Tag Archives: hammett

Wooing Art, Success and Lady Luck

I grew up with Hammett, Picasso and Cagney. Throw in Beethoven, Ellington and Buddy Holly. The list goes on, from Bogart, Raft and Robinson to Cezanne, Matisse and even Pater Max. Plenty of examples of artists with rare talents, works of brilliance, and all with varying degrees of success.

You can't lose if you don't play.

You can’t lose if you don’t play.

How would they make their way today, if they made it all? You can’t account for luck, fortune, kismet—however you want to tag it, so I’ll skip that. What I’m spinning on is approach. I’m less than a month out from launching my first book, and the promotion side is overwhelming. How would Chandler or Hammett play it today? How would any of the Black Mask boys?

Can’t say I have an easy time transplanting these guys into another era. Except for his writing, Chandler came off like an SOB unfit for any setting. Would he join the crowded field of indie authors? Would you find him going exclusive with KDP Select and running book giveaways on GoodReads, etc?

Hard to picture Picasso giving away pictures. A two-for-one sale on signed lithographs? Are you kidding? Or Mozart plugging his latest divertissement MP3 on Facebook, linking back to his website where you can sample movements from his latest symphony? Would Buster Keaton start up his own YouTube channel?

Perhaps the oddest fantasy that springs forth is Charlie Chaplin. World famous, wildly successful, a man of his day who kept at his art form for decades without significantly changing. But Chaplin was also a social butterfly, a guy you could easily imagine rubbing internet shoulders on every social platform imaginable.

There’s no one way to succeed, and thousands more ways to flop. All I can do is put it into perspective. Those great ones who inspired me found their own way somehow. They did what they did, mostly on their own terms, and their success stories are as unique as their art. Maybe I can’t account for luck, but maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to discount it, either. Sure.

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Vampires, Dicks and Scouts: 3 Heroes

dracula_bela_lugosi_103Marlowescout

 

 

 

 

 

Dracula, Marlowe and Scout. Oh my. A bloodsucker, an SOB and a kid. A true range of characters, that is. Proof that when it comes to heroes, anything goes.

I’m talking about traditional narrative, as I see it. I see it from a lifetime of learning outside the classroom. From movies and comic books and television and comic strips and books. Following the teachings of everything from The Brothers Karamazov to The Brothers Warner, there are three standard molds from which our fictional heroes are stamped.

You, Me, the Girl Next Door
Look down in the street. It’s a worm. It’s a pain. It’s everyman.

Think Scout, Dorothy, Huck, George Bailey. Characters you’re drawn to rooting for because they are you. Sure, you can relate to their ups and downs, their dreams, their conflicts. You want them to make out just like you want yourself to make out.

Here I Come to Save the Day
Look at the way he saves the poor damsel from being flattened by the oncoming train. Dig the way she stands up to authority and sticks it to the establishment. You have to admire the way he seeks truth, justice, etcetera.

Some heroes are truly heroic. Mythic, even. You admire their ethics and principles, their honesty and grit, their pretty costumes and cleft chins. We’re talking knights that slay dragons and bring civilization to heathens. We’re talking renegades who rob from the rich and give to the poor. We’re talking tough hombres whose reason for living is to find justice where none exists, whether its the wild frontier of the Old West or the boulevards of post-World War II Los Angeles. A bigger than life story calls for a bigger than life protagonist, right?

Fascinating Rhythmmightymouse
Then there’s that Dracula bit. Not exactly the man in the street. Not your go-to guy when the planet’s being threatened by some intergalactic hoodoo. He’s just so damn fascinating. I mean, he’s the undead, for chrissake. He drinks human blood and turns into a bat and can’t use mirrors. Hannibal Lecter’s pure evil and purely intriguing. Even more everyday monsters like the Corleones are riveting stuff.

Most of us regular folk don’t relate to these kinds of heroes. We can’t root for them, either. But we’ll follow their adventures because they make us so damn curious.

Hybrids
John and Jane Doe, Superman and Mike Hammer, Raskolnikov and Jordan Belfort represent the old guard. The basics. The tried and true stuff of narrative heroes. If you can truly create any of these, you’ve got it knocked. But what if you mix and match? Can you summon up a hero who’s part monster, part everyone? Pull that one off and maybe you’ll find you’ve got a Travis Bickle or a Humbert Humbert. Maybe even King Kong.

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Poe Would Be Vaping

I thought all writers drank to excess and beat their wives. You know, at one time I think I secretly wanted to be a writer.
–The Philadelphia Story

Maybe artists can forego nasty habits, addictive rituals and obsessive practices. Maybe. There’s nothing that says writing the great American novel requires an intoxicating level of whiskey. Oils and opium don’t necessarily mix. Or similes and opium. Or tone poems and opium.

No, having a dependency cross to bear isn’t required, but it’s pretty standard issue according to history. That doesn’t make it right, mind you. Then again, it ain’t necessarily wrong, either. Whatever gets you through the night. Or through the chapter. As long as you’re left standing when you come out the other side. Sure.

