News: May, 2011

Ten Answers to Ten Questions (okay, eleven)

May 11, 2011

Crime writer Jill Edmondson sent me ten questions (plus one bonus) about crime writing for her blog. Check it out:

1. What can you tell me about your current work in progress?

The book I just finished is Boston Cream, the third in the Jonah Geller series. Still recovering from post-concussion syndrome, Jonah goes to Boston in search of a missing surgical resident, and winds up in the middle of a murderous conspiracy involving some of Boston’s wealthiest, most powerful people. While I wait to hear from my publishers at Random House, which should be any day, I’m starting research on book four, which is mainly set in Montreal.

2. Name one living and one dead writer whom you were influenced by/whom you emulate. Tell me why.

The dead one is easy: Ross Macdonald. He was the first great detective writer I discovered, quite by accident, when my grandparents cleared out their house of thirty-five years to prepare for a yard sale. I was in my early twenties and with one of his books, plucked from a pile in between customers, began my life-long affair with crime fiction. I demolished every one of his books, went back to Hammett and Chandler, came back to Macdonald and sought him out in California in 1980, as he was the only living author of this great American triumvirate of the private eye novel.

All three influenced me in my choice to write first-person private eye books, but in many ways I consider Macdonald the best. Chandler is the more romantic writer, but it was Macdonald who brought his literary talents and keen insight to bear on the danger and treachery not of mobsters or gangs or police, but of the family, which so far has been more my territory. My voyage to meet him in Santa Barbara, when he was already afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease, was documented in this article I wrote for Concordia University Magazine when he died a few years later.

My favourite living writer is Elmore Leonard, and has been since I discovered his work in 1985. Westerns and all. Yet I don’t write at all in his style, at least not in the Geller series, which is first person. A smart, secular urban Jew isn’t really in Leonard’s palette, and my characters will always in some way be more naïve than his. For style, tone, personality, I’d have to say a bridge of Robert B. Parker and Robert Crais with a twist of Jewish humour. But I treasure Leonard for his uniqueness. He owes nothing to any crime writer who came before him. He simply took the ethos and characters from his Westerns, set them loose in the cities, and created his own world of crime from scratch.

3. How close – give a fraction or a percentage if you want – is Jonah Geller to you?

He is very close to me emotionally: we are both secular, urban Jews with a world view that mixes cynicism with hope. I think we share a sense of humour. I’d say we both have older siblings who are domineering.

Physically, he is miles away: he is six feet tall and one eighty five when in shape. He is a martial artist with a full head of hair. Those who know me will chuckle at that contrast.

4. Name two LIVING famous people (with whom you have no relation or connection) that you’d enjoy having dinner with. Tell me why or what you’d like to discuss with them.

I’ve been fortunate to meet Elmore Leonard before, so I won’t include him. My first choice would be Steve Earle, the singer-songwriter. Talented, productive, political, driven, a raconteur and survivor of many marriages: I think dinner with him would be fascinating. The other might be Sam Shepard, whose plays I devoured as a theatre student; Tom Waits, if I thought I could get a straight answer out of him; Bob Dylan, for a thousand reasons, and if he didn’t mumble his way through it. Dennis Lehane has been very warm and funny at conferences. And if I wanted to laugh all night until it hurt, I’d invite Mark Billingham, the British comic turned crime writer.

5. Worst memory of school (any grade/level).

Like Jonah, I was a very indifferent student in high school and CEGEP (Grades 12 and 13 in Quebec), so I’d say grades nine through 13 were painful. I hadn’t yet found my stride. It was only when I started writing that I began taking life seriously. Fortunately, I found a guidance counsellor at Concordia University who showed me how creative writing and journalism combined could earn me a degree, and it changed my life. I did as well at school as people always suspected I could and found a way out of those teenaged doldrums.

6. The one thing you wish you had known before getting your first book published...?

That no matter how many awards you win or great reviews you get, book sales in Canada won’t support a growing family. I knew I’d earn a lot less at fiction than I did as a corporate writer. How much less was a shock. I also wish I’d known how much the industry was going to change under my feet, how much the onus of promoting books would shift from publisher to author and how the recession would shake so many good people loose from the industry.

