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A publisher’s note worth reflecting upon

Anthony Boucher

Years ago I discovered on Forest Books‘ sidewalk cart an unassuming hardback with an unassuming title, Great American Detective Stories, edited by legendary Bay Area writer Anthony Boucher and published in June 1945.

Curious what stories made the cut, I expected the usual names and the usual reprinted titles. I did see the usual names—Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Cornell Woolrich being of the most interest to me—but was surprised by Boucher’s story selections. He included one of the three Sam Spade short stories Hammett wrote for easy money (which were not widely reprinted until recently) and a Chandler novella I’d never heard of before, “No Crime in the Mountains”, which appears to have been the nucleus (Chandler would say “cannibalized”) for The Lady in the Lake. Over the years I dipped into this collection on occasion, and discovered it to be a fine snapshot of late-World War II popular American writing.

But it was the book’s front matter that gives me pause, specifically the publisher’s note:

This book is manufactured in compliance with the War Production Board’s ruling for conserving paper. … Thinner and smaller books will not only save paper, plate metal and man power, but will make more books available to the reading public.

The reader’s understanding of this wartime problem will enable the publisher to cooperate more fully with our Government.

It’s a fine-print reminder of how the cost of war used to burden everyone’s daily life, and therefore was a constant reminder of war’s price, both in human cost and economic.

Printed above the note:

“Books are weapons in the war of ideas.”

– President Roosevelt

They still are, but we’ve allowed our attention to wander, and it’s to our detriment.

Three specials for the new year

If you’re looking for new books to read this year, I’ve partnered with over 300 authors to offer specials on new books and boxed sets:

NEW MYSTERY & SUSPENSE – A collection of new mystery, crime, and suspense novels, many with a special price. Includes my novel of suspense and paranoia, Man in the Middle, on sale for 99¢.

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Too many books! All promotions end February 28. Please give these authors a try, or use this as an opportunity to pick up one of my reads.

The Little Sister – The greatest Hollywood novel of all time?

Previously: The Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

With Raymond Chandler so intimately associated with mid-century Los Angeles, and Chandler so determined to record the city’s excesses through his gimlet eye, it’s surprising how little of Hollywood makes it into his detective novels. The only one to dwell on the movie trade is The Little Sister, and even then, it takes twelve chapters until the reader learns the plot is somehow connected to Hollywood. Yet, The Little Sister is often nominated as one of the greatest Hollywood novels ever made.

By the time The Little Sister was published in 1949, Chandler had built a name in Hollywood as a successful screenwriter. His Oscar-nominated script for the landmark Double Indemnity (co-written with director Billy Wilder) was lauded as both an honest adaptation of James M. Cain’s bestseller and, incredibly, an improvement on the source material, which had been declared a modern classic soon after publication. Chandler was also called in to rewrite dialogue on other films, as his brisk, wisecracking style was in high demand.

Compare Chandler’s entry to Hollywood to Nathanael West’s, who churned out unremarkable scripts while writing The Day of the Locust. West did not travel to Los Angeles with stars in his eyes, nor did he arrive with impressive credentials. He strove to become a serious novelist, not a screenwriter of cheap Westerns and jungle adventures. It was the Great Depression, though, and he heard that Hollywood paid good money for writing.

He heard more than that, actually. According to Marion Meade’s Lonelyhearts, it was West’s brother-in-law—New Yorker writer S. J. Perelman—and his frothing disgust with Hollywood (“where holding a job was ‘a series of hysterical genuflexions and convulsive ass-kissings'”) that lured West to Los Angeles in search of foul-mouthed grotesqueries and high-glamour oddities he could transfer to the page. It’s not difficult to imagine Nathanael West as a character in a Raymond Chandler mystery…if only there was a blackmail angle.

As Chandler tiptoed through Hollywood’s land mines and manure fields, writing screenplays, dialogue, and movie treatments, he discovered he was not revolted or disgusted with what he saw. He was bored.

“An industry with such vast resources and such magic techniques should not become dull so soon,” he wrote in The Atlantic in 1945. “Hollywood is a showman’s paradise. But showmen make nothing; they exploit what someone else has made.”

One fascinating vein running through my list of great Hollywood novels is how often the authors were involved in the business—not only were they witnesses, they were collaborators in the insanity they documented.

“Hollywood is easy to hate,” Chandler wrote in The Atlantic, “easy to sneer at, easy to lampoon. Some of the best lampooning has been done by people who have never been through a studio gate.” By the time he wrote The Little Sister, though, he’d been through the studio gate many times.

