Nostalgia City Mysteries

By Mark S. Bacon

Category Archives: Reviews of mystery/suspense books

Avoid the shadows when night falls

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Nightfall
David Goodis
170 pages
Black Curtain Press  1947
$8.49 paperback    Kindle $  .99

James Vanning is lonely, depressed, afraid and plagued by insomnia.  In other words he’s a classic protagonist in a noir novel.

The commercial artist and World War II vet is on the run from the police and a gang of bank robbers.  He’s holed up in a small New York City apartment selling his work to ad agencies to get by and feeling sorry for himself.  As an average guy entangled in a seemingly unexplainable criminal morass, he could be a character in a Cornell Woolrich novel.  Instead he’s the creation of another respected noir author, David Goodis, noted for his mystery, Dark Passage, that became a Bogart and Bacall movie.

In Nightfall, published in 1947, Goodis imperils Vanning without letting the reader know too many details.  Except for one thing: he’s killed someone, or is convinced he did. And, he’s scared.

 “He wanted to go out.  He was afraid to go out.  And he realized that.  The realization brought on more fright.”

A few sentences later a Woolrich-style premonition: “…something was going to happen tonight.”

Vanning knows that the story of the killing, as he remembers it, is so preposterous no cop or DA would believe him. We learn bits and pieces: A Seattle bank was robbed of $300,000.  One of the gang responsible for the robbery was murdered. The money disappeared.

The story unfolds through chapters of alternating points of view, that of Vanning and of Fraser, the NYC police detective following him.  Married with three children, Fraser (we never learn his first name) has been shadowing Vanning for months and thinks he knows nearly all aspects of the artist’s solitary life.  But he worries the case may be his undoing.  His superiors are calling for an arrest and return of the money.  And Fraser has doubts.

Despite overwhelming evidence against Vanning, Fraser thinks he might be innocent.  “With what they have on him already,” Fraser tells his wife, “they can put him on trial and it’s a hundred to one he’d get a death sentence.

“They’ve got witnesses, they’ve got fingerprints,” Fraser says, “they’ve got a ton of logical deduction that puts him dead center.  And what I’ve got is a mental block.”

Vanning’s faring no better.  His memory is full of holes.  He knows Continue Reading →

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Bellingham, Wash., a nice place to die

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Washington State mystery author Elena Hartwell is today’s guest writer.

Fiction writers have to juggle many elements, the plot, the characters, the narrator’s point of view, the characters’ motivation.  And sometimes, just as important, where the story takes place.  In real estate it’s called location, location, location.

One of the nicest compliments I ever got in a rejection letter read, “…the location is described so well it functions like another character.” It may seem strange that I’d remember—and love—a line from a rejection letter, but it was an incredibly important moment for me as a writer.One-Dead-book-cover

My writing life began as a playwright. I described atmosphere in my scripts, but not specific details, which was something I left up to set and lighting designers. Turning my hand to fiction, I had to learn the art of bringing a specific location alive on the page.

One Dead, Two to Go is about a private eye named Eddie Shoes. She lives in Bellingham, Washington, and I loved bringing our little corner of the country into the spotlight. As far as I know, there aren’t any other mystery series located in Bellingham. It’s a college town of 80,000 people not far from the Canadian border. Though I don’t live there, I’m not far away.

I live in North Bend—made famous by Twin Peaks, filmed in town and the surrounding area. My lovely little hamlet has a population of 6,000 people.  We had a double murder/suicide about four years ago and another one eight years ago (which makes for a scary cycle), but homicides are relatively rare and it didn’t feel right to start killing off my neighbors in such a small community. I didn’t want anyone to label me the “JB Fletcher of Snoqualmie Valley.” Cabot Cove might have been a hotbed of murder and mayhem for Murder She Wrote, but it wasn’t the right choice for me.