7. Who is (are) your favourite minor/supporting character(s), from your own work?

Dante Ryan is my favourite so far. I always feel like he raises the energy when he’s in the room. Because my books have shifted from city to city most other supporting players, for the most part, appear in one book only. I have a special fondness for Gabriel Cross, the Mohawk ironworker in High Chicago; Jonah’s office neighbour, the PR legend Eddie Solomon; Laura Silver, the targeted mother in Buffalo Jump; and Amy Farber, also from Buffalo Jump, a lovely woman who distributes Canadian meds to a circle of fiftyish friends to help pay for her own arthritis prescriptions.

8. Strangest thing a fan/reader has ever said or done to you (online, at a signing, whatever...)

I’ve been lucky so far; all my fan encounters have been very positive. There was, however, one fellow whose manuscript I was asked to evaluate for a miserably small free. I gave him a thorough and professional assessment which he didn’t like. He then posted a poisonous article about Jonah Geller on the net, demeaning the book and Jonah’s actions on a streetcar in the first chapter of Buffalo Jump, which anyone can read on my web site. I happen to love that scene and so do most readers. That was certainly the weirdest thing to happen to me so far, and may it stay that way. Sadly, it put me off evaluating manuscripts, which I generally like doing. Since then I have only done it through U of T’s School of Continuing Studies, where I teach writing courses. Including one week-long workshop in early July, which is still open for registration.

9. Titles. How hard are they to come up with? How important are they to the overall success of the book? Other thoughts on titles...?

I love book titles and am always thinking of them. When I hear a song, a snatch of conversation, a quote from the New or Old Testament, there is often a second where I consider, is that a good title? Is it copyrighted? Has it been used before? I often search the Library of Congress, amazon.ca and other sites to find out if potential titles have been used, and if so, when and in what media. Sometimes I am devastated to find out a great title has been taken. Poisonville, which I wanted for the name of an e-book I’m launching this summer, had been dormant for more than seventy years, since Dashiell Hammett used it in the book Red Harvest. I had gone through dozens of titles easily before coming up with it. A few days after I submitted the draft to my agent, someone got it first. I saw it in a review and nearly choked. So Poisonville was out and the search was on again.

On the other hand, once I came up with Buffalo Jump for my first novel, High Chicago and Boston Cream both followed easily. Book Four, however, may not follow that two word format. There are a few that I’m still juggling.

10.  What was or is the hardest thing(s) for you to write.

Like Raymond Chandler, I believe the best scenes often involve two people working each other across a desk or table. But when there are three or more characters in the room, I find it gets tricky. Keeping the flow going without having any people drop out for significant time… that’s when I feel I have to switch hats to a degree, from storyteller to playwright, which is not as comfortable a territory for me.

11. What is on your writing “wishlist”? You know, that project you began in 1987 but more or less abandoned, or the project where you say if “I ever have time, I’d like to write...” ?

I spent five years as a writer at what was then called the Addiction Research Foundation, and is now part of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. I learned a lot in those years and have always wanted to write a somewhat creepy, Gothic novel about a murder at a treatment centre for addicts. I took a writing course with Peter Robinson nearly twenty years ago–so long ago, he only had two Banks novels out–and that’s what I worked on. I have four chapters and an outline somewhere. If I wind up on a desert island that has power, I just might get it done.

False Lead: A Memoir of Ross Macdonald

May 09, 2011

Originally published in Concordia University Magazine, November, 1983.

The famed detective writer Ross Macdonald died this summer at age 67 of Alzheimer’s disease. Howard Shrier is an avid reader of detective fiction, particularly Macdonald’s Lew Archer series. Travelling in California in 1980, he decided to look up Macdonald in Santa Barbara.

Paul’s place off Hollywood Boulevard has no alarm clock, so I hump down to Santa Monica and the Motel Seven, where I pay double that for a single and a seven a.m. wakeup call. The night clerk, a Japanese man in his thirties, gives me the key and points to the second storey-walkway.

It is almost midnight and I want all the sleep I can get. I’ve dreamed for two years of tomorrow’s meeting. I lay my jeans over a blue vinyl armchair and reach deep into the underwear stash of my backpack for a clean pair. The bedside table is just big enough for wallet, cigarettes and my copy of Ross Macdonald’s The Galton Case.

* * *

When the Montreal Star folded late in 1979, the severance pay sent me to the islands and then the Mardi Gras. From New Orleans, 48 hours by bus on Highway 10, L.A. bound.

After checking into a West Hollywood motel, I flopped my bus-cramped body on the bed and phoned the Santa Barbara operator for Ross Macdonald’s number.