Like Ross MacDonald, Chandler realized early on he could leverage the American hard-boiled detective novel to write about America grappling with modernity, a country suddenly flush with money and influence. The detective novel is told from the perspective of an outsider with a keen grasp of social, political, and economic realities. Chandler went heavy on the grotesque when he depicted Los Angeles, populating his novels with fortune tellers for the rich, perfumed gigolos, mob toughs talking like they had been borrowed from Hemingway’s “The Killers,” and so forth.

Chandler reels it in for The Little Sister. The novel is a bit drier than his earlier work. Most Hollywood novels brim with a fatalistic cynicism, but Chandler incorporated a more literal, perhaps even-handed, depiction of Tinseltown.

James Garner as Philip Marlowe
James Garner portrayed Chandler’s detective in Marlowe, a poorly-received 1969 adaptation of The Little Sister.

This literal-mindedness is what prevents The Little Sister from falling into a trope of American writing, the moralizing take-down of Hollywood as a depraved and greedy trade. Re-reading the novel for this post, I noted Chandler had included some basic scenes missing from the others in this list. His detective, Philip Marlowe, visits a sound stage during filming, where he witnesses a catty back-and-forth between the actors after the scene is flubbed. Afterwards, he drops in on a rising starlet in her dressing room. Another chapter is devoted to dealing with a big-shot movie agent eager to protect his client. These business-like scenes are the building blocks of the second half of The Little Sister.

In 1944, Chandler wrote to Atlantic editor Charles Morton:

Hollywood is the only industry in the world that pays its workers the kind of money only capitalists and big executives make in other industries. … Its pictures cost too much and therefore must be safe and bring in big returns; but why do they cost too much? Because it pays the people who do the work, not the people who cut coupons.

Marlowe sinks into this moneyed and territorial industry as ably as he deals with alcoholic flophouse managers and gangsters who dabble with ice-picks to the neck. Marlowe is surefooted no matter the situation. He is a man of all people, but party to none. This is the character type Chandler honed to a point. It was a character he used time and again to turn over rocks across Southern California to reveal the grubby crustaceans and sun-bleached bones beneath.

On the right the great fat solid Pacific trudging into shore like a scrubwoman going home. No moon, no fuss, hardly a sound of the surf. No smell. None of the harsh wild smell of the sea. A California ocean. California, the department-store state. The most of everything and the best of nothing. Here we go again. You’re not human tonight, Marlowe.

The Little Sister, ch. 13

The one notable grotesque in The Little Sister is the near-real-time transformation of a Midwestern bookish, prudish young woman into a walking caricature of a star-struck pursuer of Tinseltown sophistication. Like the climax of Locust, a critical point is reached, something snaps, and Hollywood’s vapory facade mists away to something more earthy and damning.

Chandler allows a sliver of redemptive light to shine through the smoke-filled backrooms, and it lands on the unlikeliest of characters. (“Lots of nice people work in pictures,” Marlowe notes unironically at one point.) Chandler was far more the softie than his books’ hard-boiled reputation suggests. The Little Sister ends in a surprising place: Perhaps the problem is not with Hollywood, but with those too eager to believe its illusions.

Complete Series Binge Bundles Under $10

The Bridge Daughter Cycle: Books One to Three by Jim Nelson

If you’re looking for some post-holiday reading, my three-part family saga Bridge Daughter Cycle has been included in the Complete Series Binge Bundles Under $10 special. Over forty complete book series from various authors are available at reduced boxed set prices, including all three books of the Bridge Daughter Cycle for $4.99. The series includes science-fiction, mystery, suspense, and fantasy.

If you’re interested, check out the full listing here. This special ends January 11th, 2021, so check it out while you can.

The latest at Always Be Publishing

If you’re a writer and not checked out my Substack newsletter, Always Be Publishing, you might give it a go. Since I last wrote about it here, I’ve released a few more posts on writing and publishing in the digital age.

Recent topics include

You can find a list of the posts I’ve made so far at the archive. If you’re interested in a free subscription to receive new posts straight to your inbox, here’s where you can start.

Why I wrote a novel about COVID-19

Man in the Middle, by Jim Nelson

At Washington Independent Review of Books, author Tara Laskowski asks, “We’re living through a pandemic. Must we read about one, too?” Her suggestion to fellow writers:

Perhaps the solution is to just skip ahead and set everything in 2025, safely away from the horror that is this year …

In 20 years or so, this point will probably be moot. By then, we’ll be ready to curl up with an escapist historical novel set in 2020; we’ll have gotten enough social distance from masks and lockdowns and toilet paper shortages.

My perspective on all this is colored by the fact that I wrote a novel set during 2020, and it centers around the pandemic and quarantines that have affected us all.

