Nostalgia City Mysteries

By Mark S. Bacon

Category Archives: Desert Kill Switch

How this classic car became stranded in the desert

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The Pontiac on the cover of my new book, Desert Kill Switch, is a bona fide classic.  A high-powered muscle car from the early 1970s, the Firebird is immaculately restored and lovingly maintained. How I found it is as much a mystery as the ones my amateur detectives solve in the novel.

Authors aren’t always involved in the creation of their book covers.  For my first nonfiction book I got a chance to see the cover before printing because I flew to New York to see my publisher.  On the next  book,  I saw the cover when it came out.  My present publisher, Black Opal Books, is relatively small and my editor there was open to my ideas, indeed to my work to create the cover.  I’ve done photography professionally so I planned to take the cover photo myself, then turn it over to the cover’s designer.

Finding this beautiful 1972 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am was slightly more difficult than finding the inhospitable desert scene for the cover of Desert Kill Switch.

Before I’d finished writing the book, I knew a vintage car belonged on the cover.  And a bleak desert landscape.

Vintage muscle cars, including a Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, figure prominently in the plot.  The setting of all the Nostalgia City mysteries (book #3 coming soon, I’m working on #4) is an Arizona retro theme park that recreates a 1970s small town, complete with everything from the period from music and hairstyles to stores and automobiles.  In Desert Kill Switch, protagonist Kate Sorensen supervises an exhibit booth at a vintage car and rock and roll festival in Reno, Nevada, to attract nostalgia aficionados to the Arizona park.

So with the Arizona and Nevada deserts as the locales and classic cars as the outstanding set pieces, imagining the cover photo was not difficult.  Finding a showroom-condition cruiser—and a willing owner—was a greater challenge.

I live in Reno where an actual summer retro festival, Hot August Nights, is held annually, attracting more than 6,000 classic cars from all over the U.S. and several foreign countries.  Part of my inspiration for creating Nostalgia City came from this event, Reno’s largest.

The problem was, I didn’t get around to actually deciding on a cover photo until months after the festival had ended and the beautiful wheels had rolled back to their various home towns. I might have had my pick of vintage Mustangs, T-birds, Camaros, Barracudas and other terrors of the boulevard.

Instead, I started looking locally by checking out the websites of vintage car clubs in the area.  I saw a few promising models, but I either couldn’t get in touch with the owners or they were not interested.

No sign of civilization anywhere in this shot of the Nevada Great Basin Desert. But it’s really just 30 miles north of Reno.

While I searched for a car, I also explored the area around Reno for an appropriate setting.  I wanted a photo that showed nothing but desert and hills.  No buildings, no power lines, no billboards or signs of any type.  Northern Nevada is mostly open space.  In fact, the whole state is open space, so you’d think it would not be difficult to find a suitably desolate spot.  Of course I could use Photoshop to remove utility poles or other signs of civilization, but if an image is cleaner to begin with, fewer artificial enhancements are necessary.

Reno is bordered on the west by the soaring mountains of the Sierra Nevada so that left three directions to explore, and ultimately I found my spot about 30 miles north of town.  Now I needed the car.

A Firebird Trans Am on a San Francisco car club website caught my attention.  It was similar to a car that disappears early in the book and creates the story’s first mystery.  Coincidentally, this beautiful 1972 Trans Am was owned by James Mandas of Reno.  I emailed him and he agreed to have his car pose for a photo.  This was in September.

 We had an unusually rainy winter that year and for weeks the desert area I found for the photo was wet with standing water.  Not quite the dry, barren look I sought.   We scheduled and rescheduled the photo shoot over about two months.  I was thankful for Mandas’ patience.

Ultimately a dry, sunny November morning dawned.  Mandas hauled a covered trailer containing his handsome vintage Pontiac out to the desert and I spent two hours shooting the car from a variety of angles and elevations.

I had my cover photo.

The car’s raised hood and open door signal trouble.  The driver is missing.  The mystery begins.

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Gosh, is profanity the right word?

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Obscenity and profanity in mystery novels

Second of two parts

Swear words, no matter how the hell you look at them, can be a challenge for mystery writers.  Use foul language and you risk alienating or offending some readers.  Studiously avoid profanity and your dialog, especially in scenes of stress, could sound implausible.

But gosh darn, now that I’m two columns into this discussion, I discover—thanks to an article by novelist Elizabeth Sims in Writer’s Digest online—that I’ve been using an imprecise word for naughty language.  Even naughty is not quite right.

If you do a Google search for profanity in mystery novels, one of the first results you’ll see is a link to my 2016 column on this subject.  Regardless, I’m not trying to be the Internet’s expert on mystery writers’ swear words.  And before we go further, we need to define terms.

Profanity, as Sims points out, is the word frequently used to denote any objectionable word, but  profanity literally means words prohibited by religious doctrine. In other words, terms that are profane.  Generally this would cover Jesus Christ or God as epithets, but not necessarily f**k, etc.  The term blasphemy comes to mind.

Obscene and obscenity are better, more exact terms to describe most cuss words or coarse language.  Merriam-Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines obscene this way: “disgusting to the senses: repulsive.” This could be an eye-of-the-beholder situation, depending on the words’ use, but let’s not split hairs.   Sims notes that obscene words often refer to sex.  The f-word is the most objectionable example, she says, and she concludes with understatement,  “Adding mother as a prefix ups the ante.”

Returning to the pros and cons of potentially offensive language, several authors (in addition to John Sandford, mentioned in my previous post) have written reasoned defenses of  “writers who dare to swear,” as mystery writer Christina Larmer puts it.

