- "I come up with good ideas, but I can't develop them into complete novels." [Yes! That’s me!]
- "I'm going along fine with my novel, and then it just stops. I can't get it moving again." [Again, yeah!]
- "I know what happens from start to finish, but I can't figure out what it's really about." [Sometime, yeah.]
- "I know what's supposed to happen and what it's supposed to mean, but my story is just not working." [Still me, a bit]
- "My novel is missing something and I can't figure out what it is." [Sure.]
Last weekend I went to the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference in New York City and one of the key note talks was on the issue of author responsibility. I have to admit it isn't something I've thought much about - beyond my responsibility to readers to write the very best books I can. My books don't tend to contain graphic violence or sex and I don't write with any particular agenda or controversy in mind, so it was interesting to hear what one writer thought was her responsibility as an author.
Obviously, the issue was of particular concern to her (and to most SCBWI members, I suspect) because she wrote for children and teenagers. What I didn't expect was that she would feel so strongly about her responsibilities, beyond that of 'professional grace', to instances where readers were indirectly affected by the book she had written. One example she gave was of a family who were listening to her audio book in the car and who were so overcome by emotion by the story that they were pulled over for speeding - she felt that she, as the author, was responsible for that occurring. Now in that instance, I disagree. I think there are many indirect consequences of reading/listening to a story which are not the author's responsibly because readers have a choice as to where and when they read/listen and for their own behaviour as a result.
Still, the concept of 'author responsibility' is an intriguing (and often fraught) concept...and I'm not even sure I'm totally clear on what that concept means to me. At the very least I think author should take responsibility for striving for excellence in their writing and that they should behave as a professional in all aspects of their career. At a minimum they should be held responsible for plagiarism and copyright infringement of other people's work. As an author I also wouldn't want to incite anyone to hatred or violence - but when I think about other authors' work I can see the concept of 'responsibility' could be a slippery slope indeed.
As a strong supporter of intellectual freedom, I certainly don't believe in author censorship but as a mother I'm also aware of the responsibilities involved when caring for young minds. I think it's important that writers (including writers of children and YA books) tackle weighty issues such as drug abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence, racial discrimination, persecution and bullying. Adults, children, and teenagers can only benefit, in my opinion, from being exposed to a variety of books dealing with a broad range of issues and perspectives (even those that make me personally uncomfortable).
Though I am often 'caretaker' when it comes to what my children read, I never feel that I have any right to advise others as to what their children should or should not be reading (ditto for adults!). So what do I feel, as a reader/mother, is an 'author's responsibility'? Do these standards differ to what I feel I'm responsible for as a writer? I'm not sure. But the talk at SCWBI certainly made me think about what I expect from both myself and other writers.
So what do you think is your responsibility as an author? What standards to you hold yourself up to and do these standards differ when it comes to other authors?
Local literary superstar Lauren Beukes is today’s #portraitoftheday from Photobooth, a collection of photos by Gareth Smit taken at the 2013 Franschhoek Literary Festival.
Beukes has written three novels and one graphic novel; her most recent book, The Shining Girls, was published earlier this year. She won the Arthur C Clarke Award for Moxyland, which was published in 2010.
There are only ten prints available (per portrait) for R1750 each. Find out how to get yours (or a portrait featuring one of the 31 other authors) at aerodrome.co.za/buy.
William F. Deeck
LAWRENCE LARIAR – Death Paints the Picture. Phoenix Press, hardcover, 1943. Crime Novel Selection, nn [#6], digest-sized paperback, as Death Is the Host, no date .
A cartoonist himself, Lariar has as his detective Homer Bull, quite overweight and mastermind of the daily comic strip “True Stories of Crime.” Bull writes the strip while his assistant, Ham MacAndrews, does the cartooning. Ham also narrates Bull’s investigations. “‘Great jumping ginch!’ I blatted” is an example of MacAndrews’s speech which leads one to hope he draws better than he speaks.
Because his man Shtunk was on a binge, Bull misses the invitation to weekend with Hugh Shipley, famed illustrator for the weekly magazines. It is an ill-assorted group that includes Bull’s ex-wife, a gossip columnist, and a tobacco mogul.