To clarify the chronology, I started writing the book in June (or so) and published it last month. Man in the Middle is set in the first week of California’s shelter-in-place, and although March was not so long ago, paging through my diary entries of those early weeks while preparing the novel reminded me just how otherworldly the world became overnight.

That’s a key point about the book’s development: I started keeping a diary when the pandemic surged in America. For the first few months, I wrote daily, almost religiously, dumping my despair and puzzlement onto the page. When the world opened up and grew less tense, I thumbed back through my notebook and discovered a voice I did not quite know. It was me, but it was not a me I easily recognized.

Certainly I harbored many reservations before I set out to write the first draft. Was the world to be swamped with a flood of coronavirus thrillers? What if a cure is discovered tomorrow? One writer friend warned me off the project entirely. From other people, there’s been a split-brain response: On one hand, writing a book now about the pandemic is “obviously” a commercial money-grab on my part, right? On the other hand, the market for such a book has a tight, closing window, once the vaccines arrive, eh? It’s one of those social situations where they think I’m not seeing the obvious, when in fact I’d gone down those thought-paths several dozen times.

I don’t write fiction to make money. Fiction is freeing for me. No one tells me what to write or how to write it. I set my deadlines. I make my own challenges. I also happen to believe there are readers in this world who, once they’re exposed to my writing, will enjoy it as well. That, more than anything, motivates me to keep writing.

Laskowski relates a comment from her agent:

“If something is set this year and is about the quarantine experience, sort of like a locked-room crime, maybe,” she says. “But a medical thriller about covid? Nope.”

A medical thriller is exactly the kind of novel I told myself I would not write: The beautiful epidemiologist racing the clock to develop a cure; a cold-hearted technocracy blocking her progress at every turn; and her unconscious child in a hospital isolation unit hooked up to a respirator. But the reason not to write a medical thriller about coronavirus is not because we’re living through it—it’s because that thriller has been written many times over, only with different strains of disease of different origin, with different symptoms and different cures.

While I didn’t write a locked-room crime book, I knew early on I wanted it to be a novel of isolation and suspense. The year that is 2020 has been a year of unthinkables. It is also a year hosting a major, tumultuous presidential election set against a backdrop of accusations of foreign and domestic intrigue. Swirled together, these ingredients sent me back to the great political and conspiracy films of my youth (Three Days of the Condor, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 12 Monkeys). In January, when COVID-19 was a curiosity mentioned occasionally in the news, I was reading Orwell’s war diaries, which also left a strong impression upon me. In March, when the shelter-in-place orders came down, I reread Camus’ The Plague with fresh eyes and a fresh appreciation.

Out of all this arable soil grew a claustrophobic, paranoid book about an isolated security guard who can’t tell if he’s detaching ever-so-gradually from reality. Podcasts, experts, and so-called experts fill his ears with contradictory takes on the world’s sudden course correction. That voice from my diary was now his.

Why wouldn’t I write that book? Whether or not Man in the Middle succeeds on its merits, I’ll let the readers decide. But how could I just set this inspiration aside and write about any year except 2020?

To return to the original question, no, I don’t believe people should have to read about the pandemic right now. I understand why anyone who reaches for a book today would want to read about any subject other than pandemics. Subconsciously, though, the question naturally bleeds into the territory of, Should writers be writing about the pandemic now?

As an answer, consider re-framing the original question as “We’re living through the Great Depression. Must we read about it, too?”

Imagine if the writers of The Grapes of Wrath, The Day of the Locust, The Road to Wigan Pier, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, John Dos Passos with his U.S.A. trilogy—and more—decided not to write about the worldwide economic collapse because people were living through it, so why would they want to read about it? For many of those authors ninety years ago, they viewed writing about the Great Depression as a responsibility.

Man in the Middle isn’t an act of personal responsibility, but I did write it for good reasons, even if they’re only my reasons.

(Probably unnecessary disclosure: Tara Laskowski is an editor for Smokelong Quarterly, which published one of my stories years ago. I don’t know if she was an editor there at that time.)

“Man in the Middle” now available

Man in the Middle, by Jim Nelson

A quick note to announce that my latest novel, Man in the Middle, is now available!

This novel of suspense follows a security guard who, during the first week of the pandemic lock-down, begins to see things he suspect he’s not meant to see: Men working underground on Internet data lines in the dead of night. Neighborhood patrols enforcing the shelter-in-place order. And a conspiracy to steal millions of dollars in BitCoin.

Meanwhile, he is left to wonder if he’s contracted COVID-19, and whether he will have to submit himself to hospital quarantine.

Man in the Middle is now available in Kindle and paperback editions. Kindle Unlimited subscribers can read it free. The Kindle edition is still on sale for 99¢, but not for long, so get it now.