I also didn’t want to set my series in Seattle, as that didn’t interest me as much as somewhere more unique to fiction. Washington State is filled with marvelous towns, from La Conner to Walla Walla and Omak to Yakima.  I spent a lot of time thinking about where to place my private eye. First, I wanted a town less than a two-hour drive from home. Preferably not east of the Cascade Range, in case I needed to do “homework” there in the wintertime, when snow can close the pass.  I didn’t want to “commit murder” in our capital city, so Olympia was out, and the towns on the Olympic Peninsula, though stunningly beautiful, involved a ferry ride and a similar problem population-wise to North Bend.  

Bellingham felt perfect. I wanted to have a little bit of a small town feel, which it does, with enough population that everyone doesn’t know everyone else, which they don’t.

Bellingham eatery

Bellingham eatery

Research is one of my favorite things. And location visits are one of my favorite aspects of research. I love to visit places to learn about the architecture, the scenery, the people, and the nightlife. I sprinkle real places such as Pure Bliss, a fabulous and very real dessert shop, with locations inspired by real places, throughout the books. When a crime takes place, I fabricate the setting. In those instances, I take characteristics of multiple places I’ve visited and mash them together into an unrecognizable, but still representative, locale from Bellingham.

Bellingham has a diverse population, spectacular scenery, and roughly one homicide a year. So it fit the bill to a “T.”

The first book, One Dead, Two to Go, takes place in December. The second book, Two Dead Are Better Than One, is set in March, and while it starts in Bellingham, it concludes in Spokane, Washington. That gave me roughly one homicide a year. Book three takes place with Eddie Shoes on vacation.

She deserves it. She worked hard in books one and two. But trouble follows her wherever she goes, and a simple vacation turns deadly.

I can’t wait to do my site visits for Three Dead, You’re Out; travel for work is one of the great perks of a writer’s life.

We might find book four located in a tropical paradise.

—————

Elena Hartwell was born in Bogota, Colombia, while her parents were in the Peace Corps. Her first word was “cuidado.” At the age of nine months, she told two men carrying a heavy table to be careful—in their native tongue. She’s been telling people what to do ever since. After almost twenty years in the theater, Elena turned her playwriting skills to novels. The result is her first book, One Dead, Two to Go. The Eddie Shoes Mystery Series debuted last month, to be followed by Two Dead Are Better Than One and Three Dead, You’re Out. Visit Hartwell at elenahartwell.com.

Elena Hartwell, author

Elena Hartwell, author

Borg crafts sweeping story of purpose, peril

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Tahoe Blue Fire
Todd Borg
351 pages
Thriller Press 2015
Kindle $3.99 Trade paper $16.95

Todd Borg creates multifaceted puzzles in his Owen McKenna mystery series, but he also knows how to scare the pants off you. The first chapter of Tahoe Blue Fire begins with a description of “…single-purpose machines built like tall, square locomotives, big boxy monsters that prowled the highways at night.” These giant, diesel-fired snow blowers with twin engines producing nearly 2,000 horsepower have massive, sharp blades designed to cut snow as deep as 12 feet. Imagine a train-size snow blower as a murder weapon and have a good idea how the story starts.

This thirteenth installment of the series could be the best of all. The book evokes different emotions and combines erudition, intrigue, violence and sorrow. Ex-San Francisco PD detective-turned Lake Tahoe PI, Owen McKenna, hits the ground running searching for someone who has killed at least three people—apparently at random—and now has his Tahoe-Blue-Fire-web-optisights on McKenna. The first half of the book crackles with suspense and impending doom. It’s almost (but not quite) mild compared to the book’s scary concluding scenes.

It’s a layered plot in which Owen must first determine connections between the victims, then search for a motive. Neither come easily. Without giving away too much of the plot, the solution involves the Italian Renaissance, well-known 1950s and 1960s movie icons and traumatic brain injury (TBI), a condition suffered by one of the book’s several memorable characters.

Ex-pro football player Adam Simms is the victim of TBI, the fancy term for having his brains scrambled during a career marked by hundreds of collisions. Simms is a semi-invalid, mentally weak, physically still strong. He works to overcome frequent seizures by writing poetry. Simms plays several roles in the Tahoe story. Continue Reading →

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