Nostalgia City Mysteries

By Mark S. Bacon

Tag Archives: Raymond Chandler

Escape Covid-19; Get lost in a book

1

Survival guide part 2

Spring is here, and no one is celebrating.  

But once you’ve taken all the sensible precautions and are staying home and safe (and have on a clean pair of pajamas) you have options to make life more enjoyable.  A positive attitude is a good start.  You control what’s going on in your head.  Why not focus on something other than the virus.  Pick up a book.  

Welcome to my survival guide, based on simple things I’ve been doing to offset the grim news.

My coping advice began with cookies (see part 1).  Next, dive into a good novel and get transported away. Getting lost in a mystery lets you take a brief but necessary vacation from reality.  The respite can revive and help you reassess priorities. If you’re working outside your house or are busy home schooling your kids, squeeze in an hour or so of reading when you can. It’s an easy and inexpensive way to escape the uncertain present. 

My wife and I were away from home in California when the Covid-19 alarms belatedly started to sound and Governor Gavin Newsom issued one of the first lock-down orders in the country. To get home we had to drive through the Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevadas, but a series of snow storms had taken up residence. Add to that I had acquired a sinus infection—something that had me taking my temperature every few hours to be sure it wasn’t you-know-what. I was sick and  stuck in our tiny vacation rental, so I turned to books.

Here are recommendations and a caution.

Praise for Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is everywhere.  It’s a beautiful coming of age story, an invitation to explore and appreciate nature—from frolicking microscopic life to squawking gulls—a love story of sorts and a meditation on social isolation. It’s also a mystery. Blended seamlessly, these elements create a story that will carry you away to the coastal marshlands of North Carolina and make you forget just about all else.  It was the first book I read when the lock-down began and was just what I needed.

 

Next, when the bad news completely seeped into my consciousness, I reached for The Plague by Albert Camus. I’d read it years ago and still had it on my Kindle. Very timely I thought, but I couldn’t read more than a few chapters.  It’s too realistic. First, the rats start dying…  It’s a classic by the French existentialist author, complete with allegory, but not for now.

 

 

I’ve been working my way through Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer PI series and picked up The Zebra Striped Hearse. This complex story, published in 1962, begins with a rich ex-military man hiring Archer to dig up dirt on his daughter’s fiancée who he suspects of being a gold digger. The repressed 24-year-old daughter has fallen for an itinerant artist who’s been traveling under a variety of aliases.

Macdonald displays his Chanderesque style—“The officers on duty took turns looking at my license as if it was something I’d found in a box of breakfast cereal”—and propels his protagonist through multiple deaths and locales from rural Mexico to Malibu to Tahoe. It’s an emotional ride populated mostly by melancholy characters and it comes with a twist-upon-twist ending. The book appeals to your head and heart. 

The Cohen Bros are reportedly working on a film version that, from early accounts, will carry the novel’s name and little else from the book.

 

Takeoff by Joseph Reid is a thriller with mystery elements revealed gradually through the fast-moving story.  The foundation of the book is the well-rendered relationship between Max, a rising sixteen-year-old female rock star, and Seth Walker an emotionally vulnerable federal air marshal assigned to protect the recalcitrant phenom on a cross-country flight.  When they land at LAX instead of handing off Max and getting back to his regular job, Walker and his charge are greeted with automatic weapons fire. The two go on the run, pursued by unknown gunmen while Walker suspects betrayal by federal agents.  Walker is an electrical engineer with more than a dozen patents to his name and uses his ingenuity to keep he and Max alive while he tries to uncover details in the young girl’s past that may be influencing her present.  Likable characters in bad trouble make for an engrossing read.

 

My next read, after we’d finally made it home, was a book I’d purchased a few years before and never had much time for.  Know the feeling? The Big Book of Pulps is a collection of dozens of noir stories from the 1920s through 1940s. The table of contents looks like a directory of the best authors in the genre.  Rather than begin at the beginning, I started with my favorite authors. The book contains three stories each by Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich and Dashiell Hammett. Other authors include James. M. Cain; Carroll John Daly, credited with writing the first U.S. detective novel; and Earl Stanley Gardner. In one Gardner story, Ken Corning, precursor to Perry Mason, leaps on the running board of a car and battles gunmen. Not the deft courtroom-style exchange you might expect from watching Raymond Burr.