No such listing. There wouldn’t be; it was his pen name. I asked for Kenneth Millar, his real name. Yes, she said, on the Via Esperanza.

I dialed the number. When a soft-spoken man answered (his secretary?), I asked if I might speak with Mr. Millar.

“This is he.”

Startled. Hadn’t expected him to be so easy to reach. My prepared speech sprouted wings and beat out into the mustard sky. I managed to burble out that I’d read every book he’d published and written a detective story* myself and I wanted very much to meet him if he could just spare the time or if he couldn’t, then could I send him my story and maybe he’d have comments but I’d really rather see him in person so we could talk to face because I’d read every book he’d published and really admired his work. . . .

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m very busy.”

An uncomfortable silence padded my long-distance bill.

“There is the writers’ lunch,” he finally said. “Students and writers are welcome. It’s here in Santa Barbara every two weeks.”

“When is the next one?”

“Two weeks from today.”

“I’ll rent a car and drive up.”

“It’s at El Cielito in La Arcada, near the museum.”

I jotted El Cielito, La Arcada, nr. Mus. in my notebook and thanked him. “See you in two weeks,” I added jovially.

* * *

Now I lie in the Motel Seven, trying to sleep, but all the things I want to ask Ross Macdonald jangle in my head like construction bells.

I’ve wanted to meet him since I picked up one of six books my grandparents had saved in thirty-five years. Macdonald’s The Underground Man, the story of a man murdered while trying to locate his missing father. Against the backdrop of a California brush fire, a detective named Lew Archer scratched through a tangle of twisted relationships to uncover a second murder committed fifteen years earlier.

This was no vacation mystery. It had characters, prose and it rang from first page to last with the pain of living where and how his people lived.

Like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler before him, Ross Macdonald was not a mystery writer; he was a serious novelist who wrote about murders and invented a detective to solve them. And while his plots were frighteningly complex, they were not the centre. People mattered, not puzzles. Archer never broke a case by sniffing fragments of a Florentine vase. He faced people, made them face themselves, made them suffer for their crimes and absorbed much of their pain.

The more I learned about Macdonald, the more I realized he was everywhere in his books. He was Archer, commenting on the world around him. And he was many other characters and they were him. He breathed into them, bled with them, and the pain of his life had voice when Archer’s witnesses spoke of their own.

He was born Kenneth Millar in San Francisco, 1915. When he was three, his parents separated and his mother took hi to live with relatives on the poor side of London, Ontario. He was schooled in Kitchener, Winnipeg, London and Toronto. To support his wife (the novelist Margaret Millar), he wrote verse and sketches for Saturday Night.

All through his long exile, his mother reminded him he was American, a Californian. A bedtime fairytale for a lonely boy. A fellowship at the University of Michigan finally brought him home and he completed a PhD in Literature under the poet W.H. Auden. After a wartime stint with the U.S. Navy, he returned home to California to write full time.

He took the pen name Ross Macdonald and wrote a dozen books in as many years. The prose was that of a honed and gifted writer but the stories were overboiled, peopled with thugs, gamblers and molls. A tough, flip Lew Archer was beaten and blackjacked daily.

The territory had worked for Chandler and Hammett in the Twenties and Thirties, but it clearly wasn’t his. “I was writing my own books,” he said later, “but I wasn’t writing about my own life.”

His breakthrough came in 1957, when he and Margaret moved near his birthplace in the Bay area. It proved to be the epicentre of a psychic eruption. “My half-suppressed Canadian years,” he wrote, “my whole childhood and youth, rose like a corpse from the bottom of the sea to confront me.”

He laid Lew Archer aside and began a “serious” novel about a boy exiled for the sins of his father. Neither of two drafts got past the thirteenth page.

In an essay on crime writing, Macdonald later wrote that the literary detective was “a kind of welder’s mask that enables us to handle dangerously hot material.” Shelving Archer had been a mistake. With the private investigator as narrator/mask, the story burst out over the winter: The Galton Case. It told of a young boy raised by relations in a poor area of Ontario, who appeared to be the lost son of a murdered man and heir to a massive fortune. Evaluating the boy’s claim, Archer notes: “His voice seemed to have the resonance of his own life behind it.”

So at last did Ross Macdonald’s.

In the 25 years from The Galton Case to his death this summer, the novels grew richer, ever more resonant. Children were abandoned, traumatized, often witness to the murder of a parent; crimes were committed to keep older crimes buried; families split under the groaning weight of secrets; fathers were stricken by their runaway daughters, as was he; the sins of the father were visited on the son.