If Bull had attended, he might have been able to prevent Shipley’s alleged suicide, alleged because Bull, who shows up afterwards, is convinced Shipley was murdered, despite the room having been locked with no way for any murderer to have escaped.
Another murder made to look like suicide, though it doesn’t fool Bull, takes place before Bull figures out who and how. Probably because I have perverse tastes, I enjoyed the book.
The Homer Bull series –
Death Paints the Picture. Phoenix Press, 1943.
He Died Laughing. Phoenix Press, 1943.
The Man with the Lumpy Nose. Dodd Mead, 1944.
The Girl with the Frightened Eyes. Dodd Mead, 1945.
Lawrence Lariar has his own page on Wikipedia. Here’s the first paragraph:
He wrote nine mystery novels under his own name; nine as Adam Knight, including eight adventures of PI Steve Conacher and one with female PI Sugar Shannon; two paperback originals as by Michael Lawrence, both cases for PI Johnny Amsterdam; and one book as by Michael Stark.
If he wrote the one mystery credited to Marston La France, it is news to Al Hubin. (Marston La France was a long-time professor and academic dean at Carleton University in Ottawa. The mystery he authored, Miami Murder-Go-Round, was copyrighted in his name. It features yet another PI, Rick Larkan.)
by Francis M. Nevins
When stuck for something to write about, browse the Web. I did that recently and discovered on the Bernard Herrmann Society website an excellent item to kick off this column with, an interview with composer Fred Steiner (1923-2011), whose main claim to fame for mystery lovers is that he wrote the theme for the Perry Mason TV series, which you may listen to here.
Here, laboriously transcribed by my own fingers, is what he had to say on that subject in the 2003 interview:
“I think the first time we recorded it, of all things, was in Mexico City, because of union complications. The original title was ‘Park Avenue Beat.’ And the reason for that was, I conceived of Perry Mason as this very sophisticated lawyer, eats at the best restaurants, tailor-made suits and so on, and at the same time he’s mixed in with these underworld bad guys, murder and crime.
“The underlying beat is R&B, rhythm and blues, and for the crazy reason that in those days, and even to this day, jazz or R&B is always associated with crime. You look at those old film noir pictures, they’ve always got jazz going for some reason or other. It’s like every time you see a Nazi they play Wagner.
“[The theme is] a piece of symphonic R&B. That’s why it’s called ‘Park Avenue Beat,’ but since then it’s been known as the Perry Mason theme… It’s always been used. It’s gone through several changes depending on the timing, because they would change the main titles year in and year out.”
During the late Fifties and early Sixties when Perry Mason was in prime time, the head of the CBS west coast music department was Lud Gluskin (1898-1989) and the best-known composer working for him of course was Herrmann (1911-1975), whose ominous music was heard frequently in the episodes from the first two years of the series.
Steiner went on to tell of another Herrmann-Mason connection:
Listening to Steiner’s words as Perry Mason would listen to the testimony of a witness against his client, do you detect the ambiguity I do? If Steiner were on the stand and you were cross-examining him, wouldn’t you ask the same question I would?
“Mr. Steiner, do you know whether Herrmann actually wrote a new theme for the series before he persuaded his bosses that they didn’t need one?”
Steiner died last June so the answer may never be known. But if he had replied that Herrmann did indeed write such a theme, wouldn’t you love to knew where it is? Or better still, to hear it?
At least we can see Steiner and hear the interview on YouTube.
From the Fifties let’s retreat to 1928, the year Fred Dannay and his cousin Manny Lee were writing The Roman Hat Mystery and creating Ellery Queen. How did they come up with the name?
It’s been known for decades that Ellery was the name of Fred’s closest friend when he was growing up in Elmira, New York. How they settled on Queen was explained in an audio recording played at the Columbia University’s Queen centennial conference in 2005.
The speaker is Patricia Lee Caldwell (1928- ), Manny’s oldest daughter, who had the story from her mother, Manny’s first wife, Betty Miller (1909-1974). Manny had married her in 1927 when she was 18 years old and he was 22. They were living in an apartment on Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn when their daughter was born.
“They had already decided on Ellery … but they hadn’t decided on a last name. Well, they were playing cards, and my mother said that they suddenly looked at the picture cards and they said: ‘Yeah, wait, the picture cards. Maybe this will give us something.’
