Nostalgia City Mysteries

By Mark S. Bacon

Category Archives: James M. Cain

Ride the Pink Horse for an intimate profile and emotional journey

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Ride the Pink Horse
Dorothy B. Hughes
208 pages
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road   June 18, 2013
Originally published,  1946
$1.99 Kindle

A drunken, overweight, apparently homeless man who sleeps on the ground under a dirty serape and rarely washes is the moral authority in Sailor’s life.   Referred to only by his nickname, Sailor arrives in Santa Fe, New Mexico on a bus from Chicago.  He’s tailing his boss, corrupt former Illinois Senator Willis Douglas who has gone west with a beautiful young woman and a retinue to escape turmoil generated by his wife’s murder.

Sailor’s packing a gun along with a load of prejudice and delusion.

Hot and dirty Santa Fe is filled with hayseeds and yokels.  A hick town. Sailor is repelled by the populace.  Mexicans and Indians mostly, who he refers to in vile, insulting terms.   Not out loud of course, “this wasn’t the time or place.”

He’s come to town to have a showdown with his boss who he refers to simply as the Sen.  The Sen owes him money.  The murder of Mrs. Douglas was bungled.  She died, but not according to plan.  Other members of Sailor’s Chicago gang have high-tailed it out of town, Ziggy down to Mexico where Sailor plans to meet up with him.  With cash from the senator, Sailor and Ziggy can start some business, some scam in Mexico and live high.

In Ride the Pink Horse, a 1946 crime novel by noir writer Dorothy B. Hughes, the New Mexico environs play a strong role.  The multi-ethnic culture and the small dusty western town that vexes Sailor contributes to Hughes’ heavy themes.

Before Sailor can track down the senator, he has to find a place to stay for the night in this “God-forsaken town.”  He discovers that Santa Fe—never identified by name in the book—is crowded with people in town to celebrate the Fiesta weekend.  No hotel rooms are available anywhere.  Sailor becomes frustrated, angry and disdainful but at the same time disoriented and fearful.  His suitcase becomes a heavy burden.  He’s haunted by the eyes of the Indians he passes in the street. Continue Reading →

How do you catch a reader’s attention? With the first sentence.

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Editor’s note:  Writers Who Kill is unlike many book blogs or book websites.  Articles submitted to it are read and carefully edited before they are published.   The site features reviews of new mysteries, articles on the craft of writing and writers’ experiences researching and writing, interviews with authors and more.  A talented team of writers are regulars on the site and they host occasional guests.  The following column of  mine appeared on the site last month.

Where to begin? I agonized over this question when I wrote my first mystery novel. For my first sentence should I go for something literary, something clever, a play on words? Trained as a journalist and a nonfiction writer for years, I was tempted to write a first sentence that summarized the story or the theme. And I did. Then came my second novel—the just-released Desert Kill Switch—and I decided I needed a new way to start.

One of the most significant ways that writing fiction has influenced my recreational reading is that I pay closer attention to first sentences. Sometimes they can put me off a novel immediately. Or draw me in. I’ve become a student of first sentences.

When writers and editors put together lists of best first sentences, the work of classic novelists tends to cluster at the top, Austen, Melville, Dickens, Orwell. They provide excellent examples, but are they suitable for a murder mystery? “Call me Lyle,” (one of my main characters) is not memorable, except perhaps as a riff on Melville. “It was the best of times for Lyle.” Nope.

A first sentence is like a first impression when you meet someone. Does a person’s verbal greeting or looks attract your attention and encourage conversation? Like someone going out with a highly touted blind date, a writer is eager to make a good impression.

One of the best first-sentence writers around, Stephen King, offered this advice in The Atlantic Magazine in July, 2013. “There are all sorts of theories and ideas about what constitutes a good opening line. It’s a tricky thing….But there’s one thing I’m sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”

Anne R. Allen, mystery writer and co-author of How to be a Writer in the E-Age: A Self-Help Guide, agrees. “On that first page, we have only a few lines to grab the reader and keep her from putting the book back on the shelf. We have to present an exciting hook…but not overwhelm [readers] with too much information.”

