Nostalgia City Mysteries

By Mark S. Bacon

Tag Archives: Lawrence Block

Help! How can I get this thing started?

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Where, or, more accurately, how do you start a mystery novel? Certainly not with the familiar dark and stormy night, the now-cliched beginning penned 185 years ago by British novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

When I began writing my mystery/suspense novel, Death in Nostalgia City, I, like many authors, agonized over the first few sentences.   I tried one thing then another, turning to help from writer friends and finally settling on something, only to change it just before I submitted the manuscript to my publisher.

First sentences are something like first impressions when you meet someone. Writers try to impress, intrigue, attract. They have a story to tell and they want to begin in a way that encourages you to dig in.

With a mystery, there’s usually murder involved.  Why not start with that?

“Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.” That’s how Graham Greene began his dark 1938 tale, Brighton Rock.

Jonathan Kellerman used a short murder sentence to begin The Murder Book, his 2002 novel.  “The day I got the murder book, I was still thinking about Paris.”Web-opti-gun-&-paper-Es5914

Short, declarative sentences. That gets your attention and draws you into the story. Here’s another one, this from noir master James M. Caine. He began his famous, The Postman Always Rings Twice this way: “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.”

First sentences can do more than just attract attention. Some writers and editors suggest first sentences that introduce readers to a character, a setting, or both.

An excellent example of this comes from an acclaimed, but non-mystery writer, William Kennedy. The beginning of his 1983 Ironweed accomplishes these objectives with grace.

     Riding up the winding road of Saint Agnes Cemetery in the back of the rattling old truck, Francis Phelan became aware that the dead, more than the living, settled down in neighborhoods.

Elmore Leonard famously said, “Never open a book with weather,” but that’s exactly what many authors have done, including Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep:

     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.”

Leonard himself was no slouch with beginnings. In his 1988 novel, Freaky Deaky, he introduces his character and setting in one sentence that has you immediately engrossed in the story:

     Chris Manowski’s last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb.

I don’t think there’s a single formula for a successful beginning, but I think some of the most successful have discernible objectives.

In his 2007 mystery, Tahoe Silence, writer Todd Borg uses his first sentence not only to introduce the title character of the book, but also to draw us into the world of the autistic girl named Silence.

     At the first roar of the motorcycles on Pioneer Trail, Silence shut her eyes, tucked her sketchbook under her left arm and plugged her ears with her fingers, turning inward, retreating to her safe zone.

The objective of just attracting your attention quickly can be effective and a quotation can be an easy way to do it.

      “Not a bad-looking burglar,” he said. “I don’t suppose you’d happen to have a decent alibi?”

That’s the way Lawrence Block began, The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams (1994), using a light touch. Humor can put a reader in a good mood to continue reading and, at the same time, introduce a setting or character as Nevada Barr does in the beginning of 2001’s Blood Lure:

     With the exception of a nine-week-old Australian shepherd puppy, sniffing and whining as if he’d discovered a treasure chest and sought a way inside, everyone was politely pretending Anna didn’t stink.

I wanted to use a light touch to introduce my story and my protagonist, ex-cop Lyle Deming. The book’s retro focus comes from the theme park, Nostalgia City, a re-creation of an entire small town from the late 1960s / early 1970s. Lyle, who drives a cab in the park, fits in due, in part, to his view of modernity. I wanted to show this, and introduce him in the beginning.

     Whose idea was it to replace the chrome knobs and push buttons on car radios with touch screens?   Lyle didn’t have a clue.

Today’s flash fiction mystery

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With apologies to Lawrence Block for taking the title of his crime series, here is today’s flash fiction mystery–at exactly 100 words.

Hit Man

“This lawyer my wife used to know–name’s Murphy–said you might be able to help.  I really don’t want to, but I’ve got no choice. My wife says she hates me for what I did. Won’t forgive me. Says she’ll kill me. But she won’t give me a damn divorce. I dunno why I’m telling you this. See, this is my only way out. So, can you do a contract or tell me who can?”

