Review of TALKING ABOUT DETECTIVE FICTION by P.D. James

Aside from digging her work, particularly the Commander Adam Dalgliesh books, James has many brilliant insights on both British detective stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy Sayers as well as American hard-boiled fiction by Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald.  Anytime a master of the genre writes what amounts to a How To Write and/or Interpret Great Detective Fiction book, a mystery novelist would be well-advised to read and take notes. . .which I did. I’ve cobbled together my favorite bits below.

James on using setting, from pages 129-131:

Place, after all, is where the characters play out their tragicomedies, and it is only if the action is firmly rooted in a physical reality that we can fully enter their world…the setting is where these people live, move and have their being, and we need to breathe their air, see with their eyes, walk they paths they tread and inhabit the rooms the writer has furnished for them.

James on Raymond Chandler’s contributions to the detective genre, from page 86:

He showed crime writers that what is important goes beyond an ingenious plot, mystery and suspense. More important are the novelist’s voice, the reality of the world he creates and the strength and originality of the writing…he rejected the editor’s insistence in cutting out all descriptions on the grounds that the readers disliked anything that held up the action.

James on serial detectives, from page 153:

A serial detective has…particular advantages: an established character who does not have to be introduced afresh with each novel, a successful career in crime-solving which can add gravitas, an established family history and background and, above all, reader identification and loyalty.

James on why readers are drawn to mysteries, from page 14:

(Mysteries–my word) provide not only the satisfaction of all popular literature, the mild intellectual challenge of a puzzle, excitement, confirmation of our cherished beliefs in goodness and order, but also entry to a familiar and reassuring world in which we both involved in violent death and yet remain personally inviolate both from responsibility and from its terrors.

 

Bottom line, this book offers a treasure trove of great stuff, and it would be enjoyable for the avid mystery reader and educational for any mystery novelist, whether aspiring or already established. Often when you read a non-fiction book by a fiction writer, you can see why the writer’s novels are so good, and Talking About Detective Fiction is an excellent example of that.

talking-about-detective-fiction

 

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Best Crime Novel Opening Paragraphs

Hook ’em early is a mantra I heard over and over again in various fiction workshops, and it is so true. It is also very tough to pull off, but some of my favorite crime novelists manage to establish a unique voice, a unique setting, a unique situation, and a unique character all within the confines of the introductory paragraph. As a writer myself, I can attest to how freaking hard it is to make all of those elements work over the course of hundreds of pages, but the best in the business–Crumley, Woodrell, Chandler, Thompson to name but a few–can do it in the space of a single opening paragraph. I submit the examples below for your consideration and enjoyment.

The Last Good Kiss, James Crumley

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler

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. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

The Grifters, Jim Thompson

As Roy Dillon stumbled out of the shop his face was a sickish green, and each breath he drew was an incredible agony. A hard blow in the guts can do that to a man, and Dillon had gotten a hard one. Not with a fist, which would have been bad enough, but from the butt-end of a heavy club.

Miami Blue, Charles Willeford

Frederick J. Frenger, Jr., a blithe psychopath from California, asked the flight attendant in first class for another glass of champagne and some writing materials. . . For the next hour, as he sipped champagne, Freddy practiced writing the signatures of Claude L. Bytell, Ramon Mendez, and Herman T. Gotlieb.

Tomato Red, Daniel Woodrell

You’re no angel, you know how this stuff comes to happen: Friday is payday and it’s been a gray day sogged by a slow ugly rain and you seek company in your gloom, and since you’re fresh to West Table, Mo., and a new hand at the dog-food factory, your choices for company are narrow but you find some finally in a trailer court on East Main, and the coed circle of bums gathered there spot you a beer, then a jug of tequila starts to rotate and the rain keeps comin’ down with a miserable bluesy beat and there’s two girls millin’ about that probably can be had but they seem to like certain things and crank is one of those certain things, and a fistful of party straws tumble from a woven handbag somebody brung, the crank gets cut into lines, and the next time you notice the time it’s three or four Sunday mornin’ and you ain’t slept since Thursday night and one of the girl voices, the one you want most and ain’t had yet though her teeth are the size of shoe-peg corn and look like maybe they’d taste sort of sour, suggests something to do, ’cause with crank you want something, anything, to do, and this cajoling voice suggests we all rob this certain house on this certain street in that rich area where folks can afford to wallow in their vices and likely have a bunch of recreational dope stashed around the mansion and goin’ to waste since an article in The Scroll said the rich people whisked off to France or some such on a noteworthy vacation.

chandlercrumleywoodrellthompson

Book Review of LA Late @ Night by Paul D. Marks

If you like tautly-constructed hard-boiled stories featuring gritty characters, snappy dialogue, and plenty of action, then LA Late @ Night is right up your alley.  The title story features a hotshot defense attorney–Cassie Rodriguez–who successfully defends a rich Hollywood director on murder charges.  Several elements of this story interested me, beginning with the format. Written as a modified movie script, this story feels as if you’re a cinematographer, simultaneously shooting and observing the action up close and personal from behind a camera. Another compelling element was the theme. I mean, how often does a wildly successful attorney even attempt to right a wrong the justice system couldn’t, let alone actually succeed? But in this story, it happens. And it’s believable, primarily because of the way Cassie’s character is portrayed and developed.

