Sunday, May 29, 2011

Politics Makes Dead Bedfellows

“Politics Makes Dead Bedfellows,” by Brad Crowther. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. July/August 2011.
This is the winner of the Black Orchid Novella Award, co-sponsored by AHMM and the Wolfe Pack. The guidelines for this contest specifically say that "We're not looking for anything derivative of the Nero Wolfe character, milieu, etc," but a pastiche of Rex Stout is precisely what they got. And a good one, too. So let’s talk about pastiches.
I have written on this subject before, so let me start by explaining what a pastiche is not. Some dictionaries say the word is interchangeable with parody, a work that uses elements of another work in order to poke fun at it (e.g. Robert L. Fish’s Schlock Holmes of Bagel Street.) Some sources use pastiche when Writer B writes about the characters invented by Writer A, writing a new book in a dead author’s series (e.g Nicholas Meyer's The Seven Percent Solution.

I say no to both. A pastiche is a work in which Writer B uses elements from the character and style of Writer A to create something different. I would suggest there should be two categories in this field. Hard pastiche is the term I use for works in which the original characters exist in thin disguises of new names and addresses. For example: August Derleth’s Solar Pons is an unmistable copy of Sherlock Holmes.

One way to look at is the TV series rule. Imagine that someone turned Donald E. Westlake’s Dortmunder books into a TV show. If they ran out of books a screenwriter could take Jay Cronley’s novel Quick Change, change a few names and other details, and have a script ready to go. That’s a hard pastiche.

A soft pastiche takes more liberties. While it is unmistakable based on its model, and is intended to appeal to the same audience, but it creates a new world for the same formula. For some reason Rex Stout seems to attract a lot of these; see works by Dave Zeltsermen, Lawrence Block, Loren D. Estleman, and now (finally) Brad Crowther.

I knew we’d get to the point eventually. Let’s talk about “Politics Makes Dead Bedfellows.” I’ll assume that you are sufficiently familiar with Stout’s books about Nero Wolfe that I don’t need to connect the dots.

Edna Dugué is an wealthy private eye in Charleston, South Carolina. She is also an attorney, and teaches at a college. “I never pretended that my intentions are honorable,” she tells one visitor, but clearly they are.

Her assistant and the narrator of the story is Jerrelle Vesey, an African-American part-time college student. When Edna was a public defender she had helped him when he was sent to prison for badly beating two white men who killed his brother.

When the story opens a city councilman arrives to tell Edna that his wife has threatened to kill him. Not surprisingly he ends up dead and the widow becomes Edna’s client. What follows is classic Stout territory with Archie – Sorry! Jerrelle – going out to interview half a dozen suspects and bringing the results back to Edna, who figures out whodunit.

Two things make the story a treat. First is Jerrelle's dialog. Here he is chatting with the councilman: "I don't hold any grudges. As a matter of fact, I almost voted for you in the last election. In the end though I threw my support behind our neighbor's pet rat, Lester." I like this guy.

Second, are the set of supporting characters. For example, Edna's police nemesis is a woman, a friend of Jerrelle's family. She was the one who arrested him after his crime, and the one who drove him home after he was pardoned. And we still haven't met Edna's grandfather who lives in the attic.

These are interesting people in a world that feels fully developed and three dimensional. Rex Stout would be proud.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Real Celebrities

"The Real Celebrities," by Michael Mallory. Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. July/August 2011.

Okay, now i'm in trouble. Last week I lamented that for a second time in a row the best story I read was by a friend of mine. Now we make it three. In my own defense I don't think I have had any contact with Michael Mallory since we used to appear regularly in Margo Power's Murderous Intent Mystery Magazine back in the nineties.

Back then I seem to recall Michael writing mostly Sherlock Holmes pastiches and nonfiction about Hollywood. Now he has done a mash-up of sorts: fiction about Hollywood. How's this for an opening?

Since Marilyn Monroe hardly ever gave me the time of day, her sidling up to me meant that she wanted something. As a rule, Marilyn remained within her own little world, acting as though the rest of us didn't exist...

Okay, he's got my attention. Is this a historic tale about the real Marilyn? A fantasy story? Perhaps an insane asylum?

None of the above. The characters are impersonators who pose for tips outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre. The narrator dresses as Wolverine and is known as Hugh Jackman.

There are billions of little worlds floating around us and I love the stories that open the doors and let us take a peek inside one. Listen to "Jackman" explaining the service he and his friends provide: "For tourists, those of us on the boulevard are the real celebrities, the ones you can speak to and pose for pictures with. Those other ones, the figures you see on movie and television screens, they're nothing but illusions."

When one of them is murdered our hero feels obliged to try to figure out what happened. The plot won't have anyone puzzled, but you'll enjoy it, and the writing is just the sort of bitter sarcasm you expect from a tale of glitter-land's underclass.

"I'm an asshole' [he] said, by way of greeting.
"You're in the right town for it."