“And they suddenly decided it would be Ellery King … but it didn’t seem quite right, and so they diddled around with it a little and they said: ‘No, Queen. Queen!’ The letter Q is extremely unusual in the English alphabet, and it would be much more memorable.”
And which of us shall say that it wasn’t?
Now let’s jump forward to a time when Ellery Queen was a household word, specifically to the fall of 1946 when the first volume of The Queen’s Awards brought together the prizewinners in the first annual story contest that Fred Dannay conducted for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.
Among the winners of the six second prizes — $250 apiece, which was a nice chunk of money in those days — was William Faulkner for “An Error in Chemistry” (EQMM, June 1946), the future Nobel laureate’s only original contribution to the magazine. (The two other Faulkner stories Fred bought were reprints.)
From various Faulkner biographies we learn that he lost no time deriding both the magazine and the prize. “What a commentary,” he wrote his agent. “In France I am the father of a literary movement. In Europe I am considered the best modern American and among the first of all writers. In America I eke out a hack’s motion picture wages by winning second prize in a manufactured mystery story contest.”
A true Southern gentleman, yes?
Allen J. Hubin
JOHN M. FORD – The Scholars of Night. Tor, hardcover, 1988; paperback, 1989.
John M. Ford, author of an award-winning fantasy novel, enters the espionage lists with The Scholars of Night. Nicholas Hansard is hardly anything like a spy. He’s an academic, a historian, a man of no violent urges and no particular physical prowess.
He’s also a member of Raphael’s Washington think tank, and his best friend is Allan Berenson, master of board games of politics and war. And dead. And, apparently, a traitor.
A recently uncovered four-hundred-year-old play, possibly by Christopher Marlowe, has something to do with all this. Hansard, in sorrow and rage, resigns from the tank. But Raphael asks him first to go to England, have a look at the play, give his opinion on historicity.
He agrees. So easy to get lured into the world of death and double-dealing. Quite an artistic job we have here by Ford, crafty and complex … and perhaps a bit too fuzzy around the edges.
Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter 1989.
Bio-Bibliographic Notes: This is the only work of crime or espionage fiction by the witty and multi-talented John M. Ford included in Al Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV, but he had a long list of science fiction and fantasy novels to his credit when he died in 2006. He left us far too early; he was only 49 at the time of his passing. For more information, check out his Wikipedia page here.
SUSAN MOODY – Penny Dreadful. Fawcett Gold Medal, paperback; 1st US printing, August 1986. First published in the UK: Macmillan, hardcover, 1984.
The Penny in the title refers to Penny Wanawake, girl photographer, whose sleuthing activities place her as as nearly the perfect opposite of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple as can be imagined. While she is British, Penny is tall, young, black (corn-row braided hairdo), a sophisticated world traveler, and while a possessor of one live-in lover at home, she is not adverse to having others when she’s not.
But returning to the title of this one, it’s at least a double, if not triple, play on words. The dead man in the affair is a writer of cheap blood-and-thunder pulp fiction, supplementing his day job as a schoolmaster at an exclusive boys’ school in Canterbury. Penny dreadfuls, in other words. He’s a dreadful man, too, since his books incorporate much of the scandalous activities his roving eyes have uncovered.
And so no one really minds when he’s found dead. The police think the cause of death was a heart attack. Snooping in the kitchen, Penny finds the smell of gin in the sink, and she wonders if somebody had added something to it before disposing of it. Her interest in the case is not that of bringing a killer to justice, but more of an intellectual exercise in discovering the truth.
There are any number of suspects. Adding to the thrill of the chase is the competition Penny is provided by the visiting policeman from Detroit she is currently sharing living quarters with. On the other hand, though, what Penny Wanawake doesn’t have is a “Watson” to bounce theories off of, and to be bedazzled by her investigative techniques and abilities and so on.
We (the reader) follow her activities through the story from nearly beginning to end, and are usually given access to her thoughts, except (of course) when it really matters. Thus when it comes time for revealing the killer, we find that she had eliminated many possibilities lone before, although there was little in what she said or did that would have allowed us to come to the same conclusions.