The title story is by far the most original of the five tales, but my favorite is definitely “Angels Flight.” This one is about Tom Holland, a jaded homicide detective who gets saddled with Lucy Railsback, a member of the mayor’s Community Police Action Committee.  Lucy assists Holland in the death investigation of a body the police find in Echo Park Lake. Without spoiling the ending, Lucy uses both good old fashioned street smarts and voodoo to help solve the case.  Similar to the title story and the other tales in the book, “Angels Flight” is satisfying for its memorable characters, quick dialogue, and clipped prose. But what I enjoyed most about this story was what I enjoyed most about the collection in total: the setting of Los Angeles, which simply comes alive in the hands of a skilled writer like Marks. The L.A. Marks depicts is dangerous and raw, and it is, for my money, the most compelling character present.  Just like in his excellent PI novel White Heat, Marks manages to capture the dirty underbelly of one of the most written about cities in modern history, and, miraculously, he does so in a uniquely singular way.  . .a true literary feat indeed.

Bottom line, I highly recommend this collection to any true fan of the hard-boiled/noir genre.  Oh, and make sure to read the excerpt from White Heat; the opening chapter hooked me from word one.

http://www.amazon.com/L-A-Late-Night-Mystery-Streets-ebook/dp/B00I9289HM/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top

 

 

 

 

White Heat by Paul D. Marks

In White Heat, former Navy SEAL turned PI Duke Rogers makes a quick $250 dollars by locating the address of Teddie Matson, a burgeoning TV actress.  A day later Matson is murdered, and Rogers, wrenched with guilt, sets out to find the killer.  Set in L.A. during the riots following the Rodney King case, Rogers is beset on all sides by looters and gang bangers, stalkers and criminals, grieving families and damsels in distress, fires and bullets. But it is Rogers’s conscience that proves to be the biggest obstacle. Occasionally calling on the assistance of Jack, a racist/xenophobic ex-SEAL who is eerily likable, Rogers is a formidable hero and more than interesting enough to carry a series.  No spoilers here, but I liked the ending precisely because every narrative thread was not neatly tied up, and yet, in the vivid, hard-boiled world Marks has created, justice is served.

White Heat won the Shamus Award for Best Indie PI novel in 2013, and I certainly see why.  There are several elements to this book that make it more than just the run-of-the-mill private dick story.  Exhibit A: the fantastic descriptions of Los Angeles. Having been to L.A. a total of once, most of my ideas about La-La Land come from TV, movies, and books. Marks does a remarkable job of portraying a city in crisis, a portrayal, I might add, that is more vivid than Raymond Chandler’s L.A. and more realistic and complex than James Ellroy’s. (Note: I love both of those writers and their books).  Exhibit B: the palpable tension running through the narrative. Stalking is a big theme in this book, and as I read, I felt the fear, anxiety, and paranoia gripping me.  Throughout the novel, there are italicized sections of inner monologue that serve to put the reader inside Rogers’s head and in the belly of the riots.  Exhibit C: the commentary on race. It’s damned hard to successfully weave social and/or political commentary into a novel without coming off as preachy, but Marks pulls it off.

Bottom line, I’ve come up with a simple question for determining if a book is really good or not: how many hours of work and/or sleep did you lose because you couldn’t stop reading? Let’s just say I have a stack of ungraded essays on my desk, and my eyelids are very heavy. Cheers to the author of White Heat for that.

P.S.–Check the author’s blog linked below. Love his thoughts on old noir films.

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http://pauldmarks.com/index.html

http://www.amazon.com/White-Heat-P-I-Duke-Rogers-ebook/dp/B007SIR8QG/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1386340106&sr=8-1&keywords=white+heat+paul+marks

Writers I Admire: Steve Ulfelder

I’m a sucker for a good series, and the Conway Sax books are not good, they’re great.  Sax, a part-time mechanic, part-time PI, specializes in doing “favors” for fellow Barn Burners, or recovering alcoholics. As a former drunk, Sax has a checkered past, which, in a variety of interesting ways, both haunts and motivates him to assist other former alcoholics, even when they are ungrateful or downright despicable. But what I dig most about Sax is this: he is a decent guy, an American hero in the same vein as the Colson Quinn character in Ace Atkins’s novels.

In “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler says this about the detective: “He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it…He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job.” To me, it’s almost as if Chandler were writing about Conway Sax. 

Aside from the main character, however, there are many other excellent reasons to read Ulfelder’s books. The wonderful clipped prose. The fast-paced narratives typically centered around loyalty and redemption. I could go on, but I’ll let the writing speak for itself. Click on the link below, and read the opening chapter of Ulfelder’s latest novel Shotgun Lullaby.  

http://www.ulfelder.com/books/shotgun-lullaby/