Each story is introduced with commentary by Otto Penzler, editor and owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City.  He provides useful biographical information on the authors, background on the stories and when and where each was originally published.  As the book’s title suggests, all the stories were first published in inexpensive pulp mystery magazines such as The Black Mask.

At 1,163 pages and weighing more than two pounds it requires two hands, a table or bookstand to read comfortably.  Each page contains two columns of type so the book may actually be much longer than its page count indicates.  In addition to short stories, the book includes two complete novels.

The last episode of my survival guide, on movies, will arrive in this space tomorrow

Potentially intrusive—and/or boring—questions from Anastasia Pollack in her blog Killer Crafts and Crafty Killers (Abridged)

0

One of the mandatories when you publish a book is getting mentioned on book-related websites. 

You can hire Internet publicists who schedule you on “blog tours.”  A tour is simply a collection of “posts” on different websites.  The options for these posts usually include an interview, a summary of your book, an excerpt of your book or, in some cases, a column or article you write about your genre, your book or both.  My preference is the latter, but in many cases you don’t have a choice and must succumb to an interview.

When this new book came out recently I was eager to gain exposure for it. One of the ways you do that is take a ‘blog tour.”

Usually these blog tour interviews consist of a series of stock questions you are to answer.  You receive a list of questions and you type up your answers.  There are no follow-up questions based on your answers because the whole process is prepackaged. And depending on the website and how you got booked there, the questions even may not be focused on your book type.  The questions often sound as if they are directed at someone who has just published his or her first book. 

Such interviews can be a challenge for the writer.  You want to sound spontaneous and conversational even though you’re really not interacting with an interviewer.  You’re just answering a list of stock questions. Like taking an exam in school. 

With this in mind, here is an abridged sample “interview” from a website published by Anastasia Pollack. 

Anastasia: When did you realize you wanted to write novels?
Mark S. Bacon: Relatively recently. I’ve been a writer all my life: newspaper reporter, copywriter, business writer. I wrote several business books some years ago but had always been a mystery fan.  So about six years ago I started writing and publishing mystery flash fiction stories then moved on to mystery novels.

Anastasia: How long did it take you to realize your dream of publication?
Mark S. Bacon: You’re probably talking about “my new, first book.”  That was years ago, but let’s go farther back. I sold my first magazine article, to a national men’s adventure magazine, when I was 16.  Some years later I sold my first book, on business writing, by writing query letters to three big New York publishers. Selling a novel is a different animal. That took years.

Anastasia: Where do you write?
MSB: In my home office with my golden retriever at my feet and a concrete crow statue looking over my shoulder. (It could be a raven.)

Anastasia: Is silence golden, or do you need music to write by? What kind?
MSB: Although I learned to write in a noisy newsroom, I’ve become spoiled at my home office. Quiet is best. However, I sometimes listen to mood music, depending on what I’m writing. For one chapter of the book I just finished, I listened to Ravi Shankar. Does that give you a clue to the story?

Anastasia: Describe your process for naming one of your lead characters.
MSB: How many people do you know named Lyle? It’s a retro name to go with my retro setting. Also, his initials are LSD. I was going to use that in the plot of my first Nostalgia City mystery but never worked it in.

Anastasia: If you could have written any book (one that someone else has already written,) which one would it be? Why?
MSB: You could pick any Lew Archer novel by Ross Macdonald. He was the master of language and characters, not to mention atmosphere.  Raymond Chandler was a pretty good PI writer, too.

Anastasia: What’s your biggest pet peeve?
MSB: We’re talking books, not politics here, right?  I’d say people who ask for free copies of my books.  People think authors get unlimited free copies of their books.  Not true.  We have to buy them from the publisher.  Yes, some publishers give authors free copies when the title comes out.  Back when I was writing for John Wiley & Sons, I received 20 hardback copies of each new book.  My new (mystery) publisher sends me one trade paperback.  Sign of the times?

Anastasia: What was the worst job you’ve ever held?
MSB: One of my first jobs out of college was at a small, neighborhood newspaper in Los Angeles.   My primary duty was to rewrite stories out of the LA Times. I quit after a week. 

