Monday, November 12, 2007

Back to Black, Part II

(The first installment of author Mark Coggins’ admiring look back at The New Black Mask magazine can be found here.)

The second issue of The New Black Mask (NBM), also published in 1985, is nearly as star-studded as the first. The cover story is an excerpt from Elmore Leonard’s 1983 novel, LaBrava, wherein former Secret Service agent Joe LaBrava and South Miami Beach old-timer Maurice Zola hop in Zola’s old-model Mercedes and drive north to rescue a lady in distress in Delray Beach.

In commentary that follows the excerpt, Leonard says that the chapter contains the first two and half pages he wrote of the novel--on Christmas Eve in 1982 during a lull in holiday preparations. As he explains, “The best time to begin writing a novel is when you least expect to. Otherwise you can prepare forever ... to the point that the act of beginning becomes a major event, if not a psychological hang-up.”

There’s also an interview in this issue, preceding the LaBrava excerpt. In it, Leonard discusses some of his other work habits. One that drew my attention is that--in contrast to other big-name writers I know--it seems he does read reviews and sometimes takes the feedback to heart. In particular, after an Associated Press reviewer contended that he hadn’t made enough of the city of Detroit in a previous novel, he worked to draw more of his story setting--whatever it might be--into his books. That certainly shows in his descriptions of Miami and its environs in the LaBrava excerpt.

The next piece in this second NBM is a teleplay titled “George Smiley Goes Home,” by John le Carré, featuring his MI-5 spymaster, George Smiley. This was the teleplay’s first publication in the United States, and it was written to set up the character of Smiley for a 1977 BBC program about Le Carré. It succeeds admirably. We see both the domesticated (possibly henpecked) man who picks up the family laundry himself and the quick-thinking Machiavelli who deftly parries an attempt on his own life.

In the trey spot we have another novel excerpt, this time a chapter from Come Morning (1986), by Joe Gores. The excerpt (and the novel as a whole) are a bit of a change-up for Gores: a description of a well-planned and executed heist à la Mission: Impossible. I think the piece is very well written, and seems to leverage Gores’ TV screenplay-writing experience. The Mystery Writers of America must have agreed, since its members nominated Come Morning for an Edgar Award in 1987. (It ultimately lost the prize, though, to A Dark-Adapted Eye, by Barbara Vine.)

A Dan Fortune story called “A Reason to Die,” by the now late, great Dennis Lynds (aka Michael Collins), follows. I attended a tribute to Lynds at last year’s Left Coast Crime in Seattle, which included a panel that included his (thriller-writing) wife, Gayle Lynds, and a number of other distinguished authors. One of them mentioned that Dennis Lynds sometimes regretted his decision to hobble private eye Fortune with his distinguishing physical characteristic: a missing arm. Apparently, Lynds struggled to accurately convey physical movements that were possible for a one-armed man or, on occasion, accidentally moved Fortune’s remaining arm to the wrong side.

But in “A Reason to Die” none of that matters, because Fortune’s job is not a physical one and Lynds never even makes mention of the missing arm. What he does do is have a lot of fun with a college professor character who is working to make it big as a fiction writer, but is getting nowhere fast. (Can anyone relate?) However, the story really concerns the murder of a young married woman who is driven to prostitution for mysterious reasons. Fortune solves the mystery and the murder, but no one, including his client--the dead woman’s mother--is particularly happy that he has.

Next up is the second installment of The Rip-Off, the Jim Thompson novel whose serialization began in the premiere issue of NBM. The scene of the wheelchair-bound man on a runaway ride has been played to good comedic effect in a number of movies, including The Naked Gun. (Extra points if you can name the actor who played the man in the wheelchair, Detective Nordberg, in Gun.) But Thompson’s first-person description of a similar journey is pretty terrifying.

After Rip-Off, an English writer named H.R.F. Keating serves up a short story titled “And We in Dreams.” This is the story of a decidedly henpecked man who “dreams up” a computer-fraud caper to pay for the retirement home in Scotland that his wife has always wanted. The characterizations are excellent and there’s a nice ironic twist at the end, but being in the software business (even back in 1985), I did have to chuckle at the technical descriptions of how this fictional fraud is managed.

In my current novel, Runoff, I faced a similar challenge in describing how the security on e-voting machines might be defeated to rig elections. The trick in writing about this sort of thing is to be accurate and convey enough information to motivate the story, without giving so much detail that it bogs the narrative down or is impossible for the lay reader to understand. I spent a lot of hours on rewrites of Runoff, trying to strike that balance.

If the “Dreams” piece was a bit cozy for a revival of Black Mask, Michael Avallone more than makes up for it in the hard-boiled story that follows, “A Bullet for Big Nick.” Avallone out-Spillanes Spillane in what, in my opinion, is the weakest offering in this issue, but I’m glad the story was included because it’s a great excuse to talk about Avallone. Master of the TV tie-in novel, Avallone wrote books for such shows as The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., Hawaii Five-O, Mission: Impossible, Mannix, and even The Partridge Family! He completed more than 1,000 works in his lifetime and was apparently possessed of a such a big ego that, when putting together a top-10 list of P.I. novels, he included two of his own. This and more stories about Avallone are collected in this posting from Lee Goldberg’s blog. See also this entry from The Thrilling Detective Web Site.

The second-to-last story in this issue is “Trace of Spice,” by Peter Lovesey of Sergeant Cribb fame. In it, a mystery-fiction critic is invited to a party where all the other guests are authors about whose work he’s written bad reviews. It slowly dawns upon the reviewer that he may be in jeopardy. I found this story strangely satisfying, but I can’t for the life of me say why. Perhaps the only thing that could possibly have made it better is if the reviewer had been given name of Mr. Kirkus ...

The final story in NBM, “Dead End for Delia,” is by veteran writer William Campbell Gault, to whom Ross Macdonald dedicated The Blue Hammer (1976) with the note, “To Bill Gault, who knows that writing well is the best revenge.” Gault’s story is the tough, no-nonsense tale of a police sergeant who quits the force in order to investigate the murder of his estranged wife, who’s found beaten to death outside a dance hall. It originally appeared in the November 1950 issue of Black Mask Detective and shows off this “old-school” writer’s strengths to good effect. Follow this link for an excellent Los Angeles Times story about Gault.

(To be continued)

1 comment:

patrick said...

Dead End for Delia was adapted for TV in Showtime's great noir series, Fallen Angels. Gary Oldman played the cop and Gabrielle Anwar was his wife. IIRC, it was directed by Phil Joanou, who directed U2's Rattle and Hum as well as Richard Gere's Final Analysis and the great State of Grace. The series is available on VHS, but not DVD.