Throughout his work, people desperately suppress their pasts; Archer digs them up. He is their relentless mirror, and all along the California coast, the corpses keep rising from the bottom of the sea. He solves cases with compassion and insight; the blackjacks all but disappear.

Many post-Galton books were national bestsellers (The Underground Man, The Goodbye Look, Sleeping Beauty, The Blue Hammer) and hailed by critics as modern American tragedies. Macdonald has been the subject of a Newsweek cover story and doctoral theses. The New York Times called the Archer books “the finest series of detective stories ever written by an American.” In a Sunday Times review, they later dropped the reservation and called him, simply, “One of the best American novelists now operating.”

In just a few hours I will meet him and tell him that I, too, intend to write detective fiction that belies the limits of the genre (this doesn’t seem self-conscious at the time). He will ask me to stay at the Via Esperanza as confidant and secretary. Father and son, we will forge his works.

* * *

I wake to sun streaming through white chintz curtains. Since when does L.A. sun cut through L.A. smog by seven? I slam out onto the catwalk in my jeans, startling the elderly Japanese man raking the night’s dead leaves from the parking lot.

“What time is it?” I call.

He leans over his rake to peer into the office window. “Nine.”

I fly bare-chested down the stairs and sweep into the office. The night clerk’s younger brother stares at my red eyes.

“It’s nine o’clock!” I thunder.

He glances back at the clock and agrees.

“What happened to my wake-up call?”

He looks at the empty peg board on the wall. “No messages.”

“I see that, damn you. I’m supposed to meet Ross Macdonald in Santa Barbara in three hours.”

“Better hurry,” he advises.

“It’s your fault. I left a message. I paid fourteen bucks just so I could get woken up at seven.”

“My brother comes in at eleven. You ask him.”

“I’m asking you! Why didn’t I get my wake-up call?”

The office door opens. The old man stands there inquiringly. He looks at his son and at me and points to the top right drawer of the desk. He son opens it slowly to its full length and hands the old man a spool of plastic tape. The drawer stays open and the nine a.m. sun beams off a well-kept .45. His hand rests on the rim of the drawer.

“I’m willing to consider a refund,” I say.

His hand doesn’t move.

I sum up. Bowing out, I tell them their country fought bravely in the war.

Back in my room, I stuff The Galton Case and both their towels into my pack. I debate kicking in the TV screen but he’d hear me in the office and drill me right through the ceiling. I settle for dumping the ashtray on the white bedspread.

Rage gets me to the Hollywood Boulevard car rental place by 9:30. With only one couple ahead of me, I can still be on the highway by ten. Oh no! It’s a honeymoon couple, and the clerk is outlining every bend in the road from Yosemite to Disneyland. When the lovers finally beam out, I all but grab his tie: “Anything that moves!”

When the carcinoma-grey Horizon hits Highway One, I have less than two hours to make 94 miles, find the restaurant, park. I change lanes restlessly as L.A. sprawls into Oxnard’s industrial parks. Californians drive like they’re in hot tubs. The Quebec driver in me surges. I stand on the gas and herd mellow commuters aside. J’passe a gauche. J’passe a droit. J’passe au but!

It’s only quarter to twelve when I make out Santa Barbara on a distant sign. Then I can read the small print: Next Twelve Exits. Damn! I gamble on the first. I swing into a gas station off the ramp and a mechanic rolls out from under a ’66 Dodge to look at my notebook. El Cielito, La Arcada, nr. Mus. I haven’t looked at it since the day I talked to Macdonald and I can’t remember which is the restaurant, which is the street.

“Don’t know about the museum, never been,” the mechanic says. “But that first road there is El Cielito Drive. Starts right here and goes up the canyon so maybe it’s just up there.”

By noon—the lunch is now underway—the houses have thinned out to brush jutting out from the tangled canyonside. Even Californians wouldn’t put a museum here. There! On the right! A two-storey concrete structure. . . a fire station. How about that? Up in a canyon, a fire station, not a museum.

I show a fireman the notebook. “The museum’s right in the centre of town,” he says, as though I were dense to think otherwise.

“Is there an El Cielito Street there?”

“Nope.”

“There’s an El Cielito restaurant,” another firefighter says. “Right back of the museum in La Arcada Court.”