Nonetheless, while the story might have moved a bit too slowly for me, I did enjoy Penny Dreadful as a detective puzzle, one populated by people I could see as individuals. Susan Moody has wicked sense of humor, too, maybe even a bit sharper than mine. I could probably quote you parts I liked all day long, but here’s a paragraph I thought you might like. It’ll tell you, at least, what I’m talking about. From pages 141-142:
May 1991 (slightly revised).
The Penny Wanawake series –
Penny Black. Macmillan, 1984.
Penny Dreadful. Macmillan, 1984.
Penny Post. Macmillan, 1985.
Penny Royal. Macmillan, 1986.
Penny Wise. Joseph, 1988.
Penny Pinching. Joseph, 1989.
Penny Saving, Joseph, 1990. No US edition.
All but the last were published by Gold Medal in the US as paperback originals.
After ending the Penny Wanawake series, author Susan Moody began another, this one featuring professional bridge player, Cassandra Swann. Six of the latter’s adventures were recorded between 1993 and 1999, four of them appearing here in the US.
Allen J. Hubin
MARCIA BIEDERMAN – Post No Bonds. Scribner’s, hardcover, 1988. Penguin, paperback, 1989.
Marcia Biederman makes her second excursion into our precincts with Post No Bonds. Phil Stark is a bail bondsman in Massachusetts. His wife Grace wants to redo the house, but Phil’s business is not flourishing. Grace’s attempts to improve Phil’s competitive position bring the law down around his neck, so he transfers the business and assets to Grace and tries selling insurance.
Grace is a no-nonsense, middle-aged type, fully capable of larceny and pulling triggers in a good cause. The good cause shortly presents itself: she bails a drug dealer, who skips, leaving Grace holding a $30,000 bag. Attaching herself to Darcy, the dealer’s market analyst cum bedmate, Grace sets out to get her investment back. An amusing and inventive tale.
Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter 1989.
Bibliographic Data: For some reason I thought Grace Stark was a recurring character, but not so. [Footnote.] Marcia Biederman wrote only three novels before leaving the field of crime fiction:
The Makeover. Academy Chicago, 1984.
Post No Bonds. Scribner, 1988.
Sismo. Walker, 1993.
One other online review of Post No Bonds is very positive, saying in part: “Pledging her condominium as collateral for Heywood’s bond is his girlfriend Darcy, who also teams with Grace to bring in Heywood. They make an effective, unorthodox pair of amateur sleuths. [...] The incongruity of finding a housewife such as Grace Stark in such places gives the book much of its humor. Armed with a pistol and a bulletproof raincoat, Grace proves to be surprisingly resourceful and tough enough to hold her own. Added fun comes from the interplay between the incompatible Grace and Darcy.”
Makes one wish that there was another book telling of their adventures.
[Footnote.] Now I remember. The cover of the hardcover edition states: “A Mystery Introducing Grace Stark.”
by Francis M. Nevins
When the present loses its savor, turn to the past. I recently reread a suspense novel first published in my childhood and first encountered something like 45 years ago. I remembered very little about it except that it hadn’t impressed me much back in the Sixties. It still doesn’t, but some aspects of it merit space here.
The byline on the first edition of Fallen Angel (Little Brown, 1952) was Walter Ericson but the author was Howard Fast (1914-2003), who is best known for mainstream novels like Spartacus and for his Communist affiliation, which sent him to prison for three months during the McCarthy-HUAC era.
According to his memoir Being Red (1990), he decided to present his first crime novel under a pseudonym because in those years of Red Menace paranoia he was afraid publishers would soon be boycotting all books by openly Marxist writers like himself.
Then some patriotic munchkin at Little Brown tipped off the FBI, and J. Edgar Hoover himself called the CEO with the message that it was okay for the book to appear under Fast’s own name but that the house would be in trouble if it came out under a pseudonym. With the book already printed and bound, the dust jacket copy was hastily revised to announce that Ericson was Fast’s newly minted byline for mystery fiction.
Critical reaction ran the gamut. Anthony Boucher in the New York Times Book Review called the book “something short of sensational… [It] has a few adroitly contrived pursuit scenes in the Hitchcock manner, but a limp, tired plot, an equally tired set of stock characters, rather heavy prose and unlikely dialogue, and a general air of never quite making sense.”