What I’m getting at is my own peculiar slant, of course. I’ve been writing full-time now for a little while. A privileged position, that’s for sure. But from the start I’ve had one overriding vision, one fantasy that’s dogged my particular work set-up. I’ve longed to write and take a drag at the same time.

See, I’ve been grinding out my so-called art in a smoke-free zone. No cigarettes, no pipes, no cigars, no nothing. When I wanted a smoke, I stopped writing. I had to split myself in two, a synthetic division between aspects that are inseparable as far as I’m concerned.   So everything got broken up, cornered, boxed in. Smoking became relegated to breaks. And I took plenty of them. Sure.

That’s all over now. I can be slow to the game, but I’ve finally discovered one of those great writer resources, a superb tool for anyone whose creative and addictive make-ups are inseparable. I’m talking about vaping, the big brother to disposable e-cigarettes. Loading up one of those overgrown, cylindrical devices with nicotine-punched juice and sucking up clouds of vapor that disperse in the air like mist.

What I’m aiming for is enhancing the creative process. I’ll leave the health and social aspects to other writers. I’m concerned with making the work happen. Removing obstacles, finding solutions, making it cook.

I’ve reclaimed my writing desk with vaping. Its part of my work now, no different than the cup of coffee at my side or the cell phone close at hand. Technology in this 21st century has fulfilled my working habit in more ways than one. 

I can imagine Chandler laughing it off: “Why don’t you just get a damn hookah?”

Spillane got all PC towards the end. He’d probably say whatever floats your boat makes no never mind to him. As long as you aren’t harming anyone else. Then he’d turn his back.

I’d like to think that Hammett would’ve given it a whirl. It always struck me there was an experimental side to his nature.

The Great Edgar–he’d lap it up altogether, figuratively speaking. He’d dabble with all the stock variations of e-juice. When those were exhausted, he’d move onto things of an illicit nature. Call him Edgar “Leary” Poe.

There are probably those out there that depend from nothing and can’t relate. Maybe nothing comes between them and the words. No shot, no stein. No stick, no Havana, no weed. The only fix they require is the work itself. I guess art takes all kinds.

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Hard-Boiled History

I’m no scholar, but I take to scholarly stuff. Probably most scribes do. So I’ve pulled together this simple timeline. The idea is nothing fancy, just a plain record of the events and influences that have put the hard-boiled genre on the literary map. If I’m mindful, this ought to be an ongoing document always prone to one more citation and one more tweak. And I invite your suggestions for any critical dates I’ve missed. Sure.

c. 800
The discovery of gunpowder is made in China. The prevailing theory gives credit to Han alchemists monkeying around, trying to concoct an immortality elixir.

1440
Johannes (Johnnie) Gutenberg constructs his first printing press.

1809
January 19: Edgar Allan Poe born in Boston, Massachusetts. (The Edgar Award is named for him, not the other way around.)

1841
April 20: Graham’s Magazine publishes “Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allen Poe. The yarn introduces literature’s first, fictional sleuth, Auguste C. Dupin.

1855
The City Council of New Albany, Indiana passes a two-fisted amendment prohibiting the carrying or use of brass knuckles.

1859
May 22: Arthur Conan Doyle born in Edinburgh, Scotland. Delivery was elementary.

1872
Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company designs the Colt Single Action Army (famously known as the Colt 45) for the U.S. government. The gat provided the basis for the Snubnosed .38.

1879
Arthur Conan Doyle’s first published work appears“The Mystery of Sasassa Valley,”  in Chamber’s Edinburgh Journal.

1886
December 1: Rex Stout born in Noblesville, Indiana.

1887
Beeton’s Christmas Annual includes the story, “A Study in Scarlet” by Arthur Conan Doyle, the first appearance for Sherlock Holmes.

1888:
July 23: Raymond Chandler born in Chicago, Illinois, 2,000 miles away from Los Angeles.

1889
July 17: Erle Stanley Gardner born in Malden, Massachusetts.
Sep 14: Carroll John Daly born in Yonkers, NY.

1892
July 1: James M. Cain born in Annapolis, Maryland.

1890
Agatha Christie born in Torquay, England.

1894
May 27: Dashiell Hammett born in St. Mary’s County, Maryland.

1899
W.R. Burnett is born in Springfield, Ohio.

1918
March 9: Mickey Spillane born in Brooklyn, NY

1920
H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan launch Black Mask Magazine.

1922
December: The hard-boiled detective story is born in two, back-to-back tales published in Black Mask: Carroll John Daly’s “The False Burton Combs,” and the mag’s first Dashiell Hammett tale, “The Road Home,” under the pen name, Peter Collinson.

1923
June: Carroll John Daley’s private detective Race Williams debuts in “Knights of the Open Palm” in the pages of Black Mask.
December: Erle Stanley Gardner’s first story appears in Black Mask, “The Shrieking Skeleton.”

1925
October 11: Elmore Leonard born in New Orleans.

1928
“Red Harvest” is published, the first Dashiell Hammett novel.

1929
“Little Caesar” by W.R. Burnett is published.

1930
February 14: Dasheill Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” comes hot off the presses of Alfred A. Knopf, an odd sort of valentine.

1933
December: Black Mask publishes its first Raymond Chandler yarn, “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot.” It’s the author’s first detective yarn.

