Saturday, December 22, 2007

Back to Black, Part VII

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

In 1986, Ed McBain celebrated the 30th anniversary of the publication of his first 87th Precinct novel, was elected a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, and captured the cover spot in the seventh issue of The New Black Mask (NBM) with an excerpt from his 39th 87th Precinct book, Poison. The excerpt is a chapter titled “Honesty,” and it describes an interview that police detective Hal Willis has with Marilyn Hollis, an attractive, flirty murder suspect who offers him a drink and ends up getting more information from him than he from her.

In the interview that accompanies this excerpt, McBain (aka Evan Hunter, aka Salvatore Lombino) talks about how he got started with the famous police-procedural series: “Erle Stanley Gardner ... was getting old, and Pocket Books was looking for a replacement, to be blunt about it, and [the editor] asked me if I had any ideas for a series character.” The interview ends on a somewhat bitter note, especially in light of McBain’s death in 2005. When asked about any involvement in the (then popular) Hill Street Blues TV program, he responds, “No, they did not come to me. It continues to amaze me that anyone developing a police series, a series with a conglomerate hero in a mythical city, had never heard of the 87th Precinct. My only consolation is that Hill Street Blues will be off the air one day, and I’ll still be here writing my novels.”

The next story in NBM No. 7, “Busman’s Holiday,” by Josh Pachter, is quite a treat--as much for the story as for the back story behind it. Pachter is primarily known as a short-story writer and “Busman” is a story that sneaks up on you. It head-fakes you into thinking it is a rather mundane recounting of a businessman’s two-week vacation, and then ends up being something quite different. The back story is also a surprise. Apparently, the piece Pachter originally sold to the editors was a parody of McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, but the publisher decided at the last minute that parodies were not appropriate for NBM. The editors bought “Busman” instead, and as Pachter exalts, “I somehow got billed above Joyce Carol Oates and Tony Hillerman on the back cover of this book. Eat your heart out, Oatesy! And bite me, Hillermeister!”

Speaking of “Oatesy,” what follows “Busman” is a Joyce Carol Oates piece with the ponderous title of “Little Moses/The Society for the Reclamation and Restoration of ‘E. Auguste Napoleon Bonaparte.’” Excerpted from her 1998 novel, My Heart Laid Bare, which the introduction says is “planned for publication in 1988 or 1980,” “Little Moses” gives us two well-written episodes in the scam-ridden career of con man Abraham Licht and his adopted black son, Elisha. In the first, Licht travels the rural backroads of early 20th-century America selling and reselling Elisha into slavery for $600 cash. In the second, Licht concocts a scheme to peddle shares in a legal defense fund for the recovery of the inheritance of Emanuel Auguste Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon I’s last-born (illegitimate) child. After raising more than $1 million dollars by convincing American “heirs” of Emanuel Auguste that they will receive a slice of the nearly $200-million inheritance that is moldering in the vaults of the Bank of Paris, Licht deems it wise to shut down the scheme before anyone tumbles to his fraud, with a clever stunt that plays upon the “heirs’” racism and fears of mixed blood in their own ancestry.

The Hillermeister, as Josh Pachter calls him, is next. (But note that he declined to use that sobriquet when he signed my copy of NBM No. 7, shown at right, preferring a simple Tony Hillerman.) His story, “Chee’s Witch,” involves the younger of his two series characters, Navajo Tribal policeman Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. In “Witch,” Chee butts heads with a Caucasian FBI agent sent to pick up a witness under protection for a car-theft investigation. Chee decides that what the agent doesn’t know may hurt that agent as well as the federal government’s case, but won’t bother Chee or the people on the reservation who’ve been reporting incidents of witchcraft.

The fifth story in this edition of NBM is “The Blue Book of Crime,” by Jerome Charyn, author of 37 books, including three memoirs about growing up in New York City and several detective novels. In a way, this story combines elements of both the memoirs and the detective novels, concerning as it does the friendship of two boys growing up in New York who are caught with goods stolen from a department store--even though they’ve made a point to study the “Blue Book” (a primer put out by the FBI) in order to allude capture. It’s a clever coming-of-age tale about betrayal, karma, and frustrated dreams--with a generous bit of nostalgia for the golden age of Hollywood thrown in.

Peter Heyrman follows with a noirish yarn called “One for the Money.” Written in an no-nonsense style, “Money” features tantalizing femme fatale Deborah Usher, who hires Key West, Florida, charter boat skipper Mark Kane for a trip that involves more than fishing for marlin. (Can you say “cocaine,” children?) Kane finds out what it’s like to have his hands full when his first mate comes down with an appendicitis, the boat runs into a squall line with 30-knot winds and high seas, and Ms. Usher’s “representative” on the trip breaks free from the chair he’s been tied down in and goes after Kane with a sap.

“The Death of the Tenth Man” comes next in this issue’s lineup, and it is Steve Oren’s first publication. The title refers to the minyan (a quorum of 10 Jewish males over the age of 13) that must be present to perform a Kaddish--a public prayer that is often used as a memorial for the dead. In “Tenth Man,” the Kaddish is being performed for the father of Mike, the narrator, and getting a minyan together proves especially difficult when one of the chosen males is found dead in the basement of the synagogue with a knife through his heart. Because of the advanced age of the other people present, and the fact that Mike is a Vietnam veteran, suspicion quickly falls on him in this creative variant of a traditional locked-room mystery.

Irish writer Maurade Glennon serves up “Murder, though it has no tongue …” in the following story, which reminded me a bit of the Stephen King novel Misery. The protagonist, Jay Simpson, wakes up in a Mexican hospital, paralyzed and mute from a stroke with his wife whispering in his ear, “I’m going to kill you.” She’s as good as her word, feeding Simpson doctored blood-pressure medicine to induce a second stroke. Simpson’s only hope is to find a way to alert his doctor before her fiendish plan succeeds.

Isak Romun (aka Gordon Bennett), who also had a story in the third NBM, bats ninth with “Capriccio.” Told once again from the point of view of newspaperman Oscar Monahan, this yarn deals with the hurt feelings and murderous impulses that can surface when the work of a temperamental artist is changed by another--in this case the work of a composer as altered by a conductor. Although Romun says that the “story resulted from the author’s thoughts, while attending a concert, about the different performances of the same composition,” you can’t help but wonder if Romun was really inspired by the actions of an editor.

Clark Dimond, who seems to have contributed as much or more to the field of music as to mystery, provides the penultimate story in the issue, “You Can’t Fire Me for Doing My Job.” While “extremism in the defense of liberty” may not be a vice, “You Can’t Fire Me” proves that extremism in the defense of copper tubing on a construction site may just qualify.

The final author in this issue, Ron Goulart, has a background as a historian of pulp fiction and hard-boiled detective characters. He puts that knowledge to good use with a tongue-in-check send-up of a quintessential pulp plot, wherein the main character suffers amnesia and his unremembered past comes back to haunt him. In “Hollywood Detective,” the main character in question is a writer who wakes up with no memory and a copy of an obscure detective novel in his pocket. Because of his admiration for the author, he is inspired to try his hand at writing private-eye fiction himself. He succeeds in grand style, but is always haunted by the desire to find and meet the person responsible for the book in his pocket. It’s a fun story, and in a weird way, it reminded me of William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel, due to the narrator’s lack of self-knowledge.

(To be continued)

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