Friday, November 27, 2015

Adventures in La La Land Redux

Settings play a key role in mysteries. Where do your mysteries tend to be set and why?

by Paul D. Marks

Since it’s Thanksgiving weekend, I hope you don’t mind if I repost a piece I did for another blog I write for ( This was the first post I did for them and I think it pretty much responds to our question this week.

And though I have stories set in other places, I consider myself an LA writer and Los Angeles does play a major role in many of my stories. Many people have said it’s another character and I agree. S.W. Lauden said, “I just read your novel Vortex. I loved how the action bounced around Southern California, almost as if the region was one of the main characters.”

So here are (some of) my Adventures in La La Land (with a couple of minor revisions from the original as posted on Sleuthsayers):

I thought I’d write about two things I know pretty well, Los Angeles and me. Sort of an introduction to my writing and me, my influences, especially my inspiration for setting. And since it is an intro it might be a little longer than a normal post...

I’m old enough to have grown up in Los Angeles when both Raymond Chandler’s L.A. and Chandler himself were still around. When I was a kid L.A. still resembled the city of Chandler's "mean streets," Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer and Cain's Double Indemnity. In fact, I grew up in a Spanish-style house very much like the one that Barbara Stanwyck lives in in the movie version of Double Indemnity.

L.A. was a film noir town for a film noir kid. And that certainly had an influence on me and my writing. And a lot of my writing involves L.A., not just as a location but almost as a character in its own right. Of course, we’re all influenced by our childhoods, where we grew up and the people we knew. And those things, whether conscious or unconscious, tend to bubble to the surface in our writing like the black pitch bubbling up from the La Brea tar pits.

* * *

Two things that Los Angeles means to me are movies and noir, oh, and palm trees, of course. Movie studios and backlots were everywhere in this city. You couldn’t help but see the studios, feel their presence and be influenced by “the movies” one way or another. Many of the studios and backlots are gone now, but almost everywhere you go in this city is a movie memory and often a noir memory. L.A. is Hollywood’s backlot and many films, including many noirs, were filmed throughout the city.

As a kid, a teenager and even a young adult, I experienced many of the places I read about in books and saw in the movies, once the movies got out of the backlot and onto those mean L.A. streets. Not as a tourist, but as part of my “backyard.”

So Los Angeles has insinuated itself into my writing. Here’s some examples of how it might have gotten there and how it reflects my view of the ironically named City of Angels.

Angels Flight
photo credit: Angels Flight via photopin (license)
Angels Flight is a funicular railway in downtown Los Angeles. Star of many films and many noirs, including Kiss Me, DeadlyCriss Cross and others. Chandler visits it in The High Window and The King in Yellow. As a young boy, my dad took me to the original Angels Flight (now moved down the road and since closed). And though I may not have known about noir films and hardboiled novels then, it was an experience I’ve always remembered. Such a cool little pair of trains going up and down that hill, the tracks splitting in the middle just as each car approaches the other and you think they’re going to smash into each other head on. Angels Flight slams back to me in memory every now and then and makes its way into my writing, most notably in the eponymous story Angels Flight, which I must say came out before Michael Connelly’s novel of the same name.

That story, about a cop whose time has come and gone, is still pretty relevant today. The world is changing and he’s having one hell of a time catching up, if he even wants to. He’s a dinosaur. And he knows that Angels Flight is an anachronism, just like he is. He says to the other main character:
“Will Angels Flight bring back the glamour of the old days? Hollywood’s lost its tinsel. Venice’s lost its pier. And there are no angels in the City of Angels. What can Angels Flight do to bring that back?”

“Sometimes you need something for the soul,” the other person says.

I think that sums up a lot of my attitude not only toward Angels Flight but to the City of Angels as well. 

In Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust, Tod Hackett comes to L.A. thinking he’s an artist. And like so many others he gets trampled by that dream. Not much has changed all these decades later in my story Endless Vacation, when a young woman comes to Hollywood with big dreams and a bigger heroin habit. The narrator tries to help but he also knows:

Who the hell am I to talk? I came to L.A. looking for a Hollywood that died before I was born. A glamorous town of movie stars and studios and backlots. A studio system that nurtured talent, whatever you say about how it also might have stifled it with the other hand. A town that made movies in black and white but whose streets were, indeed, paved with gold. Yeah, I bought it – hook, line and clapboard.

