Nostalgia City Mysteries

Mark S. Bacon

Category Archives: mystery writers

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.

 

Heard any good books lately?

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How a talented author/actor gives his PI a voice

Red Desert (An Eddie Collins Mystery Book 2)
Clive Rosengren
Coffeetown Press   186 pages
September 2017
Audible $17.95, Kindle $5.95, Trade paperback $14.95

I have mixed feelings about audio books.  They’re convenient when you’re driving, flying, walking or doing something that precludes reading.  The spoken words of a good actor or announcer can carry you away as when you’re engrossed in the printed page.  But sometimes the narrators sound as if they were auditioning for a Broadway play and their intonations  overwhelm the story.   This can be especially true of male actors doing female voices and vice versa. 

Another popular option for recorded books is to have the author read.  Authors know where their stories should speed up or slow down and which words require emphasis.  But authors are not trained announcers.  Some do a remarkably good job, others, not so much.  I recently listened to a book read by an acclaimed Australian author.  His heavy down-under accent added authenticity, but you had to listen closely to catch every word.

Now comes Clive Rosengren and his Eddie Collins mysteries.  Rosengren is a retired actor, Ed Wood, Soapdish, Seinfeld, Cheers, who writes PI novels.  A good combination for an audio book?  I read his debut mystery, Murder Unscripted.  It’s original, engaging and funny. So when I faced a long driving trip and thought about listening to a book, I downloaded Rosengren’s Red Desert from Audible. 

Rosengren reads the book like he wrote it. Because he did.  The first person point of view, common for PI novels, lets Rosengren talk directly to us as Collins.  He often sounds as if he’s telling us a story, recounting something that’s happening to him, rather than reading a book.  He renders the voices of the various other characters with enough difference in tone or pitch—and sometimes speed—so you know someone else is talking, but he doesn’t try to do impressions like Dana Carvey. 

Actors reading others’ books can recognize an argument or fight scene and ramp up the vocal tension, but an author who wrote the novel should have a good idea of how to voice the entire book.  Thus, for example, Rosengren is able to deliver Collins’ offhand observations and asides with the appropriate deadpan or enthusiasm depending on the circumstances.

And the story here is not beside the point.  It is the point.  Collins is a part-time Hollywood actor who started a detective agency to supplement his on-again, off-again show business career.

When someone breaks into the home of Mike Ford, a top leading man, Ford’s girlfriend is killed—drowned in the swimming pool—and the actor’s Oscar is stolen.  Ford taps his friend Collins for help.   He shows Collins anonymous, threatening letters he’s received and says he has no idea who might have sent them or what the motive might have been.

Collins’ investigation takes him from his Hollywood office to Venice, Calif., a seaside suburb developed after the turn of the 20th century with canals serving as residential streets. 

As Collins tries to determine why Ford is being hounded, a fire is burning in the San Gabriel mountains above LA. “A bloodshot moon hovered over Burbank. The air was pungent with the smell of smoke from fires burning in the hills—a yearly occurrence.”  The fire casts a pall over the city and colors the story.

During his investigation, Collins comes across Reggie, an old Army buddy who is now homeless and on the street.  Collins tries to rehabilitate his old friend, offering him a job doing surveillance on the case.  Reggie turns out to be one of the strong, likable support characters in the book in addition to Collins’ secretary, Mavis.

One thread in the case leads Collins to Red Desert, a film Ford directed and starred in.  Ford recalls his remake of a 1949 pot boiler as a “tough shoot: heat, script problems, casting snafus, you name it.”   

When Reggie is watching Ford’s home, a photograph he snaps turns into a valuable clue. Then things get hot. As the fire rages in the mountains, an assault and a kidnapping raise the stakes and Collins and Reggie find themselves on the defensive.

The affable Collins with his porkpie hat and lack of tech savvy is a PI with a sense of humor and a knowledge of Hollywood he uses to good effect.  Following him and Reggie around is a kick, and Red Desert is a delight that will keep you entertained from start to finish.

—————

Clive Rosengren was an actor for nearly 40 years, 18 of them pounding many of the same streets as does his fictional actor/PI Eddie Collins.  Rosengren is a multiple Shamus Award nominee by the Private Eye Writers of America.  His other Eddie Collins books include Murder Unscripted, Martini Shot and Velvet on a Tuesday Afternoon. He lives in southern Oregon.

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 →

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