Nostalgia City Mysteries

By Mark S. Bacon

Category Archives: death

Get a load of this one, will ya

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The Barefoot Stiff, a Maggie Sullivan short story
M. Ruth Myers
Tuesday House
16 pages $.99 Kindle

Looks like the scrappy female PI is in trouble again. A man “who looked large enough for a prize fighter through the shoulders” busts into her office demanding something. She pleads ignorance. “Keep lying,” the hulking stranger says, “and I’ll make you sorry, toots.”

Toots, is depression-era gumshoe Maggie Sullivan, creation of Shamus Award-winning author M. Ruth Myers. Sullivan makes her living exploring dark alleys, getting beat up and cracking wise as well as any male detective of the literary era.

Homicide lieutenant Freeze is questioning Sullivan about the case she’s working on:

Two assistants who trailed Freeze everywhere leaned against the wall. One was taking notes while his pal memorized my legs.

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Great moments in the history of anxiety

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“Fear rots the faculties.”
–Cornell Woolrich, “Deadline at Dawn”

 In a few days, my publisher will release my novel, Death in Nostalgia City. Not my first book but my first novel. A debut mystery is the industry term and it’s appropriate as I feel not unlike a tense debutant taking tentative steps onto a stage, hoping for the approbation of her society.

Writing in general is nervous work. Novelist Shirley Hazzard said, “The state that you need to write in is the state that others are paying large sums to get rid of.” But at least, with any luck, an anxious mystery writer can transfer that feeling, so necessary to the genre, onto paper.Anxious author 3 tiny  6151

I’ve experienced several levels of anxiety during the creation of my book. (See photo.) In this case, it was the production stages and the promotional planning, rather than the writing, that seem to have challenged my sangfroid.

Although I’ve had my writing critiqued and edited thousands of times–dedicated writers crave editing–my publisher’s multiple editing process was a bit unnerving, confusing. Then there’s the two biggest tasks that await a writer whose manuscript has been sufficiently vetted: approving a cover design and obtaining blurbs.

In this case, the cover design was the easy part, though not a short process. Ultimately designer Jacci Wilson created just the right cover.  It conveys the fact (a) that this is a mystery novel–although any title with the word “death” in it is likely a crime story–and (b) that the setting for the crimes is the desert near old Route 66. The cover also shows a hint of a town and an amusement park in the distance. That’s where the story’s headed.Final Cover front +++

The second of the two required tasks is to obtain blurbs. For the uninitiated, a blurb is a flattering quote about a book, preferably from an authority or well-known person, which is plastered on the cover. You’ve seen them.

These days, one or two blurbs seems not sufficient to establish a writer’s credibility. Many books have one or more pages of quotes attesting to the author’s talent, the incredibly involving content of the book and the necessity for readers to cease all productive activities in their lives until they’ve finished the tome.

One of the first places I went looking for a blurb was the Boston Globe. As a large part of my book takes place in Boston, I contacted a respected Globe feature writer offering her my manuscript for review. Turns out, reporter Beth Teitell has written books too, and was wise to my ploy. “You’re on a blurb quest,” she said.

Indeed. Fortunately, I managed to receive good blurb comments not only from other mystery writers, but from people in specialized fields–such as oldies music, theme parks and 60s/70s culture and trivia–that are part of the subject matter of my book.

With those two tasks behind me, I’ll be dividing my time between promoting the book and trying to write Nostalgia City volume II. Either of these tasks can easily be a full-time job. Pass the tranquilizers.

Post script.   My book was supposed to be available for advance orders on Amazon, a couple of weeks prior to its release. Today, in addition to noticing that the thumbnail of my book cover looks cloudy on Amazon (ditto for B&N), I also saw that the print version of the book is available for sale earlier than I expected. Also, the Kindle and print versions are not linked.  I’m told that after the Oct. 4 release date the listings will be combined.

Amazon and my publisher will sort things out. In the meantime,  read the first four chapters of the book here, on my website.  My reluctant investigators Lyle and Kate have some exciting surprises for you.

