Friday, March 30, 2018

BOOKS GO TO WAR!


Shortly after our hairy and smelly ancestors climbed down from the trees, they discovered that long pieces of wood tipped with sharp points not only discouraged sabre-tooth tigers but also put Wooly Mammoth meat on the table (where there were more empty seats, since the uncooperative mammoths often stepped on the hunters).

 The more literate among the un-stomped cavepersons (although they couldn’t have known they were literate since the word hadn’t been invented) soon found out that by dipping smaller versions of those sharp points in a liquid – probably mammoth blood – they could start writing books. (I’ve skipped over cave paintings as a story-telling medium, mainly because they were probably done with fingers, which annoys the hell out of me since they are much more sophisticated than anything I can do 30,000 years later.)

 The first books were non-fiction. With a life span that didn’t extend much past puberty, most people didn’t have enough experience to make up stories. How can you write about all the problems you had growing up when you didn’t? A little-known fact: Only one in ten cave-teens even made it to the senior prom.

 But once people started living long enough to remember how rotten life was – dad invented wine and was drunk every night; mom ran off with the camel driver; my boyfriend slept with that tart from the next-door cave – novels were invented. Not long afterward, the ancients discovered plots, and promptly used up all the good ones even quicker than they exterminated the unfortunate mammoths. I’ve previously noted in this space that plot lines have since been in a bit of a rut. I posited that most of the good story lines (murder, love, incest, matricide, etc.) were developed by the Romans, and before them, the Greeks, and only refined by such Johnny-come-latelies as that Shakespeare fellow.

 But novels have persevered, to the point where trees were in danger of becoming as extinct as a hirsute elephant, at least until the Kindle came along.

 Did you know that books helped us win World War II? No really. I’m not making this up, unlike most of the previous paragraphs.

 Molly Guptill Manning’s wonderful “When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II” describes how American librarians, outraged by Nazi book-burning, sent 20 million hardcover novels to the troops at the outset of our involvement in the war in 1941.

 Many of the books were classics, including “The Great Gatsby” (which Molly notes was “rescued from obscurity” by the program). The Government quickly recognized the morale-boosting implication of the initiative and with the help of the publishing industry jumped on board. Those in charge, however, didn’t want GI’s jumping out of planes or landing craft burdened down with “Gone with the Wind” and other massive hardcover tomes, so they provided soldiers with 120 million Armed Services Editions (ASEs), small paperback copies of the approved books (thereby basically creating the paperback industry!).

 Thus bucked-up with the written word, our ASE-armed soldiers beat the pants off the Axis. (An aside: I’ve been reading about those rotten Nazi’s when a documentary about German wartime aggression came on TV. Two hours later I had this incontrollable urge to annex the Rhineland.)

I wish that I’d known all this when a Marine sergeant named Tarver upbraided me for reading in my bunk. He said, in effect, that while books were nice, they didn’t win wars. I actually don’t think he used the word “nice”, and since he wanted me to clean the latrine I’m sure the fate of the Republic was not at stake. I was incensed, which explains how I can remember his name so many years later.

 Guess what, Sarge? Books do win wars. At least the ones worth fighting.


Tuesday, March 20, 2018

RAYMOND CHANDLER

There is a marvelous book: The World of Raymond Chandler (In His Own Words), edited by Barry Day.


As a thriller writer myself, I didn’t think I had so much in common with Chandler, the acknowledged master of the genre.

We both like cats and cocktails.

What? You expected me to say that we are literary equals? There aren’t enough martinis in the known universe to make me say something like that. (By the way, is there an unknown universe? How would anyone know that?)

Chandler never wrote a memoir or autobiography, so the surest insight into his mind (at least his literary mind) is through his novels, short stories, letters and the many interviews he gave after he became famous. Day’s book is loaded with excerpts from all those sources, as well as fascinating photos of Chandler and his contemporaries.

I’m ashamed to admit that most of my previous exposure to Chandler is through the movies made from his novels, including The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely and The Long Goodbye. But as I’ve just learned from Day’s book, there was a lot more to Chandler than Bogie and Bacall.

American-born but classically educated in England, Chandler spent time in France and Germany and leaned the languages of both countries. He returned to the United States but when World War I broke out joined the Canadian Army and fought on the Western Front, surviving battles that basically annihilated his unit. After the war, he tried his hand at business in America, but didn’t like it and found out he could eke out a living writing for pulp mystery magazines. His talent was soon apparent and he won a book contract.

Moving to Los Angeles, Chandler basically reinvented the private eye novel; Philip Marlowe being his greatest creation. He also helped to reinvent Los Angeles, at the least the noirish, corrupt city that most of us imagine the “City of Angels” was in the 1950’s.

Chandler is justly famous for his descriptions and similes, many of which are so good they made me want to go out and get his books. (I did pick up The Big Sleep.) The World of Raymond Chandler has many of his best lines, but there are Internet sites devoted to “Chandlerisms”. 

Here is a sampling:

"I never saw any of them again - except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them."

"There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Ana's that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks."

 "I'm an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard."

"I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun."

"Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake."

"If you don't leave, I'll get somebody who will."

"It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window."

There are literally hundreds, maybe, thousands more. Do yourself a favor. Pick up a Chandler.









Saturday, March 3, 2018

GRINDING AXES


When I’m reading a novel, nothing annoys me more than an author who interjects his or her own prejudices and/or politics into the narrative.

Except, of course, if I’m the author.

Truth is, I can’t help myself. I have a lot of axes to grind, and where better to grind them than in my thrillers and mysteries. In everyday life, when I spout off, it’s usually after the second martini, and everyone stopped paying attention to me midway through the first. But in a novel, after I’ve presumably hooked my readers with a few murders and sex scenes, I can usually say something that I think needs to be said. Hey, it’s a free country.

In various books, I’ve taken aim at Wall Street greed (like shooting fish in a barrel), as well as  academic elitism, the publishing industry, the media, unethical politicians (there may be a bit of redundancy here) and the sports establishment.

I try not to overdo it. I’m not writing polemics. I fully understand that most of my readers are more interested in other things (see murder and sex, above). And an author must pick the appropriate time to slide an opinion in the story. For example, it would be highly inappropriate for a couple locked in a steamy sexual encounter to stop what they are doing to reflect on the mid-term elections.

“Oh, God,” she moaned, writhing in the sweat-soaked satin sheets.

“Yes,” he gasped. “Now they will try to impose tariffs on aluminum.”

“Oh, God,” she screamed in ecstasy.

“Beer cans are made out of aluminum!” he shuddered.

 And I recognize another danger, of course. Sometimes I have to give a character an unpalatable opinion, usually in a conversation. Such conversations define the character as a racist, a bigot, a chauvinist, a sexist pig, ax murderer (as opposed to ax grinder), pederast, serial killer, or even a Red Sox fan, in ways that I assume (hope) the reader doesn’t associate with me.

 My protagonists are basically moral people, who usually know right from wrong and are offended by injustice. (I say “usually” – one of my characters is an assassin, but he only kills bad people.) When they offer an opinion, you can be pretty sure it’s one I hold.

Interestingly enough, some of the villains in my books (not the ones preceding the Red Sox fan above) also have a moral code, and I like them to express it on occasion. In fact, I think a societal pariah’s righteous indignation is a very powerful arrow in an author’s quiver.

Bottom line: If you are occasionally tempted to insert your own feelings into a narrative, succumb to the temptation. After all, you are what you write.

STOUT READING!

I devour books, in all forms. Most of them in their print version, which may surprise some people who have labeled me an apologist for a...