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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.

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

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Mystery’s 90/10 rule

Detective (hans van den berg, CC BY 2.0)

If there’s one trope of the mystery that stands out among all other types of stories—perhaps the single element that defines the mystery—it’s the solution being announced at the conclusion.

Almost all story leads the reader to a suspenseful ending. The mystery is unique in that the main character is responsible for explaining the prior events back to the reader in such a way as to make sense of them all. There are plenty of poorly-written books that open with a great dump of exposition to get the reader up to speed. Mystery has pretty much cornered the market on stories ending with an exposition dump.

This leads to mystery readers’ inevitable slaying of a story: “I knew who did it before I reached the end.” Usually this is put at some great insult or shut-down of the writer.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess most mystery writers don’t cringe when a reader claims to have solved the whodunnnit before the last page. Why?

Magician Eric Mead describes a bit of inside baseball for his craft:

…if a magician shows somebody a trick and ninety percent of that trick fools them but there is a little ten percent sliver over here that does not fool them, the average person will say that the trick did not fool them even though they can’t explain ninety percent of it.

…if that same magician shows that same trick to his fellow conjurers, it only takes that ten percent sliver for them to admit that they were fooled.

The same could be said for mystery writers and their craft. The problem of penning a mystery novel isn’t managing to befuddle the reader to the point of utter despair before they reach the last page. If you want to experience such confusion, try Gertude Stein’s Blood on the Dining-Room Floor, a novella one reviewer notes “since it’s more or less impossible to work out who any of the characters are, up to and including the person whose blood is on the dining-room floor…then it can only be called a detective novel in the loosest sense conceivable.”

For almost every other mystery book written, fooling the reader is kind of a side quest for the novelist. Even in an Agatha Christie book where six shady suspects roam the English country house, the reader has a better than fifteen percent chance of simply guessing the murder by yanking a name from a hat. And when a reader claims to have deduced the murderer before the final chapter, I would ask in return, can you fully explain the who’s, what’s, where’s, and when’s of the crime? Or are you merely working on a hunch, one that may have to do with meta-analysis of the book? (“The writer keeps making this character seem innocent. I bet they’re the one.”) Or did you suspect the character at one point in the story, fleetingly, before moving on to other suspicions, and later told yourself you’d figured it out? Be honest here.

This is Eric Mead’s 90%, the part of the mystery other novelists don’t fret over when reading someone else’s work.

The 10% most readers overlook but keeps other novelists up at nights? Writing a novel that readers will pick up in the first place; writing a novel that will carry readers to the last page; filling pages with knockdown dialogue, tight scenes, and wonderful prose; and the perennial dream, writing a novel people are still talking about fifty years later. This is the sliver novelists concern themselves with when admiring (or critiquing) another mystery writer’s work. This 10% does require storytelling sleight of hand, and when it’s working it’s all-but-invisible to the reader.

The New American Regionalism

Detective (hans van den berg, CC BY 2.0)

An untested opinion I’ve held for many years:

Modern mystery fiction has supplanted 19th-century American regional literature, sometimes known as “writing of local color,” as its dominant form.

Regionalism is most strongly associated with Southern writers like Kate Chopin and Joel Chandler Harris, but after the American Civil War local color writing sprung up all over the country. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (“The Yellow Wallpaper”) cataloged New England’s parochialism while Bret Harte wrote roaring tales of California’s Gold Rush. Scholars make distinctions between the terms “regional literature” and “writing of local color,” but I’ll use them interchangeably here.

Regionalism in American writing faded after the turn of the century to be replaced by a more consensus-based literature. Perhaps the twin rise of mass literacy and mass media contributed to regionalism’s fade, although it did not go extinct. Faulkner and Jean Toomer wrote well into the 20th century, and wrote using techniques that would have been foreign to the earlier regional writers, but their fiction is unmistakably grounded in regionalism.

But did regionalism truly fade away? Or was it replaced by something else?

It seems to me that mystery fiction quietly—almost subversively—filled in regionalism’s absence. Every major city in America is host to at least one major crime or detective writer, from Seattle (Aaron Elkins, G. M. Ford) to Boston (Robert Parker, Dennis Lehane) to Chicago (Sara Paretsky) to New Orleans (James Lee Burke), all representing their respective locales through their work. Name almost any place in America today and you’ll find crime writers prowling its dark corners. In the process, they’re introducing the region’s colors and textures to a national audience.

More than any other form of fiction today, mystery is concerned with setting. Science fiction has almost no restrictions when it comes to setting. Fantasy explicitly takes place elsewhere than the here and now, otherwise it’s not fantasy. Romance fiction has setting too, but its concerns are before the fireplace and in the bedroom.

Even contemporary American literature—”fiction of literary intent,” so-called hard realism—is not as connected to setting as mystery fiction. Too often stories from the small literary magazines feel as though they could take place in any city or suburb or small farm, whichever backdrop suits the characters and the emotional arcs they traverse.

Perhaps the only other form of American fiction so tied to setting is the Western, a genre that not coincidentally shares a great deal in common with the American mystery, especially the private eye genre.

I’m not saying other forms of fiction don’t possess a setting, or that they don’t concern themselves with setting. I’m saying that, for the form as a whole, mystery adopts a priority for regions—regionalism—other forms do not.

In mystery, scenes unfold on streets with grounded names and in bars with a history. A great mystery reads like a travelogue of a town, a neighborhood, or a county. The American mystery has a tradition of hewing to real-world settings, such as the streets of Nob Hill in Hammett’s stories and novels. Ed McBain’s “87th Precinct” police procedurals take place in a fictional New York City borough, but it’s the Big Apple all the same. Sue Grafton’s stand-in for Santa Barbara (“Santa Teresa”) is so Southern California, you can imagine The Eagles cutting a single about it.

This, I say, is the New American Regionalism. Mystery writers delight in bringing alive their surroundings, and by doing so they share their surroundings with their readership. Local color means local characters and local charm. Look at what stylist Elmore Leonard does so expertly in his Florida novels, capturing all the facets of dialects and cultures in Miami. The Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry of local color emphasizes “the features and peculiarities of a particular locality and its inhabitants.” This fits Florida crime writing to a T, with an emphasis on the peculiarities and particulars of the genre’s always-colorful cast of characters (Leonard, Carl Hiassen, Edna Buchanan).

My first inkling of the connection between regional writing and mysteries came to me twenty-five years ago living in San Luis Obispo, California. An ever-reliable bookstore there stocked a case of local writers, including several mystery series. Perusing the back cover blurbs, it was apparent the writers had mined the peculiarities and particulars of San Luis Obispo County for all it had to offer. My cynical younger self found it ludicrous, these over-boiled private eyes and steely Lt. Detectives walking the mean streets of San Luis Obispo, a place ranked “one of the happiest cities on Earth.”

Over the years I’ve lightened up. I came to realize the mystery writers of SLO Town were merely doing what all regional writers have done in America: Explore, critique, and celebrate they places they live.