Sunday, May 15, 2011


"Detour" by Neil Schofield. Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 2011.

If I'm not careful I may be accused of nepotism, logrolling, or some other felony. This is the second week in a row I am reviewing a story written by a friend. Hey, I call 'em like I see 'em.

Let's talk about metaphor. Literary critics love them to death. Is the white whale a symbol of the uncaring universe? Is the yellow brick road a metaphor for the Gold Standard? And is anyone in a work of literature with the initials JC a stand-in for Jesus?

We won't settle those issues today, but Neil Schofield's story is metaphor from title to last sentence. His nameless narrator has gotten off the main track - literally and symbolically. He seems to be working hard at finding ways to avoid working. We learn later on that his personal life has also gotten lost in the rough.

While taking a slow route to a meeting he wishes to avoid he discovers a horrific crime. Last week I talked about interesting readers by giving the protagonist a chance at redemption. I see that chance here because this traumatic event - discovering a brutal crime - could change the course of even a well-adjusted person's life. But will it send our screwed-up hero back onto the main highway of his life, or drag him further into the wilderness?

A quiet, subtle little tale.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Last Laugh in Floogle Park

"Last Laugh in Floogle Park" by James Powell. Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine July 2011.

My friend Jim Powell has become our first repeat offender here at LBC. Last time I wrote that a Powell story "contains a fully realized plot stuffed with wild free associations wrapped around a bizarre central idea that, if it had occurred to most writers, would cause them to swear off late-night enchiladas."

In this case, the story is about Chief Inspector Bozo of the Clowntown police force. And this gives us a chance to talk about developing a series.

When you create the first tale in a series you may have already decided there will be more to come or you may think it is a standalone. But when you make the jump to story number two, you have to decide what to bring along and what to leave behind. Presumably you and the reader like the main character, and you probably want to keep the style and the mood. But something needs to change, right? You can't sell the same story over and over again (or at least, you shouldn't.)

Powell's first Bozo story, "A Dirge for Clowntown" introduced us to the concept of a metropolis inhabited entirely by clowns. The second story, "Elephant Pajamas," dealt with foreign policy, the possibility of Clowntown going to war. And this new story concentrates on the neighboring towns: Vaudevilleville, Mimeapolis, and Burlington (the last is where the Burlesque artists live).

Clearly Powell is filling in the details of his universe, which is what you do in a fantasy series. But the fact is this iswhat a good writer does in any series. Even a realistic series (and maybe the more realistic, the truer this is) is only showing a piece of the world, and each new novel or story is a further chance to define your territory, fill in the details of the map, perhaps extend geographically, chronologically or thematically.

But let's get back to Bozo. As I said before, Powell's strength is how, like a comedian riffing on a theme, he shoots out linked idea after idea on his basic concept. So in Vaudevilleville we meet a mute ventriloquist ("he threw his voice and it never came back") who partners with a mindreading dummy (who knows what jokes he wants to tell). The victim died of "a heart attack with severe side splits" from laughing too much. And so on.

Not everyone's cup of tea, I know. But I love it.

Sunday, May 1, 2011


Martyn Waites, hilarious! by annie_c_2
Martyn Waites, hilarious!, a photo by annie_c_2 on Flickr.

"Love" by Martyn Waites. in London Noir, edited by Cathi Unsworth. Akashic Press. 2006.

I have been reading mostly web-based stories this week and getting frustrated by them. Here is the plot I seem to read over and over: bad guy meets bad guy. One of them gets killed.

Okay, it's a story, I guess. In fact it is the plot of "Loaded," which I reviewed here last week. But by itself, it is not enough. You have to make me care what happens, which bad guy gets killed.

There are lots of ways to make the reader care, and I will discuss this at length in a week or two at Criminal Brief.

But here is one method: give the character a shot at redemption. Whether they take it or not isn't the issue. Give them chance to redeem themselves, to fix the broken part, to take back the mistake. (Ever see the movie In Bruges? It is a sardonically funny, bloody little film, well worth seeing. All three of the main characters, two hitmen and a gang boss, find their individual redemptions in the end, turning out to be slightly better people than we - and maybe they - thought.)

Which brings us to the end of the rant and the beginning of the rave. I have never heard of Martyn Waites before but his story "Love" is one of the highlights in London Noir. The narrator is a skinhead, a racist foot soldier of a racist movement.

Fists an boots an sticks. I take. I give back double. I twist an thrash. Like swimmin in anger. I come up for air an dive back in again, lungs full....

Then I'm not swimmin. Liquid solidifies round me. An I'm part of a huge machine. A muscle an bone an blood machine. A shoutin, chantin cog in a huge hrtin machine. Arms windmillin. Boots kickin. Fueled on violence. Driven by rage.

Lost to it. No me. Just the machine. An I've never felt more alive.

Love it.

Is there a chance for redemption for this guy? Can he retrieve himself from the machine and find his own humanity?

Yes, but this being noir, the cost is extremely high. Impressive story.