Luis Valdez examines the Zoot Suit Riots that took place in L.A. during World War II in his play Zoot Suit. I remember my grandfather, who lived through that time, talking about “pachucos” when I was a kid. In my story Sleepy Lagoon Nocturne, set during the war, I take a stab at dealing with the racial tension of that era.

Hot jazz—swing music—boogied, bopped and jived. And Bobby Saxon was one of those who made it happen. Bobby banged the eighty-eights with the Booker “Boom-Boom” Taylor Orchestra in the Club Alabam down on Central Avenue. It was the heppest place for whites to come slumming and mix with the coloreds. That’s just the way it was in those days, Los Angeles in the 1940s during the war.

Venice Beach and boardwalk is the number one tourist destination in Los Angeles.Venice-CA-Canal-1921 People think it’s cool and flock to see the “freaks,” and maybe the nearby Venice Canals. Developer Abbott Kinney wanted to recreate Italy’s Venice in L.A., and he did, to some extent. But it didn’t quite work out. Many of the canals were drained and filled in, though some remain. They can be seen in several movies, too numerous to name. And, because they were another place I’d done time at, they pop up in my short story Santa Claus Blues, which opens with a bunch of kids playing along the canals and coming across a dead Santa floating in one of them.

Staring at the canal, Bobby thought about Abbott Kinney's dream for a high culture theme park, with concerts, theatre and lectures on various subjects. Kinney even imported Italian gondoliers to sing to visitors as they were propelled along the canals. When no one seemed to care about the highbrow culture he offered he switched gears and turned Venice into a popular amusement area. And finally the people came.

My grandparents always referred to MacArthur Park, on Wilshire Boulevard on the way to downtown, as Westlake Park, its original name. It was renamed for General Douglas MacArthur after World War II. But for my grandparents it was always Westlake. When I was a kid it was the place they took me to have a picnic and rent a boat and paddle around the lake. A nice outing. In the movies it’s the scene of a murder in one of my favorite obscure noirs, Too Late for Tears. By the time of my novel White Heat, set during the 1992 “Rodney King” riots, the nature of the park had changed from when I was a kid:

MacArthur Park is midway between Hancock Park, not a park, but an upper class neighborhood, and downtown L.A., a neighborhood in search of an identity. When I was a boy, my grandparents used to take me to the park. We’d rent rowboats and paddle through the lake, tossing bread crumbs to the birds. The park is a different place today. You can still rent paddle boats – if you want to paddle across the lake while talking to your dealer. Sometimes on Saturdays or Sundays immigrant families still try to use it as a park. Most of the time, it’s a haven for pushers, crack addicts, hookers and worse. Even the police don’t like treading there. If they were scared, who was I to play Rambo?

Even if someone’s never been to Los Angeles, most people know Sunset Boulevard and the Sunset Strip. Sunset begins or ends, depending on how you look at it, at Pacific Coast Highway on the west and continues to Union Station in downtown L.A., though recently the last part of the jog has been renamed. It goes from wealthy homes in Santa Monica and the West Side, into Beverly Hills, through the Strip in West Hollywood, where hippies back in the day and hipsters today hang out. Into Hollywood and on to downtown. It’s a microcosm of Los Angeles. Of course, both Union Station and Sunset have made multiple appearances in movies and novels and have made several appearances in my writing. Sunset was a major artery in my life as well as in the city. One time I walked almost the entire length of Sunset on a weekend day with my dad, ending up at Union Station. Later, I hung on the Strip. I drove it to the beach. I slammed through the road’s Dead Man’s Curve, made famous in the Jan and Dean song. Sunset appears in my stories Born Under a Bad SignDead Man’s CurveL.A. Late @ Night and more. In the latter, Sunset is as much of a character in the story as any of the human characters.

