to introduce a cast of characters, set a stage for them to act upon, and play out a scenario—sometimes involving cops and crooks—in which something unexpected happens, all in exactly 100 words.”
MysteriousReviews.com

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