Nostalgia City Mysteries

Mark S. Bacon

Category Archives: book review

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

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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!

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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.

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

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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.

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

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