She'd only noticed the mansion. Not long after that, her parents had taken her to the beach. They had driven Sunset all the way from Chavez Ravine to the ocean. She had seen houses like the one in the movie. Houses she vowed she'd live in some day. 

What she hadn't realized at the time was that there was a price to pay to be able to live in such a house. Sometimes that price was hanging from a tag that everyone can see. Sometimes it was hidden inside.

And who doesn’t know the famous—or infamous—Hollywood Sign? Something I sawHollywood_Sign almost every day as a kid, and which a friend of mine and I hiked up to many, many years ago, before it was all fenced in and touristy. In Free Fall, originally published in Gary Lovisi’s Hardboiled magazine, a man recently separated from the service, heads west, as far west as he can go until he comes to the terminus of Route 66 in Santa Monica, near the Santa Monica Pier. This is the end of the road for him in more ways than one.

I kept looking at the Hollywood Sign, wondering about all the people down below, pretending to be in its glow. Where do they go after L.A.? There is nowhere, the land ends and they just tumble into the arroyos and ravines, never to be heard from again.

So this is a sampling of my writing and my relationship to L.A., La La Land, the City of the Angels, the Big Orange. Could I have written about these places without experiencing them? Sure. We can’t experience everything we write about. But hopefully it has made my writing more authentic.

Maybe there are other cities less well traveled that would be ripe for exploration in movies and books. Maybe L.A. is overworked and overdone. But Los Angeles is part of me. Part of who I am. So it’s not only a recurring locale in my writing, it’s a recurring theme. And I’ve only just touched the surface here of Los Angeles, the city, its various landmarks and neighborhoods and my relationship to it.

So that’s part of what shaped me and makes me who I am. And some of my L.A. story. You can take the boy out of L.A., but you can’t take L.A. out of the boy. Oh, and here’s an L.A. story for you (a true one): I’m one of the few people to pull a gun on the LAPD and live to tell about. But that’s for another time. Or you can see the story on my website at:

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So, thank you all. Hope you had a great Thanksgiving and will have a good rest of the weekend!

*** *** ***

Down and Out Books is putting a whole bunch of great books on sale for 99¢ for the next two weeks, including Coast to Coast: Murder from Sea to Shining Sea, with mystery stories from such luminaries as 4 Time Edgar Winner and Co-Creator of “Columbo,” William Link • Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Bill Pronzini • Scribner Crime Novel Winner William G. Tapply • Shamus Winner Paul D. Marks • EQMM Readers Award Winner Bob Levinson • Al Blanchard Award Winner James Shannon • Derringer Award Winner Stephen D. Rogers • Sherlock Holmes Bowl Winner Andrew McAleer and other poisoned-pen professionals like Judy Travis Copek • Sheila Lowe • Gayle Bartos-Pool • Thomas Donahue
Click here to go to the Down & Out Amazon sale:

And my new noir-thriller Vortex is also on sale in e-form for 99¢.

“…a nonstop staccato action noir… Vortex lives up to its name, quickly creating a maelstrom of action and purpose to draw readers into a whirlpool of intrigue and mystery… but be forewarned: once picked up, it's nearly impossible to put down before the end.”
—D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review

And now for the usual BSP stuff:

Click here to subscribe to my Newsletter: Subscribe to my Newsletter
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And check out my updated website

Monday, November 23, 2015

No Exit

Settings play a key role in mysteries. Where do your mysteries tend to be set and why?

- from Susan

My stories are usually set in places I like, places I know well enough that I can let my eyes go out of focus sitting in front of my computer and step into the scene with all five senses. In some cases, the specific scene I’m writing is set in a place I’ve invented, but even then the fictional setting is likely an amalgam of real rooms, houses, streets, towns, parks, restaurants, offices, or cars I’ve been in.  Santa Fe, New England, Manhattan, San Francisco, Palo Alto – Dani O’Rourke tends to show up in a lot of the same places I do.

Because the setting can play such a large part in the reader’s emotional response to what’s on the page, I (like every other writer) pay attention to what surrounds the action and the dialogue.  It’s not rocket science. You can do it too.