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I’m often asked if I have advice for people just starting out to be writers. My advice: Some less stressful jobs might be worth exploring, like crab fishing in the arctic, testing experimental aircraft or painting radio towers.

Follow Woolrich down this alley

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The Black Path of Fear
by Cornell Woolrich
Ballantine Books  1982
160 pages
Price varies (available used only)

Bill Scott is honest, though obviously not the brightest guy in the world.  But he can’t help himself.  He’s in love.  Unfortunately Eve Roman, his new love, is married to a Miami mob boss.  But she loves Scott, too, so they runaway together—to Havana.

In the first few pages of Cornell Woolrich’s The Black Path of Fear, Eve is stabbed to death in a Cuban nightclub and the police blame Scott.  We get the backstory of how Scott and Mrs. Roman got together in a long flashback, but the majority of  the book—which hour-by-hour covers no more than a day and a half—describes Scott’s desperate attempts to find the murderer and clear himself.  His chances look dim.  He doesn’t speak Spanish, the police are combing the city for him, he knows no one in Havana and when it comes down to it, a big part of him doesn’t really care.  Eve is dead.

I’m working my way through Woolrich novels and short stories.  It’s a rewarding journey although Black Path is not his best.  My 1982 printing of the book (it was first published in 1944) reads almost as if it lacks a final edit.   The dialog occasionally sounds a bit off, Scott’s hat mysteriously appears in one scene—after he’d dropped it somewhere else—and he doesn’t use his love for the dead woman as an argument for his innocence.

That’s the bad news.  The good news is Woolrich takes a certainly unoriginal plot (though undoubtedly copied many times since) and builds it into a succession of nail-biting scenes in some of the most Black Path of Fearmemorably ugly, foreboding settings you can imagine.   In one scene Scott is escorted by police down a suffocatingly narrow  alley—too small to accommodate a car—in a run-down portion of Havana’s Chinatown.  The alley smelled “like asafetida and somebody burning feathers, and the lee side of a sewer.”  It was also dim.

It wasn’t of an even darkness; it was mottled darkness.  Every few yards or so an oil lamp or kerosene torch or a Chinese paper lantern, back within some doorway or some stall opening, would squirt out a puddle of light to relieve the gloom.  They were different colors, these smears, depending on the reflector they filtered through: orange and sulphur-green, and once even a sort of purple-red, were spewed around on the dirty walls like grape juice.

In another scene Scott is feeling his way in pitch darkness across a silent and seemingly empty skid-row office when something pricks his ear.  It’s a clever, suspenseful set-up that leads to a creative result.

Scott is similar to many Woolrich protagonists, an ordinary guy dumped into extraordinary circumstances and challenged to save someone else, himself, his sanity, or all three.  Emotions, not only of fear, but loneliness, disgust and hopelessness often drive his plots.

She had the look on her face of someone who has just been granted a quick glimpse down into the bottommost depths of hell from the top of the stairs.  And didn’t turn away quickly enough.

Woolrich was a noir master.  Although he’s not as well known as Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, according to his biographer Woolrich influenced not only the French Roman noir novels but the bleak Hollywood crime dramas, film noir.

To me, noir represents not only a grim, dark setting or plot, but a style of writing. And Woolrich’s style is unmistakable: “Silence fell, and we kicked it around between us for a while.”

Like the majority of Woolrich’s novels and short stories, Black Path was dramatized, in this case, many times: One of several radio versions starred Cary Grant (1946), the movie version (1946) starred Robert Cummings and Peter Lorre and a TV drama (1954) had James Arness as Scott.

Black Path was one of Woolrich’s “black” series in the 1940s, when the author was in his prime, cranking out so many thrilling novels that he released some under two pen names, William Irish and George Hopley.  Biographer Francis Nevins, Jr. called Woolrich the Poe of the Twentieth Century.  Black Path is an entertaining, compelling read, but stick with Woolrich titles for the whole dark ride through the 1940s.

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