Tag Archives: private eye

Writing by Accident and a Pop Device

It happened by accident. Just a trifle. A commercial ploy. A pop hook. I suppose I could have resisted, but I decided to give in.

It came up as I dashed out the first story of “The Hard-Boiled Detective” series. Mind you, it wasn’t a series yet. Just an idea for a short story. A romp. A gas. I was having a blast ripping off a tale of false identities, blackmail and murder. All in a throwback, corkscrew style as a valentine to Chandler, Hammett, Cagney, Bogart.

I’m cranking out dialogue for an interview scene between our nameless, P.I. hero and a new, hardheaded client. The detective’s already long on attitude, fueled further by a customer who’s got something to hide. It all seemed like a natural bit of writing. Organic. Nothing contrived about it.

“You want the old man shadowed,” I nodded. “What for, Mrs. Leblanc?”
As coyly as she could manage it, she said, “I want you to catch him with her.”
“That is delicate,” I said. “You don’t strike me as the demure type, Mrs. Leblanc.”
With abrupt confidence she replied, “You strike me as the impertinent type.”
“Sometimes my line of work calls for it.”
“Does it?”
“I’ve been working it into a big ad campaign I’m planning: ‘Private & Personal Investigations. Discreet & Impertinent.’ Catchy, don’t you think?”

I thought nothing of it at the time. I liked the exchange between the characters, gave the screen a nice fat smile, and kept writing.

After wrapping up the yarn, I decided to craft another. The first go-round proved such a trip to write that the juices flowed, all right. I had barely an outline in mind for the second story. Merely the loosest notion of plot points. What sprung to mind immediately was an allusion to Hammet’s “The Maltese Falcon”—it’s hard to punch out hard-boiled prose and not see the words of the genre’s big boys before your eyes. So I penned the opening lines:

It’s bad business to plug your client. It’s bad business, bad for P.I.’s everywhere, just plain bad all around.

As a short, first paragraph, I liked its grab. But it needed a quick wrap, a final punch, a knockout line. That’s when that dialogue came back to me. I could see where I was going, but it seemed as perfect a fit as Edward G. Robinson in a bowler. Or Harlow in a teddy. I typed in a closing line to the paragraph:

Sometimes my line of work calls for it.

Now I’d done it. I’d given my hard-nosed gumshoe a tagline all his own. Hadn’t planned to. Hadn’t meant to. But writing’s a funny practice. I don’t pretend to understand the creative process. Once in a great while a literary gem seems to appear right before your eyes. On other occasions, the most shallow devices cry out for use. You bat away and hack and slash and keep at it.

There’s not a whole lot of planning that goes into my craft. I’m winging it as best I can. Sometimes it’s gold. Sometimes it crap. All I can do is give it my best shot. Sometimes my line of work calls for it.

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Hard-Boiled Thought of the Day: Collection #2

You can’t keep a good simile down. There’s nothing like a catching the aroma off that first cup of the day, that curl of smoke off your first stick, and the whiff of a finely tuned, hard-boiled thought.

Here’s another set of favorite thoughts of the day, collected from my throw-back series and posted with semi-frequence upon the ether.

  • “You ought to be ashamed, pop. You’re old enough to be her dead grandfather.”
  • I could trust her about as far as I could throw the Monadnock Building.
  • You could see at a glance she’d been around the block, as long as the block was clean, god-fearing and cut off from the real world.
  • “Lookit. It’s just like cooking, see? You cook, don’t you?”
    “Does toast count?”
    “No, toast doesn’t count.”
  • Believe nothing the first time around.
  • You can count on a walk in the park being anything but.
  • “I don’t mean to be rude. It’s like this proclivity I’ve got,” I said. “Whenever I get strong-armed, it kicks right in. I go on autopilot. It’s like a syndrome with me. Sometimes I can’t help myself. The rudeness bubbles out of me just like Alka-Seltzer. Sometimes my line of work calls for it.”
  • I needed work from this gink about as much as Venice needs a plumber.
  • I pictured her likeness on some prow down at the harbor. Then I recalled that feeling I always get in my gut from sailing—a group of bats having a go at badminton.
  • I smiled. Tom, Dick and Harry didn’t crack a smirk. I’ve seen cattle on meathooks with warmer dispositions.
  • “You’ve got more sales angles than a used car dealer with a three-way mirror.”
  • The surreptitious glimpses and rounded shoulders, the way she clutched the handbag in her lap—the whole mousy demeanor fit her like an ascot fits a python.
  • He looked forward to it as much as a corpse anticipates a funeral.
  • Who stumbles into a P.I.’s office with nothing to kick? Especially at that hour? Nothing from this baby. No “hello.” No “allow me to introduce myself.” No nothing. Instead, the guy’s lousy with hiccups.
  • I felt as rumpled as the two-bit bed beneath me. I felt as two-bit as the room. I felt like something somebody had spit out.
  • Murphy came off as irresistibly cute approaching saucy. Something of an innocent live wire. The girl next door ready to go wrong.
  • He quivered like a priest giving communion to a pair of stripteasers.
  • A few have too much of everything. Too many don’t have enough of anything. In between there’s hardly enough left to go around.
  • Even in the dark you could tell they’d croaked. There’s no mistaking that peculiar stillness of death. A quality of frozen permanence. Time hangs on a corpse like eternity. Like a busted clock.
  • I felt like a feather caught between two bowling balls.
  • I’ve seen plenty of clients try to rub out their past like chalk on the sidewalk—it never holds up. You can’t swap faces in the mirror. You can’t help but look at yourself square on. Sometimes my line of work calls for it.
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The Big, Grand, Hard-boiled, Hard-nosed, Hard-edged Experiment Part X: The Never-ending Sequel

When did it start, this never-ending, multi-part experiment? Take another drag and think. Blank.

Maybe it always was. Like some nihilist chicken-and-egg theory. The Russian, nesting doll version of Pandora’s box. Or maybe a box of Crackerjack. Take another shot and think. Blank.

Will it ever end? How can you tell it’s done? There ain’t no fork test or thermometer for that. This survival of the mis-fittest. Maybe it always will be. Until you drop for good. Sure.

Could those questions be right? Those crazy stars and their crazy alignment. They sure like to keep you guessing. So stop guessing. Sure. However it happened, it happened, and that’s all there is to it. I never would’ve planned it that way–don’t take this for any kind of apology. Just take it as you will, an epilogue to a preface, an ending to another beginning.

The last series of events went something like this. Penned a short yarn, then another, and another. All hard-boiled, all steeped in a period and style better remembered by my dad. Some kind of series I had developed. Sure. So what do you make of that? What do you do with that? Toss it on the web, serve it up for subscription like some sacrificial lamb of a detective. Screw tradition and what’s been done and what can’t be done and just go ahead. So I’m an unknown. Who ain’t? So who’ll listen and who cares? Go ahead anyway. Full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes, smoke ’em if you got ’em.

And in the meantime, why don’t you reach the breaking point at your nine-to-five? Why don’t you just walk out, flat–no plan, no safety net, no security blanket. Sure. Just a deck of smokes in my shirt and a P.I. in my hip pocket.

So now what? When did it start, this never-ending, multi-part experiment? Take another drag and think. Blank.

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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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