Match the emotion in the space that can carry off the scene:

Room with closed door and smell of smoke
Room with smell of turkey, sound of chat
Room with a gun visible on mantelpiece
Room with a crackling fire in fireplace
Room with framed “No Exit” sign
Room with no light and no heat

See? Of course, if it were that easy, we’d all be Macavity, Edgar, Agatha, etc. award-winners (as many of my Mind colleagues are). I hope you’re already fans of their exciting and decidedly moody writing. But my point, however simplistically expressed, is that setting matters as much as dialogue, action, plot.

In Mixed Up with Murder (February 2 – please look for it!) I chose a New England college town in late May. Flowers, green grass, high spirits, a sense of optimism. Perfect place for someone to drown on a golf course the day he’s supposed to tell Dani what’s bothering him about a big gift to the college. The serene overall setting provides contrast to the bad things that darken the campus mood. The golf course late at night, the empty classroom building after closing, the claustrophobic little room Dani finds herself in at one point in the narrative were all chosen to help create the sensations I want readers to feel as they get caught up in Dani’s scary encounters so far from home.

Mixed Up with Murder comes out early next year in print and e-book formats. Soon, I’ll share the cover, post some excerpts on my own website, give some copies away, and otherwise try to interest you in reading it. Until then, try sussing out what a writer is trying to convince you to feel in the next book you read, scene by scene. It’s an added layer of pleasure in a good read.

Friday, November 13, 2015

To Choose or Not to Choose

Do you prefer reading “classic” mysteries or contemporary mysteries? Why?

by Paul D. Marks

There’s something to be said for both. And sometimes it just depends on my mood. I probably go through periods where I read more classics than contemporary and then vice versa. But overall I probably read more new mysteries these days. And every once in a while I get a strong urge to reread something, particularly by Chandler or Ross MacDonald.

I once heard James Ellroy at a signing, I believe, say he didn’t read his contemporaries in the mystery-crime field because he wanted to do his own thing and not be influenced by them. And also because of the time involved in reading them.

I don’t feel that way. I think it’s good to see what’s going on, what the competition, so to speak, is doing. What they’re talking about, what the trends are, what’s in, etc. But that doesn’t mean I have to, or should, follow those trends or be influenced by them. I like to do my own thing and I guess if there was a report card for this the teacher would check off the box that says “not good at taking direction or following trends.” I’d hope so anyway. I spent many years “taking direction” when doing script rewrites. And one of the reasons I wanted to write fiction is to be my own boss. I understand there are editors and such, but still there’s more freedom here, if not total freedom.

Of my top 3 favorite mystery-crime novelists, two are classics, one is current. Number one with a bullet is Raymond Chandler (big surprise, huh?). Nobody can touch him. It’s like the Beatles for me. As many other rock bands that I love, they are in a class by themselves. Sui generis. I feel that way about Chandler.

My two other faves are Ross MacDonald and James Ellroy. Though I’m not as hot on Ellroy as I was at one time for a variety of reasons. And though he’s not a crime writer, I’m going to include John Fante here because I think his style and tone fit in well with Chandler and Hammett and Cain.

Other current faves are Carol O’Connell, Michael Connelly, Kem Nunn. And other classic faves are David Goodis, James M. Cain, Hammett and Dorothy B. Hughes.

When I read those classics I’m transported to a different time and it satisfies my sense of saudade for times and things that I may not even have experienced. I’ve always had a fantasy of being born in 1920, which would make me old enough for that “film noir” era after the war, as well as the war, of course. The war influenced film noir in many ways, but that’s for another post or maybe a book. And I do remember LA as a kid, when it was still the city that Chandler describes and pieces of which can still be found here and there. So, when I want to visit that time and place I either read books by these classic authors or watch movies set in that era, some filmed then, some filmed today, like LA Confidential.

So why limit yourself to one era or genre? There’s a whole world of great crime fiction out there. More than we’ll ever have time to get to, unfortunately.

And now for the usual BSP:

Vortex is on sale in e-form at all the usual places.

