Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Back to Black, Part IV

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

In the fourth issue of The New Black Mask, Detroit detective novelist Loren D. Estleman, who also had a story in the first NBM, makes a return appearance, this time to nab the cover with his original Amos Walker story, “Blond and Blue.” That issue was published in 1986, but in correspondence years later, Estleman told me he was never very happy with the artist’s portrayal of Walker (the gentlemen in the illustration with his coat pulled down around his shoulders), feeling that his protagonist came off looking more like game-show host (and The Snoop Sisters co-star) Bert Convy than a tough-guy private investigator. Judging by this Convy photo, at least, he could well have a point.

“Blond and Blue” tells the story of a kidnapped boy who ends up being a pawn in a battle between his estranged parents, the feds, and the mob. Walker (who by 1986 had appeared in only six novels, most recently Every Brilliant Eye) is in fine form, eschewing his Smith & Wesson for a well-aimed Oldsmobile in the final showdown scene. (This scan of the “Blond and Blue” title page shows the signature and inscription Estleman provided me when I wrote to request them back in 1999.)

In the Estleman interview accompanying this tale, he talks about submitting his first short fiction to Argosy magazine when he was just 15, and compares the art of short-story writing with making love in an elevator! Regarding the basics of fiction-writing, Estleman said: “You have to know where you’re going from the beginning. You have to nail your character down in a couple of lines and move on from there.” And when asked about his reading of other authors’ work, he remarked: “I read a great deal, and I make it a practice not to read writers who do not themselves read. We read for the same reason a baseball player looks at a videotape of another player in action. Certainly a pitcher does it to see how his opponent works and to see if he can better it.”

Following Estleman’s yarn in NBM No. 4 comes “The Sins of the Fathers,” by returning author George V. Higgins. Higgins once again says it all with dialogue, conveying a character sketch of a corrupt, blackmailing police lieutenant in the course of one long conversation between two of his underlings at a shooting range. Higgins bookends his opening line--“I am telling you right now ... that you would not believe, that no sane person would believe, what I go through with this guy”--with the perfect line at the close, and nicely motivates it with what comes in between.

Prolific veteran Edward D. Hoch spins the next yarn, “The Other Eye,” which offers one of the relatively rare appearances of his California private eye, Al Darlan. I say relatively rare, because Hoch has written more than 900 short stories, and Darlan, although he was featured in a story from the March/April 2007 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, does not show up nearly as often as do his other series characters, Nick Velvet and Captain Leopold. In “The Other Eye” Darlan lets an eager would-be investigator buy his way into his one-man firm, but soon has cause to regret it.

Not many people can say, “Goddamn [James] Ellroy ... he’s always calling me up. He wants to be friends; I don’t need friends,” and mean it, but apparently the author who follows next in this lineup, Joseph L. Koenig, can--and did. As Sarah Weinman once explained, Koenig is something of a cipher: he wrote true-crime articles for 15 years prior to the publication of his story “The Scoop” in NBM, then went on to write four crime novels--scoring an Edgar Award nomination and a movie-option deal in the process--before simply disappearing. In “The Scoop,” he describes how one newsman learns that pressing his First Amendment rights to the limit can be hazardous to a person’s health.

I’m going to skip over the fifth story in this issue for a moment and proceed to the sixth, instead: “Pincushion,” by David A. Bowman. In some ways, Bowman is as much a cipher as Koenig. The introduction to this story says that “Pincushion” was his first publication, but I can find no other fiction credited to a David Bowman with the middle initial “A.” What I was able to find is a New York writer without the middle initial, who has published two novels, a biography of the Talking Heads, and several stories in Salon (including one about “the real-life tragedy that haunted Ross Macdonald”). If anyone can tell me if these are one and the same person, or has contact information for New Yorker Bowman, I’d appreciate hearing from you.

I’m particularly interested in finding Bowman, because “Pincushion” is my favorite story in this issue of The New Black Mask. It’s a warped, nourish tale of private eye Foy Laneer’s quest to determine whether his client’s husband is “doing the thing” with an exotic dancer whose act involves impaling herself with needles. If you were to throw David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, some random Twilight Zone episodes, and Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men into a blender and hit purée, you might come up with something that approximates “Pincushion.”

“Psychodrama,” by Mike Handley, is the next-to-last story in the magazine. Handley has other short fiction to his credit, and in “Psychodrama” he provides the fictionalized account of a real-life Oakland, California, holdup that occurred in August 1983.

Capping off this edition is the fourth and concluding installment of Jim Thompson’s The Rip-Off. Our hero, Britt Rainstar, has his hands full dodging the fists, bodies, switchblades, and balustrades that are thrown at him in a climatic, penultimate scene; but in the closing act, he’s back to his old tricks with the ladies.

* * *

Now let’s return to that short story I skipped over previously, the fifth one you come to, when flipping through this particular issue. It’s called “There’s No Such Thing as Private Eyes,” and represents my first appearance in print. The tale also introduces my series character, San Francisco private eye August Riordan.

In “Eyes,” August has a different last name (Hammond) and lives in another city (Phoenix, Arizona). But he still drives the same 1968 Galaxie 500, and he is still the same “smart-ass with a foolish heart,” as described in the jacket text for my newest book, Runoff.

I composed “There’s No Such Thing as Private Eyes” in the late ’70s for a creative-writing class at Stanford University taught by Ron Hansen (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Hitler’s Niece). This was shortly after I’d learned about Raymond Chandler and his distinctive writing style in another class, that one taught by Tobias Wolff (This Boy’s Life). I was all of 19 years old when I typed out the original draft on my Smith-Corona portable, and although the story went through a number of revisions, at the direction of both Hansen and NBM co-editor Richard Layman, it must be acknowledged--particularly when it comes to the plot and character motivations--that it still reads like a 19-year-old wrote it.

All that said--and if an author may be forgiven for commenting on his own work--in rereading “Eyes” again for this post, I did find that it contained a few “Chandlerisms,” or instances of the traditional private-eye voice that made smile. Here’s a sampling:

• From the story’s opening: “Delbert Evans was cheap: cheap with his time, cheap with his money. Cheap with everything. It didn’t do you any good to tell him, though, because he liked being that way.”

• Describing the love interest: “She wore a cream pantsuit over a figure that would make an accountant snap all his pencils.”

• August checks the back of his head after being knocked out: “[I] found a matted patch of bloody hair on a bump big enough to convince me that my head was reproducing by fission.”

• Calling on the maid of a suspect: “The Roman Empire rose and fell in the time it took someone to answer the door ... She smiled at me and tilted her hips at an insolent angle. She looked about as hard to get as the time of day.”

• Prowling a hallway to the chief suspect’s apartment: “I ... stepped out into a hallway that was as quiet as a sneak thief in the duchess’s bedroom.”

• After getting clobbered over the head yet again: “Points of light blazed like welding sparks in front of my eyes. The floor reached up to grab me.”

• And perhaps the best (and shortest) sentence I have ever written: “Things happened,” as the prelude to a description of the story’s big gun battle.

I am an inveterate pack rat. So I still have the original manuscript with Hansen’s comments, as well as a copy of the version I submitted to Layman, which contains his handwritten editorial remarks. I also have much of the correspondence between Layman, myself, and various representatives of the publisher. For the social historian interested in the process of writing and selling a short story to a major publisher in the mid-1980s, here is a little tour.

This is the last page of the original manuscript with Hansen’s summary recommendations (click on the image to enlarge it). He is very generous with his praise and you can see that he is encouraging me to submit the story for publication, though he’s concerned that the theme of the piece--that private eyes, as written about during the early and mid-20th century by Dashiell Hammett and Chandler, could not exist in today’s world--is not fully explored. I confess I couldn’t bring myself to make August recognize that he was a complete anachronism, because I was too much in love with the Hammett-Chandler world. August does quit doing private investigations at the end of “Eyes,” but reverses that decision in time to appear in his next adventure, The Immortal Game, which also began life as a short story that I submitted to The New Black Mask. Unfortunately--or fortunately, depending on how you view it--NBM ceased operations before it could publish Game; and after letting the story languish in a drawer for a number of years, I pulled it out to expand into novel form. By then, August had become a bit less anachronistic, a bit more mature--and a bit more self-aware.

Here is the letter I received from Layman after sending my story “over the transom” to the editors. Some years later, I learned that author Martha C. Lawrence (Ashes of Aries) also served on the editorial staff (see this interview), but I never corresponded with her, only with Layman. As you might expect, I was thrilled to bits to receive the acceptance. Check out the amount I was paid for the story: $750. More than 20 years later, that is still considered a generous amount for a short story. And some wonder why short fiction is dying ...

This is page 30 from the “enclosed marked typescript” mentioned in Layman’s letter. I agreed with 99 percent of the changes he wanted, and when I did call him to discuss the work, it was a fairly efficient conversation. On this page, the sentence he marked as “too strained” originally read, “The gun barked in my hand and three pills found found [sic] their way into his gut.” During the call, Layman told me that he didn’t like the use of the word “pills” because that was too reminiscent of Hammett and 1930s detective fiction argot. He also thought “barked” was hackneyed and that it was unnecessary to say “in my hand.” We agreed to replace “pills” with “slugs,” and I suggested “jolted” as a substitute for “barked.” I noted those changes down while we talked.

On this second page of the contract I eventually signed for the story, you’ll see the representative for the publisher is none other than Peter Jovanovich of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Some time after “There’s No Such Thing as Private Eyes” was accepted and the contract executed, I received another call from Richard Layman, telling me that I had been selected to have my photo on the back cover (only five of the authors in any one issue were selected). Again, I was thrilled and perhaps more than a little dumbstruck. I asked Layman what sort of photo he needed. His laconic response was straight out of the P.I. tradition, “Preferably one with your clothes on.”

(To be continued)

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