1934
“The Postman Always Rings Twice” is published, the first novel by James M. Cain.

1936
January 11: Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler meet at a Black Mask dinner.
Graham Greene’s “This Gun for Hire” is published.

1939
Knopf publishes Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep.”

1947
Mickey Spillane’s “I, the Jury” is published in hardback.

1948
March 4: James Ellroy born in Los Angeles.

1949
Ross MacDonald’s “The Moving Target” is published.

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Real Life Detective Story

The funny thing is, see, I’ve been writing detective stories. That project is another yarn in itself, but my point is that I’ve been walking around for awhile now with hard-boiled notions racing through my head.

So imagine walking out to my car, on my way to a coffee date, when a bright, blue object in the street catches my eye. Sure enough it’s a wallet. It’s a bloated wallet. It’s a wallet thick with masses of credit cards and receipts and coupons and club cards and business cards. I’d say the damn thing was thicker than a corned beef sandwich at Manny’s.

So now I’m stuck. I can’t leave the thing in the street and I can’t turn it into anybody–believe me, I’ve got all the respect in the world for the boys in blue, but I was always told to avoid coppers just like you avoid hospitals and the military. So I was stuck.

I took the exploding billfold with me to the cafe. I started rifling through its contents as I explained the situation to my coffee-mate. Sure, I could’ve contacted one of the bank card companies, but that’s just opening up another can of worms. All I wanted to find was a phone number, one lousy phone number.

Needless to say, buried in the depths of the purse’s crevices and pockets, among all those slips of cards and papers and scraps, I came up blanksville. Zippo. No phone, no way, no how. But my deductive powers were sharpening, a circumstance I attribute to those P.I. tales I’ve been penning.

See, I found this business card. Some kind of nutrition center. And it was located less than two miles from where I sat at that very moment. And it was on the way home. Ain’t that swell? All I had to do was pop in, ask the receptionist to give their client list a look-see, place a call, and pass on my number. Easy, right? In a pig’s eye. I found the joint easy enough, a big office in this ritzy complex just off of Clark and Diversey. And the dump is closed, locked up tighter than an embezzler’s safety deposit box.

When I got home I surfed all the usual suspects looking for a lead and came up with zilch. I was resigned to calling one of the credit card companies. But, I decided to check through the volumes of flotsam contained in the billfold one last time. 

And that’s when I found it. A credit card recept that had been run through one of those old machines that uses a carbon. The thing had been folded, spindled and otherwise mutilated, but it also had handwritten notes on it. One of the handwritten notes was, hold on to your fedora, a telephone number.

So I dialed per the receipt, got the tootsie on the line, and was she ever bowled over with relief. Somehow she had dropped the two-ton wallet in the street without noticing. Go figure.

So she swung by my place that night to retrive the pocketbook, and she kept falling all over herself with thanks. She was on the run, getting ready for a trip out of town, but had one last thing to tell me before she skidaddled: “You’re my guardian angel,” she said.

That’s me all over, all right. Sam and Phil and me. We’re all guardian angels. Sometimes my line of work calls for it.

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I Ain’t So Savvy

The story’s told in my family that, at the tender age of five, I finished watching “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and then questioned my mother: “Who did the dancing for Cagney?” Once upon a time I was savvy. Sure.

Now I’m not so sure. I’ve undertaken a short-fiction series of hard-boiled detective stories. Does it push the envelope? Does it attempt to reinvent the genre for 2013 and beyond? Does it go where hard-boiled noir has never gone before?

It’s not even close. The series is a throwback. It’s a period piece without a period, even. It takes place in a nebulous age that ranges from 1926 to 1960. The central P.I. doesn’t even have a name, for crissake. He refers to “dames and mugs and gats.” And of course he never ages.

Sure, the series is infused with all the hard-boiled trappings, and then some. Dark, fatalistic, dire–a real feel-good genre for those who feel good when they lose the girl, shoot their client and don’t get paid.

Taking the hard-boiled genre, dating it, and squeezing it into compacted form? It’s a gas. Easier said than done, but one blast of a rollercoaster ride, nonetheless. I could do worse. A whole lot worse. Sure. For better or worse, this is where the spirit’s taking me. I’m creating from the heart and the gut. I can afford to write from the gut–I’m no commercial success.

It’s gotta be painfully obvious I’m not striving to outdo or out-shock or out-pulp anyone. I’m actually trying to reinvent my own wheel my own way. If I can live up to the ideas conjured up in the head when reading Hammett, if I can approach that feeling in your gut that you get from cracking the pages of Chandler–wouldn’t that beat all for one hell of a triumph?

Sure. Sure it would. It would thrill me to death to pull it off. I wonder if Hammett and Chandler would appreciate the effort. Would they respect the result? Would they tip their hats to me, perhaps raise a shot glass and wish me the best? Or would they scratch their heads in disbelief, wondering why on earth I wasn’t crafting the latest police procedural or teen vampire yarn?

One thing I know for sure is this: if Hammett and Chandler were alive today, they’d be very, very old. And probably none too savvy at that. Probably no more savvy than I am.

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