Damned If You Don’t: The First Two Pages

DIFDcoverI’m always interested in reading writers on writing. For that reason I’ve enjoyed following B.K. Stevens’ blog, The First Two Pages, where authors are asked to reflect on and discuss the decisions they made and the problems they faced in writing the first two pages of a published work, either a short story or novel.

I’m delighted that Bonnie’s given me the chance to discuss my novel, Damned If You Don’t, at The First Two Pages this week. I hope you’ll have a chance stop by and would be grateful if you spread the word.

Also, you might like to check the archives where you’ll find posts by fine writers including Terrie Farley Moran, John Floyd, Jacqueline Seewald, James M. Jackson, Kaye George and Bonnie Stevens among others.

On Re-Reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

I brought Flannery O’Connor’s collected short stories with us to the Cape last week and had the pleasure of rediscovering “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a tragic/comic crime story by a literary writer who died much too young at age thirty-nine.

The opening vignette: Grandma is trying to persuade her son not to take the family to Florida for vacation, but to east Tennessee where she has people she’d like to visit. The old woman is rarely silent—it would be easier to stop a river from flowing than to staunch the torrent coming from her mouth—and generally ignored by her son as well as her daughter-in-law, whose face is “as broad and innocent as a cabbage.” After the old woman’s grandson rudely asks why she doesn’t just stay home, his sister responds: “She wouldn’t stay home to be queen for a day.”

So here we have a toxic family scene marked by the kind of generational warfare that occurs in other O’Connor stories. As they set off on their road trip, Grandma, dressed like a lady in case she ends up dead in an accident, dispenses unsolicited information about the speed limit, the scenery, and good manners. While in real life, we wouldn’t choose to spend five claustrophobic minutes in that car, as readers we’re compelled to keep going. I won’t risk a spoiler by divulging more about the plot except to say that O’Connor provides an ending that’s both shocking and inevitable.

As writers of short crime fiction, we know that the conventional ending is the twist, the unexpected. What O’Connor did here, and did brilliantly, is  more powerful and also more difficult given that ‘shocking’ implies ‘unexpected’ and ‘inevitable’ implies the opposite.

Curious? Click here for the full text of the story; click here for a talk O’Connor gave on the story in 1963.

Thoughts about O’Connor, endings, crime fiction by literary writers? Please share.

 

John Harvey: Darkness, Darkness

Darkness, DarknessDarkness, Darkness is John Harvey’s twelfth and—alas—final Charlie Resnick novel. When we leave Resnick at the end of the book he’s sipping coffee on a bench in Nottingham’s Old Market Square and contemplating a future filled with music. I don’t know that I could have forgiven Harvey if he’d killed Charlie off.

Here’s what I love about Harvey’s police procedurals: suspenseful, intelligent plots; flawless prose that seem effortless, though writing this good is never effortless; Charlie Resnick, a smart cop, a good man, child of Polish immigrants who remembers his roots, lover of jazz and cats, appealing though somewhat disheveled in his personal appearance. I could go on, but you see what I’m getting at. Resnick breathes on the page, as do all the supporting players.

Resnick’s last case revolves around the discovery of human remains that turn out to be Jenny Hardwick’s, a pro-labor activist who disappeared during the bitter battle that was England’s 1984-85 Miners’ Strike. Charlie, now semi-retired, headed a police intelligence unit during that strike and has a clear memory of Jenny. It doesn’t take much to persuade him to assist in the ensuing police investigation.

The novel is structured in alternating chapters that shift between the current investigation and the grim and often violent reality of the punishing year-long strike that divided many households, including Jenny Hardwick’s. While Harvey claims that Resnick’s short term memory is slipping (welcome to the club), he remains as astute and dedicated and empathic as ever, which makes this book a fitting final curtain for a memorable character.

I’ll let Michael Connelly have the next to last word here, this from his jacket blurb: “John Harvey writes the way we all wish we could write.”
Amen.

Daffodils Again: a poem for whatever you’re celebrating on this April Sunday

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed–and gazed–but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

William Wordsworth

Finally

daffodilsThis winter, like a clueless guest who ignores his host’s glazed eyes, seems finally to be inching toward the door. I say ‘seems’ because the stuff coming down yesterday afternoon was definitely not rain. Still, the field I drove past the other day had a faint tinge of green, a friend reported seeing a robin in her yard, and negative numbers seem like a bad dream–did I really walk (waddle actually to keep from breaking my neck) to the end of my driveway for the paper when it was 8  degrees below zero?

So here’s to spring, friends: the extra hours of daylight that feel like a gift; the smell of wet earth; birdsong; and daffodils.

For Your Reading (Watching, and Listening) Pleasure

Ten years ago this month, Joe DeMarco took over publication of Mysterical-e. In the editor’s column of the current issue, Joe outlines plans for the future of this always interesting, beautifully presented webzine. You’ll find a roster of new short stories (BSP alert: I’m pleased to have a story in this issue) as well as columns, interviews, and book reviews, including two of special interest to Women of Mystery: Well Read, Then Dead by Terrie Farley Moran and Family Matters by members of the New York/Tri-State chapter of Sisters in Crime.