At the other end of the spectrum, the reviewer for the Boston Herald found the novel “surprisingly absorbing and masterfully created…,” evoking a “mood that is often savage with a skein of madness.”
The Michigan City News-Dispatch described it as “full of chills and thrills, ripe with suspense and psychological undertones.” The Cincinnati Enquirer praised the “good creepy atmosphere and excellent fast writing.” (Pun intended?)
These and other raves were reprinted in two pages of front matter when Fallen Angel appeared in paperback, retitled The Darkness Within. This early Ace Double (#D-17, 1953) was bound together with the softcover original Shakedown by Roney Scott, who turned out to be PI novelist William Campbell Gault.
Apparently no one tipped off J. Edgar this time: the byline on the Ace edition is Walter Ericson and there’s no hint anywhere that Fast was the author.
The springboard situation here is as purely noir as in any Woolrich novel. The narrator, David Stillman, is in a Lower Manhattan skyscraper late one March afternoon when the lights suddenly go out and the building loses all power.
Descending 22 stories by the fire stairs, he encounters a lovely woman who seems to know him well but whom he doesn’t know at all. He follows her into the bowels of the building but loses her. Out on the night street he finds that a renowned public figure who kept an office in the building has fallen 22 stories to his death.
Arriving home, he discovers a gunman in his apartment who presents him with a forged passport and orders him to leave for Europe at once. All this in the first four chapters!
Stillman soon becomes convinced that he’s been suffering from amnesia for the last three years, but in Chapter Five he visits an obese and grotesque psychiatrist who calls him a liar to his face:
Whether Fast is right or not I have no idea but this passage seems to be a clear reference to Woolrich’s The Black Curtain (1941; filmed the following year as Street of Chance), which begins with the restoration of the protagonist’s identity after an amnesia lasting precisely three years.
Fast devised a storyline squarely in the Woolrich vein, and left as much unexplained at the end as Woolrich ever did, but he simply didn’t have Woolrich’s awesome skill at making us live inside the skins of the hunted and the doomed, feeling their terror as they run headlong through the night and the city.
David Stillman’s first-person narration constantly seeks to evoke a sort of existential dread — perhaps the threat of World War III and the fear of nuclear holocaust — but the style is absurdly pretentious and didactic:
That last quartet of nouns illustrates another problem with the style: endless repetition. I’ll limit myself to two exchanges of dialogue, both from the climactic scene:
“But now you remember?”
“Now I remember,” I said.
“You’re a damned liar, David.”
“I haven’t got it,” I repeated evenly. “Do you hear me, I haven’t got it, Vincent.”
Multiply by hundreds and you’ll get it. The picture that is.
Speaking of pictures, The Black Curtain was filmed the year after its publication but Fast’s novel didn’t make it to the big screen until after his post-imprisonment break with the Party.
Mirage (1965) was directed by Edward Dmytryk, another member of the creative Left (although he avoided prison and salvaged his career by “naming names” before HUAC), and starred Gregory Peck and Diane Baker, with the performance of a lifetime by Walter Matthau as the hapless PI Peck consults.
Dispensing with first-person narration, Dmytryk and screenwriter Peter Stone eliminate the novel’s stylistic faults, but the film never generates the powerful mood of the finest noirs of the Sixties, like Cape Fear and Point Blank.
As a tie-in with the movie there came a paperback edition of the novel (Crest #d808, 1965), for obvious reasons retitled Mirage but now credited to Fast.
The back cover is graced by an amusing six-word condensation of Tony Boucher’s Times review: “Pursuit scenes in the Hitchcock manner.”
Just a few years later Mirage was loosely remade as Jigsaw (1968), directed by James Goldstone in a hallucinogenic visual style, with Bradford Dillman and Harry Guardino replacing Peck and Matthau.
When Fast was in his early eighties I had a brief exchange of letters with him about his World War II court-martial novel The Winston Affair (1959) and the very different film version Man in the Middle (1964), which starred Robert Mitchum as a sort of Philip Marlowe in khaki. (Google my name and the movie title and you’ll find my University of San Francisco Law Review essay on that subject.)
If only I had reread Fallen Angel back then and asked him about that book too!