In a 2015 Huff Post article she wrote:

“Adding profanity is just a natural, fluid part of the writing process. I hear the character’s voice, I spew it out. Sometimes, when I read back through the copy and the language feels jarring or overdone, I remove it, just as I remove clichés and adjectives that don’t work. But I never remove it so my readers can feel more comfortable or content. This ain’t Chicken Soup for the Soul, guys.”

I agree.  Before I’d finished my first mystery, I decided I would use profanity, but  judiciously. Some of my characters are bad people.  They rob and kill for money. They don’t watch their language. They are not likely to say, “Excuse me sir but I believe we may have a slight disagreement. I feel your attitude does not reflect sincerity.”

In addition, when my ex-cop protagonist, Lyle Deming, faces a troublesome situation, I want him to be able to say, “Oh s**t.” Maybe that’s because it’s the way I often react to adversity.  Perhaps writers who don’t swear themselves, don’t have their characters tell anyone to f**k off.  As academics say, this is a sub-topic that warrants further study—but not here.

Then there’s the comparison of violence and inhuman acts vs. obscenities.  Larmer says she’s baffled by people who take exception to profanity but “make absolutely no mention of the fact that in one book, for instance, I leave someone in a dank basement to be devoured by rats.”

“Writers don’t use expletives out of laziness or the puerile desire to shock or because we mislaid the thesaurus,” writes Kathryn Schulz in the June 5, 2011 issue of the New York Review of Books.  “We use them because, sometimes, the four-letter word is the better word—indeed, the best one.”

In contrast, author Mark Henshaw says profanity is usually a sign of weak writing.   Writing on his website in June of 2014 he said,  “Profanity has become so common in modern media that I feel its inclusion almost never adds anything to an artistic work. Profanity has lost its shock value, rendering it useless as a literary device for character development or delivering emotional impact.”

It is common, and it can easily be overdone.  But still.

Some of the best arguments for not using profanity come from writers who penned novels when damn was considered foul language and four-letter words never found their way into polite print. Yet some writers still got the point across.

Here’s how Dashiell Hammett described one of Sam Spade’s explosions,  “He cursed Dundy for five minutes without break, cursed him obscenely, blasphemously, repetitiously in a harsh guttural voice.”

He didn’t even need to call him a bastard; we understood.

One of my favorite writers of the past is Ross Macdonald.  His novels spanned the period when profanity was unacceptable to the early 1970s when many of the restraints came off.

In his 1958 novel, The Doomsters, he used hell 22 times,  damn 13 times, Christ 4 times and Jesus twice.  No other profanity.  In his 1951, The Way Some People Die, he was a little more careful, but no less effective:

“Blaney and Sullivan escorted me to the car. In order to keep their minds occupied, I swore continuously without repeating myself. ”

To conclude, for now:  Mystery writers don’t use obscene language today for shock value as Henshaw indicates. We use it because, like it or not, it’s become a big part of life.  We use swear words occasionally for the same reason we don’t use “forsooth” or “verily.”  We want our dialog to be contemporary and realistic.

Editor’s note:  In the first article in this series I attempted to include a link to the profanity article I wrote two years ago.  Instead, the link simply brought the reader back to the latest article.  It’s been corrected online, but if you read the post in email and missed the earlier article link, here it is: https://baconsmysteries.com/?s=do+you+hate+f**

Links

News, upcoming events, articles & profanity

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Listen to me

Recently I was interviewed by Laura Brennan, host of the Destination Mystery podcast.  It’s now posted on the podcast websites listed below.  I talked about my background as a police reporter and as a theme park copywriter.  I responded to questions about specific aspects and details from both Desert Kill Switch and Death in Nostalgia City.  Brennan is a good interviewer and does her homework.

She said she was fascinated that I had come up with creative, unexpected ways that people can break the law.  Truth be told, most of the crimes in my books are loosely based on actual cases.

As I discuss in the interview, the car dealer practices, that make up part of the plot for Desert Kill Switch, are real.  Some dealers really do install kill switches in cars they sell to people they consider high-risk borrowers. I hasten to add this particular practice is not illegal to my knowledge, although some states or local governments recently may have passed laws to regulate kill switches.

I also talk about one of my newspaper crime stories that turned into a multiple-murder case that spanned decades.  As a result, I testified at a murder trial in LA recently.

And, I read one of my mystery flash fiction short stories.

It was fun.  Give a listen.  And thanks, Laura.

Destination Mystery podcast site– Brennan’s interview
Interview via iTunes podcast/download

 

Indie Award nomination

Death in Nostalgia City has been nominated for an Indie Award from Top Shelf Magazine. It’s entered in the action/adventure category.

 

 

Book #3

The third book in the Nostalgia City mystery series, Marijuana Murder, is being edited at Black Opal Books.  I will post its release date soon.  I’m working on mystery #4. 

 

Upcoming events

On Sept. 22 I will talk about “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Mystery Novels” at the South Lake Tahoe branch of the El Dorado (Calif.) County Library. The event is posted on the library’s Facebook page hereVisit the friends of the library website here.

October 14 is the date for the Great Valley Bookfest in Manteca, just south of Stockton, Calif.  I’ll be signing copies of both my mysteries and will be a member of a mystery authors panel discussion. We’re working now on the specific topics we’ll cover.  Joining me on the panel are mystery writers Carole Price and Claire Booth.  Moderator will be Nancy Tingley.  Come by this big book event that benefits literacy programs in California’s Central Valley.  Activities for children, too.

 

Articles (blog posts) in the works

Profanity, aka obscenity, in mystery novels is the topic for the next two articles you’ll see in your email or on my website.  I talk about the evolution of naughty words in mysteries from the pristine prose of Christie and Sayers to the sometimes less-than-polite language of some mystery writers today. Continue Reading →

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