And there’s Goodreads Giveaway for Coast to Coast: Murder from Sea to Shining Sea running for a few more days. Maybe win a FREE copy.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Joy of Dead Authors

by Catriona.

Classics or contemporaries?

There's a huge difference between the two when you're a crimewriter yourself. A contemporary novel might be by a friend, in which case you open it, pre-emptively squirming in case you don't like it and it shows on your face on next meeting.

Or maybe you've said you'll blurb it and then you're really stuck if you don't like it. What do you do? Lie? Say something ambiguous and lukewarm -"fans will be delighted ..."? Pretend some calamity befell you and prevented you from reading it at all? But then what if some calamity really did?

Me, earlier this year, when I had promised to read a book
and couldn't. Because of the Vicodin.
Really all I ever want to say when a pal writes a book I love is "Phew!"

But, even though the mystery community is a warm one, we don't all know each other. Sometimes you pick up a new crime novel by an author you've never heard of. And it's great. And so you go to see if there are any more. And there are twenty five and you want to die. While you're recovering, Stephen King, Harlan Coben, Lisa Scottoline and Ann Cleeves all publish a new one and they're great too and you wonder what the point of your own wretched scribbling is. To take your mind off your woes, you read an article about the rich seam of crimewriting in some faraway land, that's just about to be translated into English for the first time, and then a reliably wonderful series writer produces a standalone that blows your socks off coughKentKruegercough and you ask yourself why you even bother then woops! Another Stephen King. (And guess who my favourite contemporary non-crime fiction author is? Joyce Carol Oates. Big help.)

But with the classics, you know where you are. Dorothy L Sayers wrote twelve. Raymond Chandler wrote seven. Agatha Christie wrote well yes sixty six, but the thing is she won't write another sixty six while you're reading. It's just so much more restful to read books by authors at rest.

In conclusion, here is an entirely gratuitous picture of the new bookshelves my father has just made for my office (because Cathy started it yesterday). Note the extra capacity. It won't last long but it won't be Sayers, Christie or Chandler who wreck it.
Thanks, Dad.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Choosing a Good Book

Q: Do you prefer reading “classic” mysteries or contemporary mysteries?

As if it were that easy, eh?

Do you prefer chocolate ice cream with marshmallow sauce, or vanilla with hot fudge? Chicken or cookies? Van Gogh or Matisse? Paris or New York?

There are times when I crave the pure puzzle of a classic Agatha Christie story that hums along inexorably to what I know will be a tidy solution, written in brisk, confident language, breezily defining characters on the surface, leaving it to readers to decide whether or not to embellish them with their own imaginations.

But there are other times, scanning my bursting bookshelves and stacks and table tops, when I can’t work up even the slightest appetite for that part of the crime fiction genre, when I need something more filling, more demanding of me, possibly more shaded, definitely something more of my own times. 

I can become paralyzed by the choices, so much so that I retreat from my study, where all the crime fiction lives to the guest bedroom where another overstuffed bookcase is full of Tolstoy and Virginia Woolf and James Joyce and Irene Nemerovsky. I even get a sudden craving for poetry once in a while, which is healthy – reminds me that every word should count, whether I’m reading or writing.

Menu choices

Some favorites when I want a complicated dish: Sara Paretsky, Elmore Leonard, Stuart Neville, P.D. James, Michael Dibdin, Dennis Lehane, Denise Mina, Colin Cotterill, Lisa Brackmann, Martin Cruz Smith. Modern, edgy, compromised protagonists dealing with an often mean and unjust world in which there’s no guarantee the good guys will win.

For dessert, in addition to Christie: Rex Stout, Anne Perry, Arthur Conan Doyle, Juliet Blackwell, Camille Minichino, Magdelen Nabb, Susan Elia MacNeal. Not all cozies, and all more character-driven and psychologically interesting than Miss Marple or Hercules Poirot, but worlds in which order is, at least temporarily, restored and the protagonist and I can sleep easier at night.

I’m just scratching the surface of good reads I know are waiting for me. Just thinking about what’s waiting for me makes me hungry, and ticking them off in my head makes me as happy as if I were eating Christmas dinner!