The third issue of Jack Hardway’s Crime Magazine is, as always, a splendid multimedia celebration of noir. This edition includes six new short stories, a guaranteed-to-be terrifying episode from the radio series Suspense!, The Big Caper, a full-length pulp novel by Lionel White, and D.O.A. (1950), starring Edmond O’Brien, which has an opening sequence I promise you won’t forget.

A big thanks to Joe and Dan for all they do. I hope you’ll check out the ‘zines and spread the word.

Playing Fair

An argument could made that the two most important sentences in a mystery are the first and the last: the tempting appetizer and the satisfying, if not necessarily sweet, dessert. In my own writing, I’ve sometimes been lucky and had that last line come to me early on in the process. I might not see beyond the headlights (thank you, E.L. Doctorow), but that last line offered hope that I wouldn’t be wandering in the dark forever.

Depending on the kind of crime fiction we write, we’re either going to end by assuring the reader that justice has been served, or that it hasn’t. In both cases, we face the challenge specific to crime fiction: In order to create suspense, we intentionally mislead the reader; at the same time we have to play fair.

So here’s the question on the table: When does necessary deception become cheating?

Years ago I read a mystery by a very well known writer in which the trusted narrator turned out to be the killer. That was the last book of his I read. More recently, I watched a five-part British crime serial that was, for the first four parts, beautifully done. The scripts were intelligent and suspenseful, the characters believable, and the small town setting appealing. Then came episode five, after which one of us left the room in disgust while the other said rude words to the screen.

That reaction was inspired by the fact that the killer turned out to be the Least Likely Suspect, a common enough device in crime fiction, but in this case I felt cheated. Yes, the LLS has to appear innocent but not to the degree that it’s inconceivable that s/he would commit the crime—in this case the murder of a young boy. That kind of twist presumes that anyone is capable of murder, a premise I don’t buy. I might accept the white-haired old lady knitting in the corner as the serial killer, but please don’t expect me to believe that if you’ve made her as loveable as your grandmother and told me she spends her days volunteering at a homeless shelter.

Agree or disagree? Ever feel cheated? Please share.

In the Spirit of the Season

I was in the supermarket the other day waiting on line behind a woman with four young children. She was searching in her purse, apparently having trouble finding enough money to pay for her purchases and clearly embarrassed to keep the clerk waiting. She did eventually find the money she needed and thanked the clerk for her patience.

At that point, the woman’s oldest child, a girl of about nine, gave the clerk two dollars to pay for something she’d picked out for herself. The story I constructed in my head (and as writers don’t we always do that?) was that the two dollars had been a birthday present, maybe the only birthday present the girl received. It seemed the girl had been very careful to pick out something that didn’t cost more than two dollars but of course she hadn’t taken sales tax into account. When the clerk rang up the purchase and told her it would be two dollars and change (I don’t remember the exact figure), the girl said, “I don’t have any more money.”

The clerk’s response was a very casual, “Oh that’s fine,” and turned to open a drawer under the register. She opened the drawer just a bit so as not to make obvious that she was taking money from her own purse to add to the girl’s two dollars. In fact, I think I was the only one who witnessed her generosity, not just in giving the money but in sparing this family the sense that they were objects of charity.

In witnessing this, I too felt as if I’d been given a gift that I pass along to you all, a reminder of our  capacity for generosity and compassion, a brief antidote to the news of the day.

 

 

 

New Webzine in Town

Jack Hardway’s Crime Magazine, a newly launched webzine, is well worth a visit for fans and writers of short crime fiction and of noir in various formats. The first issue features six short stories by names you’ll recognize, such as Stephen Rogers and Kaye George, and others you’ll be glad to discover, including a fine noir short by Hardway himself.

Jack Hardway is the alias of writer and editor Dan Persinger, who’s developed a multimedia webzine that makes good use of the rich resources of the Internet. The noir theme prevails, from the graphics and music to the following offerings, available with a click of the mouse: The Big Combo, a film noir gem from 1955 starring Richard Conte, Cornel Wilde and Jean Wallace; “Sorry, Wrong Number,” the 1945 rebroadcast of the raBlackWingsHasMyAngeldio play starring Agnes Moorehead; and Elliott Chaze’s widely praised novel Black Wings Has My Angel, newly edited and with an introduction by Jack. Can’t wait to read it; in fact, it’s already on my Nook. On that subject, I know from using Project Gutenberg that Amazon puts obstacles in the way of downloading a freebie from another source, so if anyone knows how to circumvent them, please share.

Happy holidays all. It feels like Santa’s already been here.

Writers please note: Click here for submission requirements to Jack Hardway’s Crime Magazine.