One item of information that may be extraneous in first sentences is weather. It’s become clichéd thanks to the familiar “dark and stormy night” penned by British novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton 187 years ago. “Never open a book with the weather,” is the oft quoted line from Elmore Leonard. Yet years before Leonard offered his advice, Raymond Chandler used weather in the first sentence of The Big Sleep. And I think he got away with it:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.

Mystery writer Lilian Jackson Braun used weather to begin The Cat Who Tailed a Thief in 1997. “It was a strange winter in Moose County, 400 miles north of everywhere.”

Adding to my confusion, I discovered this advice Ernest Hemingway wrote to John Dos Passos in a letter* in March 1932: “Remember to get the weather in your god damned book—weather is very important.”

Can’t ignore Hemingway. What to do? I turned for help with my first sentence to noir master James M. Cain. He used a short but telling sentence to begin his famous depression era, The Postman Always Rings Twice. With nine words the narrator tells us he’s a less-than-first-class traveler and perhaps disreputable, too. “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.”

Sometimes unusual or intriguing sentences are best to grab your interest. Ross Macdonald, one of the best stylists of the detective genre, started his 1954 Find a Victim this way: “He was the ghastliest hitchhiker who ever thumbed me.”

Since most mystery, crime and detective stories involve murder, you could begin with that. “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to kill him.” That’s how Graham Greene began his dark 1938 tale, Brighton Rock.

Ultimately, I abandoned the weather, decided a reference to murder could wait for the second paragraph of my novel, and went with an intriguing first sentence that conveyed action.

“Lyle Deming braked his Mustang hard and aimed for the sandy shoulder of the desert road.”

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Ernest Hemingway Selected Letters 1917-1961, Carlos Baker, editor, Scribner Classics, 2003; original copyright 1981 The Ernest Hemingway Foundation, Inc. and Carlos Baker.

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Mark S. Bacon began his career as a southern California newspaper police reporter, one of his crime stories becoming key evidence in a murder case that spanned decades.

After working for two newspapers, he moved to advertising and marketing when he became a copywriter for Knott’s Berry Farm, the large theme park down the road from Disneyland. Experience working at Knott’s formed part of the inspiration for his creation of Nostalgia City theme park.

He taught journalism as a member of the adjunct faculty at Cal Poly University – Pomona, University of Redlands, and the University of Nevada – Reno. Bacon is the author of business books and his articles on travel and other topics have appeared in newspapers from the Washington Post to the San Antonio Express News. Most recently he was a correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle.

To read comments posted after this article appeared,  go to:  http://bit.ly/2AclALH

 

 

Whodunit: murder mysteries 101

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Who has sold the most mystery books? Where did the line, “the butler did it” come from? And who wrote the first detective novel?

Begun more than 170 years ago, the detective story is a staple of American literature and equally popular overseas. American writers are joined on best seller lists by mystery authors from the UK, France, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Italy and other countries. In essence, killing people on paper is popular the world over.

This begins an occasional series on the history, subject matter, authors, techniques and trivia of this genre.

Fedora,-gun-etc.-Sepia--Es-The modern detective story was born in 1841 with the publication of The Murders in the Rue Morgue in Graham’s Magazine in Philadelphia.

First in an occasional series

Edgar Allen Poe’s story describes the analytical power used by detective Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin to solve a series of bizarre murders in Paris. Like the later Sherlock Holmes stories, the tale is narrated by the detective’s roommate. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but a monkey did it. Yes, it is a bizarre twist to have a murderous monkey, but consider who wrote the story.

Following the publication of Poe’s tale, detective short stories and novels gradually became popular. English novelist Wilkie Collins published The Moonstone in 1868, a detective novel that includes several features of the typical modern mystery, including red herrings, false alibis and climactic scenes. Continue Reading →

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