* * *

About thirty men and women are well into their meals at a long banquet table in a back room at El Cielito. There are no empty seats and my nerves shrill until the waiter adds on a table and seats me at what is now the head. I order a double Scotch and a cheese omelet. I’ve been eating the lining of my stomach since nine a.m.

The man on my right, about seventy with one blue eye gone milky, introduces himself as William Campbell Gault. I know the name. Macdonald’s The Blue Hammer is dedicated to him. An effusive man, he talks in a salty growl while I scan the room of writers.

The one I want doesn’t seem to be here.

I’ve seen just one photo of him, on the back cover of a book. In that photo, he seems more Archer than Macdonald. A snap-brim pulled low obscures the right eye; the left looks out at you and knows you. The face is fleshy, solid. Robert Mitchum as Kenneth Millar as Ross Macdonald as Lew Archer.

I’m about to ask Gault about him when I spot him halfway down the left side of the table. Is it? Yes. . . but hardly the man I was expecting. Balding, silver wisps across a high dome. Skin drawn tight around the mouth and cheeks. None of the solid comfort of the photo.

He eats quietly, listening, not talking. A manila envelope and tweed deerstalker sit on his lap, as though he wants nothing of himself to show at the table. Deer like, poised to flee. How to approach him? As Mr. Millar or Mr. Macdonald?

Wait. Eat. Calm yourself. After the meal. . . .

The omelet comes and goes in a blur, followed by most of the rolls from two bread baskets. Gault talks about his career: sixty novels, three hundred stories (mystery, boys, racing, romance). He has never had real success but neither has he had to do anything but write.

I listen and keep an eye on Kenneth Millar. Yes: Millar, not Macdonald. I prepare: themes, images, characters; why and how they touched me—my father left me too, I know how that is, you’ve never had a son—and as my mouth works on a dinner roll and my ear hangs on Gault, I see a movement halfway down the table.

He is pushing away, clutching his envelope and hat, nodding to those nearby, turning, leaving the dining room. I back out of my chair, leaving a roll and Gault’s sentence unfinished. I catch Millar by the bar outside the banquet room.

“Mr. Millar.”

He turns to look at me, cool and neutral.

“I called a couple of weeks ago.”

“Oh, yes.”

“You’re not leaving.”

“I have to. I’m sorry.”

“I thought we were going to talk today. If you knew what I went through to get here. . . .”

His look says he doesn’t really want to know. “Why don’t you come back in two weeks?”

It all wells up and out: “They didn’t wake me and the guy pulled a gun and I got the restaurant mixed up with the canyon road. . . .”

“I really do have to go now,” he says, apologetic and uncomfortable.

I can’t keep him. I take The Galton Case from my pocket. “Would you?”

He smiles at me, at the book that meant so much to him. He takes out a pen. I tell him my name but with one scratch the pen is dry. Neither of us has another. I should get one but I stand there staring. Millar, holding the hat and envelope against him like a shield against my glazed hysteria, walks to the bar for a pen. Idiot! Get him a pen! But he is coming back sand he writes in the book with the nub of a pencil from the bar. We stand there. I want to apologize for making him go get it, for anything for which he’ll forgive me.

“Thanks,” is all I mumble.

“Come back in two weeks,” he says kindly. “Maybe there’ll be more time.” He turns and angles his tall frame between two chairs and is gone.

* * *

I returned two weeks later but he didn’t attend that lunch and then I left Southern California. I never saw or spoke to him again. I wrote to the Via Esperanza, detailing my adventures of the day, but received no reply.

I did become friends with William Campbell Gault. After Millar left El Cielito, we talked on and I followed Gault home in the grey Horizon. I had a book on Chandler that he had been looking for and in return he gave me hardcover editions of three of his novels and a paperback of Don’t Cry for Me, 1952’s Edgar winner for Best First Novel.

We spent the after noon talking of Millar, Chandler, writing, Canada, newspapers, unions: anything his quick mind lit on. Delightful, everything I’d dreamed of: the young writer and the old lion, the careful passing of secrets. But Gault wasn’t Millar; my fantasy was rooted.

A fantasy—confidant, secretary, pseudo-son—that would never graft onto the serious man named Millar who hid behind Macdonald who hid behind Lew Archer.

I came away with what I already had: a love for his talent and his books. That and a memento on the title page of The Galton Case where, beneath the false start of the pen, is written: To Howard, with good wishes and regrets, Ken Millar (Ross Macdonald).

*The story in question was I For an Eye, which you can read here.