“What’d you say the name was?”

“Hemings, Julia Hemings.”

“I mean your name.”

“George Hemings, why?”

“Oh, I have a contract. Thanks for coming.”

Short mystery fiction

Block’s John Keller series is a hit

Hit Man
By Lawrence Block
HarperTorch; Reissue edition   2002
Kindle $5.69, paperback $12.76, mass market paperback $7.19
384 pages (mass market paperback)

 

John Keller’s is a sedate existence.  He lives by himself in an apartment on First Avenue in New York City, walks his dog, does crossword puzzles and occasionally flies out of town on business.   When his travels take him to a small town, he frequently wanders about, pondering what it would be like to live in a quaint, out-of-the-way place.  Eventually though, he settles down and does what he’s come to do.  John Keller kills people.

Keller is the creation of Lawrence Block one of the best known and best selling names in crime fiction.  He penned his first story when Eisenhower was in the White House and he’s hardly paused for a breath since.  He’s authored more than 50 books and countless articles and short stories.   He has several book series going; most well-known is the Matt Scudder series.  Scudder, a detective in New York City, is a recovering alcoholic.   Although when the series began Scudder was not recovering, attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are now a big part of the character’s life.Untitled-1

Block has won multiple Edgars for novels and short stories (not to mention a raft of other awards), has written scripts for large and small screens and even posts regularly on his blog.  You can read him online and join his 7,600 followers.

Hit Man is the first in a series of five books: one novel and four story collections.  This book contains 10 closely linked short stories in more or less chronological order.  We’re introduced to Keller and his trade in the first installment and learn a little more about him with each story.  As you might imagine, every story revolves around a particular murder assignment, usually taking place in a different city.

Keller receives his assignments from “the old man” who lives in a large house in White Plains, NY.  Usually Keller visits the White Plains house and has iced tea or lemonade with “Dot” a vaguely sketched, middle aged woman and seemingly one of Keller’s only friends.  He then goes upstairs to find out who his next target is.

Each story stands on its own, often with a delightful twist ending–predictably, linked to how Keller accomplishes his objective.  Rarely does he use a gun; flying out on his assignments pretty much precludes taking a firearm along.  He improvises, and in more than one story, the murder weapon is uniquely tailored to the circumstances or the victim.  This is particularly true in “Dogs Walked, Plants Watered”  where Keller’s weapon of choice is ingenious and amusing.

Unlike the Scudder series, the Keller stories are third person but with Keller himself as the only point-of-view character, so we experience the stories solely through his eyes and thoughts.  We  don’t learn much about his private life–such as it is–in any one story.  In several of the stories we see him with Andria, his dog sitter who becomes his short-lived, sleep-in girlfriend.  She discerns what he does for a living and eventually leaves–not necessarily because Keller is a hit man–and takes the dog with her.

Many of the stories contain Keller’s mundane digressions–having to do with stamp collecting, pets or small-town life–that draw you temporarily into Keller’s quiet reveries.  “…you’ve always got this fantasy living the good life in Elephant, Montana,” a girlfriend tells him once.  “Every place you go you dream up a life to go with it.”  But just when Keller’s daydreams lull you into thinking you’re reading introspective chic lit, he strangles an unsuspecting victim and catches a plane home.

“Keller’s Therapy,” the third story in the book, about his relationship with his psychologist, earned Block an Edgar Award.  My favorite story is “Keller on the Spot,” which sees him save someone from death, then form an unusual relationship with his assigned target.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, Keller is not the slick assassin dressed in black, bristling with exotic weapons who dispassionately dispatches his victims.  Morality is an underlying theme for the stories.  Keller’s code prohibits him from petty larceny unrelated to an assignment and he occasionally contemplates the ramifications of his murderous acts.  But ultimately, although lacking in dash, he performs the deadly rites he’s been hired to do.  Afterall, change one vowel in his name and you spell his occupation.

Hyperlink

Lawrence Block’s blog

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