Anastasia: You’re stranded on a deserted South Seas island. What are your three must-haves?
MSB: An Adirondack chair, plenty of books, and a lifetime supply of Krispy Kremes.

How to multiply the benefits–and pleasures–of reading

0

One of the worst pejoratives that anyone in our book group can hurl at the monthly selection is to compare it to “Children of the Arbat,” a profile of Stalin and Russia in the early 1930s. Although I enjoyed the book, many group members considered the 1988 historical novel to be ponderous. At every book group meeting, one of our members must listen to the criticism (or praise) of the book he has selected. That’s how the group works. And I love it.

Book groups–or clubs–are so popular, so commonplace now it prompted this headline in a recent issue of The New York Times: “Really? You’re Not in a Book Club?” The article’s author, James Atlas, says when he meets a friend on the street he says, “‘What’s your book group reading…’ Not: ‘Are you in a book group?’”

Atlas says that five million Americans belong to book groups, but I suspect that’s an understatement. Katie Wu writing in McSweeneys.net says there could be more than 100,000 book clubs in the United States. One of the largest, according to Wu, is Pulpwood Queens, which has 350 chapters throughout the country and also includes men. The book club membership numbers probably don’t count online book groups. The website Goodreads.com lists more than 10,000 of those.

Book groups go back a long way–but not as far back as Gutenberg. In the 15th century printed books tended to be on the religious side, and in many areas of the world at that time debating the merits of scripture could result in serious disfigurement.Stack of books B&W John Grisham and Ann Rice wouldn’t come along for some time–in fact, it was centuries after Johannes Gutenberg that the first modern novel was written.

“In 1840, Margaret Fuller [author and Emerson colleague] founded the first bookstore-sponsored club in Boston,” Wu writes in McSweeney’s, “and by the mid-1800’s, book clubs were spreading throughout the Midwest both as social events and intellectual opportunities.”

My group is both social and intellectual. The main reason I’m in the group is the other guys. We’ve been together for about seven years. We laugh and have fun. We enjoy each other’s company. And we read books. There’s just six of us now that one member of our group died.   We’ve talked about adding someone, but we haven’t yet, perhaps over worries about upsetting the group’s chemistry.   We shouldn’t be concerned, however, because we have a chemist in the group, as well as professionals from other fields, and two members are ivy league grads.

And for the most part, we like the same sort of books.

Explaining the exact types of books we like, however, is difficult. Our list over the years has included a broad selection of authors, topics and genres. And that’s the other reason I love the group. I’ve read dozens of wonderful books that likely I would never have been exposed to. Our authors have included Sara Gruen, Raymond Chandler, Bryce Courtenay, Erik Larson, Philip Roth, Constance Millard, Pat Conroy, Graham Greene–and even Steinbeck, Dickens and Dostoyevsky.

I prefer to call our book gathering a group instead of a club. I still remember when book club referred to an organization that sold books through the mail. I was thrilled when the first book I wrote was picked up by the Book of the Month Club. The BOMC is still around, though I don’t see its advertising anymore and I doubt it adds much to my CV.

Our group, like many others, likes to eat. We meet in late morning, discuss our selection at one or another of our homes, then head to a restaurant for lunch. Unlike many groups, however, we select our restaurants based on the book we’re reading.   For example, when we read “Two Years Before the Mast,” we had seafood. When we read Faulkner we sought southern cooking, and Donne Leon’s latest Venice mystery led us to an Italian restaurant.

We have few rules. Each person takes a turn at selecting a book, something like dealer’s choice poker. Usually the person making the selection has read the book, but it’s not mandatory. It’s assumed that everyone will read the book and, although one member of our group sometimes finishes a last chapter while someone else drives him to the meeting, we all do.   Novels predominate, although some members like history and biography, and as a result we’ve read some masterpieces in those genres.

We don’t always agree and that can lead to thought-provoking discussions–what a book group is all about. I could (but won’t) list two or three books we’ve read I thought were stinkers, but even those literary disasters provided me with keys to authors I will avoid in the future.

Our group doesn’t have a name. One of our members was lamenting that the other day. Maybe we should call ourselves the Children of the Arbat.

Hyperlinks:        

New York Times on book groups

Katie Wu on the book club phenomenon

Note:  Starting today I will post articles and stories on Tuesday afternoons, rather than Wednesday.

%d bloggers like this: