Advice from Raymond Chandler

Author Raymond Chandler, considered the godfather of hardboiled crime—don’t call it noir—stepped out of his fictional mean streets and into the real world on occasion and wrote some rather charming and forward-thinking essays of workplace advice: “Notes to an Employer” and “Advice to a Secretary.” Thank The Strand Magazine for reprinting these a few months back.

Chandler’s secretary at the time he wrote “Advice to a Secretary” was Juanita Messick, and it’s down-to-earth, simultaneously encouraging and, on some points, demanding. Chandler is expressing very clearly his own needs and starts by saying, “Never pretend to know something which you do not know, or only know imperfectly.” This dictum is routinely ignored in social media, but Chandler says it’s a prescription for misunderstanding.

It sounds as if he’s run up against sticklers of various types and considered it a bad experience. He didn’t welcome input about grammar, literary usages, and punctuation, believing there’s more latitude than purists might think, “Punctuation is an art and not a science.” It has to replicate, insofar as possible, the natural cadences of speech, which vary from what precise rules might suggest.

He tells Messick to never take anything for granted. Ask questions if something isn’t clear. “Demand an explanation.” Being my own secretary, I admit to interrogating myself frequently about sentences I wrote a month, or a week, or an hour before: “Yes, but what do you mean here? What are you trying to say?” Amazingly, words that seemed perfectly clear when I wrote them somehow manage to shed all significance. It’s the one advantage of a short attention span; every time I read something I’ve written, it’s new to me.

Chandler was uncomfortable with the employer-employee relationship and there’s no stronger egalitarian impulse today, seventy years later, than when he said, “If he (always a he in Chandler’s piece) is talking nonsense, tell him so; you can do him no greater service.” And he encourages the secretary to stick up for herself when she’s tired or late or must leave on the dot: “We are both just people.”Strand editor Andrew Gulli discovered “Advice to a Secretary” in a shoebox at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library.

Gulli was engaged by it in part because, he says, writers whose work embodies very dark themes often” are among the most friendly and benign people around.” In my experience, gatherings of mystery and crime writers bear out this impression. Certainly, “Advice to a Secretary” suggests a considerate and accommodating employer. Or, as Cynthia Conrad wrote in BookTrib, “For a moment we see the big-hearted softie under the tough-guy trench coat.”

A Valentine to Agatha Christie

The Guardian has a new monthly guide to the works of selected authors and their first pick recently was the creator of the intrepid Miss Marple and Belgian dandy Hercule Poirot, the original queen of cozy crime, Agatha Christie. Modern-day crime novelist Janice Hallett wrote the commentary, which amounted to a love-letter to the Dame of Detection.

Early on, Hallett reveals her pick for the “best” Christie: And Then There Were None. You may  I remember it by the title Ten Little Indians, which was used in the 70s paperback edition and as the title of two films. Says Wikipedia, it’s the world’s best-selling mystery, with more than 100 million copies sold. Christie said it was the most difficult book she ever wrote.

If you really want to go down a rabbit hole, the Wikipedia article includes a chart showing how each of the characters died and how the manner of their demise matches up with the nursery rhyme. You get a little peek into Christie’s head as she made those associations.

The isolated setting, the group of friends, a shocking death. That staple of crime fiction today was debuted in Christie’s lesser-known Sparkling Cyanide, and it’s the best story to refer to at a dinner party, says Hallett. (Remember to strike her from your invite list.) Echoes of both of these books are apparent in many modern tales—One by One by Ruth Ware and two books by Lucy Foley—The Hunting Party and The Guest List.

Hallett dubs 1934’s Murder on the Orient Express and its many cinematic and theatrical adaptations as Christie’s “classic.” The photo above shows the (movable) set created for a brilliant production of the theatrical version of the story at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre. Real-life events—the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapping and a stranded train in Turkey—were Christie’s inspirations.

The one Hallett calls “the shocker” is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, whose sudden, violent death is investigated by his neighbor, Hercule Poirot. It was voted best crime novel ever[!] by the British Crime Writers’ Association in 2013. The title, alas, always reminds me of a famous 1945 essay by American critic Edmund Wilson, no fan of detective fiction. His article, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”, expressed an opinion generations of mystery fans have gleefully ignored.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Successful Reading Experiments: 2021 Edition

I read a lot.  Forty to fifty just-published books a year that I review for the U.K. website CrimeFictionLover.com, Audiobooks of prize-nominees and winners. And books that have been out a while picked by my mystery readers book club. And a few books that have nothing to do with crime or espionage or the Dark Side.

Here are a half-dozen authors, debutantes and established, that I “discovered” last year. Maybe you would enjoy them too.

Two New Jersey writers who not only write with style and precision, they offer a nice dose of humor are Bill Baer, who has two books in his New Jersey Noir series, and experienced writer but new-to-novels Fabian Nicieza, with Suburban Dicks.

The unlikely team of characters in Chris Brookmyre’s The Cut—an elderly woman who spent her career devising grisly stage makeup for horror films and a young Black guy who’s the consummate horror fan—were a delight to chase around Europe with.

If you asked, I’d say I’m not a horror fan, but Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians presented horror in a way that made it work for me. One of the best books I read last year. (If you can, listen to the audio version, narrated by Shaun Taylor-Corbett. Genius.) Jones has a number of others, including My Heart is a Chainsaw, which NPR picked as a best book of 2021. Will have to get to that!

Liz Moore’s Long Bright River, nominated for a number of prizes, is the painful story of two sisters—one a cop, the other a drug addict—and the corners they’re forced into. She has more where that came from too.

About once a year, I scrub sentimentality out of my brain with the caustic prose of authors like Cormac McCarthy. The book that accomplished that job this year was Australian author Paul Howarth’s Dust Off the Bones. This year, maybe his Only Killers and Thieves.

Did you find a favorite new author last year?

The Short Story Four-Minute Mile

Sherlock Holmes

Half-finished in a Word file on my computer is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche story, the second one I’ve written. What I hadn’t realized is that my two stories follow a very well-trodden path laid by Arthur Conan Doyle and followed by Holmes acolytes ever since.

In a Sisters in Crime webinar last week with short story dream team Art Taylor and Barb Goffman, Art presented the classic seven-part structure of a Sherlock Holmes story (which he credited to the apparently out-of-print book, Sherlock Holmes for Dummies). Through some process of osmosis, it seems I’d absorbed and followed at least the first few of those parts: Part 1 – cozy domestic scene; Part 2 – Sherlock shows off; Part 3 – the problem is presented. In my first Holmes story, the problem arrived by letter; in the new one, via a distraught Mrs. Hudson. Structural awareness greatly simplifies the writing job and prevents wandering about in rhetorical left field. I know what needs to get done.

In a short story, emphasized Barb, the writer has to focus. As she puts it, “A short story is about one thing,” even if that thing is unclear at the start. If you’d asked me what my story “Burning Bright” in Busted! Arresting Stories from the Beat was about, I would have said, “Two Wisconsin ne’er-do-wells plan to rake in a lot of money by having a tiger fight a bear.” I would have added, “and it’s also about an outraged deputy sheriff trying to stop them while trying to persuade her dad to move into assisted living.”

So, would Barb say “Hey, that’s two things”? Only after I wrote “The End” did I realize the story was only superficially about those two things. What it was really about was respect for autonomy.

Art cited six steps in a typical short story, and they usually, though not necessarily, appear in order: 1- Introduce the character, 2- express their desires, 3- action (what the character does about those desires), 4- factors that impedes obtaining the desires (3 and 4 can repeat several times), 5- the climax, 6- resolution. In the classic analysis of Cinderella (below), action and impediments trade places many times (nothing to wear? fairy godmother).

Art pointed out that the six steps are useful as a tool for planning a story, and for diagnosing why it isn’t working. Barb pulls several of the steps together and recommends starting a story is by asking, “what’s the conflict?”

Lest you think these are recommendations to write to a formula, they are not. The variety and rearrangement of parts is practically infinite. Someone once said to crime writer Donald Westlake that writing genre fiction was easy: All you have to do is follow the formula. And he responded, “I’ll give you a formula for running a four minute-mile. Run each quarter-mile in less than a minute.” (Art’s talk and his slides will be in the members section of the Sisters in Crime website.)

Between Author and Reader: Amazon

A recent New Yorker article by Parul Sehgal that asks “Is Amazon is changing the novel?” sure sounds like a must-read for authors. There’s some history in there and some juicy stuff about the company some writers call “The Great Satan.”

The struggle writers face in meeting the demands of the book marketplace (versus readers) is not a new phenomenon. Sehgal cites an 1891 novel, New Grub Street, as an example of “pitiless portraits of the writing life.” A character in that book asserts that “literature nowadays is a trade,” and how many versions of that have you heard in recent years? The term potboiler was coined to reflect books created without regard to craft, but just to keep the stew pots boiling.

A hundred thirty years ago, the Amazon of book distribution was Mudie’s Select Library. Mudie’s market power–along with publishers’ financial incentives—demanded hefty three-volume works, much as publishers today like series books and for much the same reason. One popular book in a series sells the others.

But nine-hundred pages (roughly) were a lot to fill, then or now, and writing styles and habits developed to support that requirement. Victorian writers larded in subplots, created large casts of characters, and wrote desperate cliffhangers to carry readers (and themselves) through that long slog. Toward the end of the 19th century, new publishing forms began to take hold, notably less expensive books printed on cheap pulp paper, which opened book purchasing to new markets. As night follows day, new forms of reader enticement emerged, including the development of popular genre fiction—crime novels, Westerns, and the like.

Now, Amazon controls almost three-fourths of U.S. online book sales to adults and almost half of all new-book sales. In that river of print are the company’s own book imprints—16 of them. Do authors write a different kind of book when they know readers have power over not only their own book purchases, but can influence others, as well? Not one-on-one, either. Success or failure is right there on screen, thanks to reader-posted stars.

Kindle Direct Publishing takes reader feedback even farther, right to authors’ wallets. KDP writers are paid based on the number of pages read—increasing the financial incentives for producing lots of pages, new books every three months, and littering them with cliffhangers to keep readers hooked.

Whether all this has an impact on book quality, I’ll leave to you. In my opinion, it helps account for the increasing violence in crime novels, and the bizarre and gruesome nature these crimes. The frequency of plots with “girls” (usually not a child) and children as victims is simply used to raise the stakes. Do you see other evidence of Amazon’s effects? on you? on other writers? on readers?

Guest Blog: Author Claire Matturro

The new book by Claire Matturro and Penny Koepsel, Wayward Girls (Red Adept Publishing), deals with society’s treatment of “difficult” females. Husbands and fathers may no longer have carte blanche to exile their prickly wives and daughters to mental hospitals. Yet, institutions like Claire and Penny’s fictional Talbot School for Girls persist. I’ll be reviewing Wayward Girls here in early October. Here’s what Claire says about the inspiration for this important book:

As noted in a CrimeFictionLover.com review, Wayward Girls is a “book with a strong sense of purpose.” It’s a loud warning about the oversight and accountability needed by delinquent/troubled teen facilities, boarding schools, and “wilderness schools,” because abuses continue to occur in such places, and adults continue to disbelieve the kids who cry out in protest.

What led Penny Koepsel and me to write the book does not arise so much from our own experiences at boarding school, but in the history of a Texas wilderness school for troubled teens, Artesia Hall. In the early 1970s, at that remote locale northeast of Houston, a 17-year-old girl ingested poison. Rather than immediately seeking medical treatment for the girl, the school’s owner allegedly had her put into a straightjacket and tied to a chair. She later died in hospital. Previously, escaped students had told of abuse, including a “GI bath,” where they were plunged naked into a trash can full of ice water and scrubbed with a wire brush. No one believed them. They were, after all, troubled. Kids who lied.

But these kids were telling the truth. After the teenager died and more students escaped to speak of dire mistreatment, officials finally listened. The State closed Artesia Hall.

Decades later, I—along with other former students from a Florida boarding school—reconnected as we organized a reunion. Our boarding school had existed at the same time as Artesia Hall, and both schools closed the same year. Yet they were as different as the sun and the moon. As reunion activities developed, Penny Koepsel, a psychologist from Texas, and I—a lawyer from Florida—met and formed a fast friendship. We had been students at the Florida boarding school, but at different times.

At the reunion, while groups of former students told tales from our school days, not one of us mentioned abuse, poison, rape, or anything approaching a GI bath. Few of us had ever even heard of Artesia Hall. However, Penny, a Texan, knew about the notorious school, and told us of the horrors there.

One of us said, “Let’s write a book!” Perhaps it was too much wine, or too much hubris, but the idea took hold. After all, I had already authored a series of legal thrillers published by HarperCollins, and Penny’s short stories and poems had been published in literary journals.

That’s how Wayward Girls came to be. The book deals head on with a sexual predator who targets petite teen girls at the fictional Talbot School for Girls and incorporates some of the horrors officials came finally to believe about the Texas wilderness school. Wayward Girls weaves in some of the playful hijinks from our Florida boarding school experience too.

While fictional, Wayward Girls stands as a warning. Schools for so-called wayward kids should not be unlicensed or easily licensed, and they must have strict oversight. Above all, adults should listen when kids speak up about abuse.

Karin Slaughter: No Sugarcoating

Last week a library consortium sponsored an interview with best-selling crime author Karin Slaughter to discuss her new standalone thriller, False Witness. She told the interviewer that it is a hard book to talk about without revealing spoilers, and since I’ve read and reviewed it for CrimeFictionLover.com, I can attest to the difficulty.

The book centers on two sisters, Leigh and Callie, who in their mid-teens experience a horrible event that has changed their lives in many ways. The book was a way to for Slaughter to explore her abiding interest in the impact trauma has on people. The bond between the sisters is at the book’s emotional core. Sister relationships, she says, are so fraught. “A sister is the person you can love the most and hate the most at the same time.”

The interviewer noted that many readers consider her books very “dark,” and she said “if my name was Ken Slaughter, they wouldn’t say that.” She puts violent situations in context but does not shy away from portraying them as they are. No sugarcoating. When she was a child, her grandmother would often have a black eye or split lip or even a broken bone. Her uncles would always make light of it, saying how clumsy she was, but as Karin grew older, she realized her grandfather was an abuser. The family’s refusal to face or even discuss the violence “only hurt my grandmother” and enabled the beatings to continue.

Tough issues, indeed, but despite them, Slaughter works considerable humor into her stories. In this one, Callie works in a veterinary clinic and gives the animals humorous (and very apt) nicknames. Her boss, Dr. Jerry, entertains her with intriguing animal stories. “This book was my opportunity to put in all the obscure animal facts I’ve collected,” Slaughter said. “You can’t have all the dark stuff without balance.”

As adults, Leigh is a lawyer in a high-priced Atlanta firm, and Callie a drug abuser, intermittently sober. To research Callie, Slaughter talked with current and former drug abusers and wanted to describe their outlook without defaulting into clichés. She wanted to separate Callie’s base personality from the addiction and does so in part through Callie’s love of animals. In my opinion, Callie comes across as the novel’s most engaging and believable character.

She read Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Katherine Anne Porter’s novel about the 1918 influenza epidemic, which contains so many parallels to our covid experience. The new book includes a pointed epigram from Porter too. Slaughter produces a book a year, generally, and has published 21 novels with more than 35 million copies sold worldwide. Several of her books are optioned for television, and the one closest to airing is Pieces of Her, which will be an eight-part Netflix series starring Toni Collette, premiering in late 2021 or 2022 (covid delays).

“Shunning” Books by Women? What FB Users Said

reading

Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post based in part on findings of research done by Nielsen Book Research. As you may know, the Nielsen organization is “a leading global data and analytics company that provides a holistic and objective understanding of the media industry.” This particular research was for a new book by MA Sieghart, titled The Authority Gap (reviewed here), which explores the social conditioning and unconscious bias that belittles and undermines women. Half the population is a lot of people to not take seriously.

The author investigated the many guises in which bias occurs, but of most interest to me were her findings on how authors are treated. Much past research has dealt with women authors’ difficulties, which culminate in reduced readership. Using the Nielsen research and other sources, Sieghart found considerable evidence that these difficulties continue and that men “shun” books by women. I actually think this may be less prevalent in the crime and mystery genre, but the research was dealt with best-selling authors, all genres.

I’m gratified that my post it received abundant Facebook likes from both men and women. But in the comments, sharp differences emerged. In general, women cited specific experiences they’d had; many men denied the problem and questioned the data.

Several women (teachers) said prejudices against women authors begin at an early age, and others said they identify themselves with initials, not their names, as a result. One woman said, “A while back, a large writers’ group I belong to researched this from several angles, and concluded that in most genres, male authors significantly outsold female. Possibly the roughest moment was a friend’s husband admitting to his writer wife that he too avoided books by women because he assumed they wouldn’t interest him.” That “he assumed” is what author Sieghart is trying to get at.

Some men said they don’t pay any attention to the author’s gender. I hope that’s true. But if all that interests them are stories about former Navy SEALS with advanced martial arts skills who like to blow things up, following their preferences will naturally lead to one type of author. One said he didn’t know any women who write the action thrillers he prefers (a woman author responded by suggesting one of her books). Sieghart’s point is that readers who read books by only one gender (however that happens) miss out on understanding a lot of what goes on in the world.

Apparently, several men didn’t bother to read my post, much less The Guardian article it was based on, both of which described the research. One skeptical man asked, “Is this based on any factual research?” Similarly, men wrote, “I don’t take much stock in people’s surveys or stats,” and “I think these surveys/polls are utter nonsense.” The Nielsen research wasn’t a poll; it was an analysis of actual buying patterns.

Mysteriously, one man said he didn’t see that the problem is about gender. “Most crime fiction is written by women, so are you suggesting men don’t read crime? They certainly do.” No, the post did not suggest anything like that at all.

The ad feminem argument also surfaced: “One issue is that society conditions men to expect female authors to spend most of the time excoriating men. So why bother?”

And, this clincher: “Who cares? Move on. Write because you love writing.” Not because you want to be read or because it’s important to you that your books bring in the income that will let you eat, put a roof over your head, and buy shoes for the kids.

Heartening, by contrast, was some men’s unqualified support for women authors, like: “There are way too many high quality female authors to ignore. Especially in the mystery genre.” And “I love English mysteries, and many of the best writers are women.”

Still? Again? Men Shunning Women Authors

reading

Periodically authors get motivated to revisit  a persistent question, Why Won’t Men Read Their Books? It’s pretty discouraging to think that a big chunk of the population who might read a mystery/crime book, who say that’s their favorite genre to read, will dismiss out of hand the one they’re working!

An article by the gender-masking MA Sieghart in last Sunday’s Guardian newspaper takes up the issue once again. “Female authors through the centuries, from the Brontë sisters to George Eliot to JK Rowling, have felt obliged to disguise their gender to persuade boys and men to read their books. But now? Is it really still necessary? The sad answer is yes.” Sieghart set about to document that for her new book, The Authority Gap, through a survey she commissioned from Nielsen Book Research. The result? “Men were disproportionately unlikely even to open a book by a woman.”

Take top-selling female authors. Less than one reader in five is male. Then take top-selling male authors. Almost half (45%) of their readers are women. Clearly, women are much more comfortable reading across gender than men are. A question of quality, you ask? No, Sieghart says, pointing out that women authored nine of the ten best-selling literary novels of 2017.

I’ve puzzled over this a lot in previous posts. Now Sieghart takes the issue beyond a marketing conundrum, suggesting a more serious problem underneath. By cutting themselves off from the ideas, imaginations, experiences, and perspectives of women, as expressed in the books they write, men limit their ability to understand half the world. It’s a familiar-sounding argument from another domain when she says, as a result, men “will continue to see the world through an almost entirely male lens, with the male experience as the default.” The stories women tell—and the women themselves—will be niche, when in reality, they are not niche stories; they are human stories.

Top Crime Writers Salute the Classics

Around the world, crime fiction is a top choice of the reading public. And there are SO MANY of these books, to the despair of every writer pondering how to promote their own new book in such a crowded field. But, what’s worth reading?

Let’s turn to the experts. Though publishers and others produce lists of the 20, 50, 100 “best” crime and suspense novels of all time, easily googlable, what do the real experts—authors themselves—say? The Guardian asked 25 top mystery writers for their picks and recently reprinted their replies—the article itself being a classic from 2018. (Purists will cringe at this carefree interchange of crime, mystery, and suspense, as if they are all one thing, but the categories are broad and their edges fuzzy.) Here are the first eight:

Val McDermid, who writes impeccable police procedurals, recommends On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill, which she calls “the perfect crime novel,” one that acknowledges the author’s roots in the traditional English detective novel, but also the “complexities of contemporary life.”

Lee Child, whose recommendations you will find on so many book covers, he must never say no to a request, suggests The Damned and the Destroyed by Kenneth Orvis. “The story was patient, suspenseful, educational and utterly superb. In many ways it’s the target I still aim at.”

Ian Rankin’s choice was Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. I’ve read this one! Against the background of a family fortune being frittered away by endless legal proceedings, Rankin wrote, “As in all great crime novels, the central mystery is a driver for a broad and deep investigation of society and culture.” Its strengths are a “mazey mystery,” shocking murder, slippery lawyer, and large cast of memorable characters. Dickens reportedly modeled Inspector Bucket on a real-life detective in Scotland Yard’s newly formed Detective Branch.

Sophie Hannah picked The Hollow, her “current favorite” of the Christie canon. She said the outdoor swimming pool scene in which Poirot discovers the murder is “the most memorable discovery-of-the-body scene in all of crime fiction.”

SJ Watson suggested Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938). Another check-mark! He called it “a dark, brooding psychological thriller, hauntingly beautiful, literature yes, but with a killer plot.” While it superficially appears to be a romantic drama, it is “an exploration of power, of the men who have it and the women who don’t.” Timeless? I hope not.

James Lee Burke picked Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River. I can’t claim to have read this one, but the movie was terrific. Burke said it’s “the best crime novel written in the English language.” Lehane’s poetic lines, reflecting to Burke’s ear an affinity for Victorian poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins “somehow heal the injury that his subject matter involves.”

Sara Paretsky’s choice was The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes, whose novels “crackle with menace.” This one plays out in a bleak New Mexico landscape. “Insinuation, not graphic detail, gives her books an edge of true terror.”

Dreda Say Mitchell, in a sort of ouroboros, recommended Lee Child’s debut novel, Killing Floor. She cited its parsimonious style, a lead character both traditional and original, and a plot “put together like a Swiss watch.” Plus the x-factor of righteous anger that leads Jack Reacher to single-handedly “dish out justice and protect the underdog.” Read this one too.

Some interesting choices among the remaining 17—including two authors who picked Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park. Time to reread it, apparently.