An Ode to Walter Mosley

Last weekend I attended the 2018 New England Crimebake.  I had not been before and wasn’t sure what to expect.  But if you are a crime novel writer or reader, this is a place to celebrity-watch and get fired up over all the great new books coming out.  This year’s Guest of Honor was Walter Mosley, creator of Easy Rawlins and writer of many bestsellers.  His novel “Devil in a Blue Dress” was made into a movie starring Denzel Washington and Jennifer Beals.  It’s excellent — watch it any chance you get and read the book for its superb blending of mystery and character motivation.

This year the administrators set up a short-short story contest.  In no more than 150 words, we were challenged to write a flash story in which a crime occurs [any kind], using no less than ten words from a list of seventeen that were taken from the titles of Mosley’s books.  I had a blast with it [I managed to use fourteen words from the list].  Three winners were chosen, and I was one of them.  It was the greatest thrill to stand up in front of a few hundred writers and readers of crime fiction and read my own story!  It’s something to remember always.

Mosley & the 3 winners

This is me on the right, with the other two winners [I’m ashamed to say I didn’t note down their names; hopefully the Crimebake website will post them soon] and Mr. Walter Mosley himself.  By the way, if you ever get a chance to listen to him talk about the craft of writing, grab it!  He is fun and informative and a natural speaker, which is not always the case with even the best writers.

So, just for fun, here’s the story, with words from Mosley’s titles underlined:

HEY, I LIKE TO COOK

Hey, I like to cook, and all I want is a quiet existence.  So I felt fortunate to have found a cheap basement apartment that had access to a charcoal grill on the patio.  But I hadn’t counted on the apartment manager’s dog, a raging evil brute with big ugly teeth that got a thrill out of chasing me away from my apartment door when I came home every single day.

The manager laughed when I complained and then tried to put his hand up my dress.  But he got used to seeing me cooking on the patio, so pieces of butterfly “chicken” on the grill didn’t cause him any fear, even after the dog came up missing.  The dog’s mistake was liking my cinnamon buns with just a kiss of arsenic.  His owner’s mistake was accepting my invitation to a delicious backyard fry-up.

Hey, it’s Halloween!

close up creepy dark darkness

Photo by Toni Cuenca on Pexels.com

I subscribe to the newsletter of Cindy Brown, author of the Ivy Meadows mysteries.  In a recent edition, she talked about her love for the movie “The Sound of Music” and invited her readers to tell her about their favorite things.  Well, that got me going, and here’s my rendition.  I dare you to read it without singing it to the music — under your breath, of course!

“The Sound of Murder”

Mysteries in millions

And novels with corpses

Bright copper daggers

And all the pale horses

Brown paper packages dripping with gore

These are my favorites

So let’s have some more!

Cream-colored cupcakes all filled up with cy-nide

The doorbell is ringing so let in the hellhags

Witches that fly with revenge in old lore

These are my favorites

So let’s have some more!

Girls in white dresses with eyes that are scary

Killers in closets all red-faced and hairy

Silver-white moons that mean death on the shore

These are my favorites

So let’s have some more!

When the dog bites
When the bee stings
When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite books
And then I can fee-e-el – quite ma-a-ad!

*Cue maniacal laughter*

Just an ebook

“It’s just an ebook,”  she said with sweet self-deprecation and some regret.

Of course, the writer was apologizing for having gone through an indie publisher online, rather than spending years working through agents, a Big Five New York publisher and the long process of editing, rewriting to the editor’s wishes, then waiting for design, typesetting, shipping to bookstores, etc, all to end up with no control over the product and what amounts (for new authors, at least) to very nearly a single-digit percentage of the profits.

I was at a writers group meeting when I heard this.  I had a hard time not jumping across the table.

“It’s not JUST an ebook!  You’ve published a book.”

Ebooks — people buy them and hold them and read them and love them, and discuss them and recommend them and even loan them to their friends.  They are made up of the words, sweat, genius, joy and tears of the writer who had the vision and the dream, just as much as anything pounded out on paper.

To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a writer who was vilified by many readers and worshiped by others—a book is a book is a book.

Do we – nowadays – consider an electric car “just a car”?  As in, it shouldn’t be taken seriously?  Not like a gas-guzzling, climate-destroying, wallet-raping real car?  The price is the same, usually a heck of a lot more, (unlike, say, an ebook).  They’re made up mostly of the same parts, driven the same way, and they get you from point A to point B.  Would Chevrolet say that the Bolt is “just a car”?  Or would they say that it’s just as good as any other car – or even better?

Many people at the turn of the twentieth century believed that no cars should be taken seriously.  After all, they were just a weird bit of flash-in-the-pan technological silliness, whereas anyone who was worth anything drove a nice, quiet horse and carriage.

People came out to the fields to watch the new technology called airplanes, and they laughed.  Everyone knew that air flight was for the birds, so to speak.  Why bother, when it only took several weeks or months to take a train or a boat?  And that’s so much more gentile, dah-ling.

No one believed “movies” would ever be watched by serious citizens or acted in by real actors – after all, if you had an ounce of self-respect, you went to the theatah.  And once movies caught on and became respectable, who on earth would bother with a stupid little technological experiment called television?

Do you have a newspaper subscription?  Do you consider CNN.com and Twitter notifications foolishness?  Why not wait and get the story on your doorstep twenty-four hours later?

It used to be that writers were pressed to apologize if what they wrote was just a mystery or science fiction or a love story.  We now have crime novels that are considered Golden Age ‘classics’ of literature and science fiction that has won prestigious awards.  ‘Romeo and Juliet’ anyone?  I have it on ebook, and before that, I had a hardback copy – gasp!  It wasn’t on parchment written with a quill pen.  Is it, then, “just a play”?  And while people still pay lip service to ‘serious books’, romance novels are eagerly snapped up to the tune of millions of dollars a month.  A MONTH.

Oh.  That’s right.  If you want to make a lot of money, then you’re “just” a hack.  And if it’s not made of dead trees, it’s “just” a book.  And if you want to reach those millions of readers who prefer technology or appreciate convenience or simply can’t afford what the Big Five publishers are charging for paper, does that mean you are “just” a writer?

Come to think of it, what’s wrong with that?

How’s your writer’s bump?

Anyone under the age of twenty may not know what I’m referring to. (To what I am referring? Go away, Mrs. McCartney and your eighth-grade blackboard.) Even people born as late as 1985 may have developed that permanent callus that their boomer parents wore like a frat pin, that tough little malformation that grew on our right middle finger where the pencil or pen pressed as we spent twelve years chewing on our tongues and writing out the answers on a test paper. Or a job application. Or an honest-to-God handwritten letter.
I used to have a beauty of a bump, right above the nail on the left side of my finger. In those days before Facebook, I wrote letters. Lots of letters. To friends, to penpals in foreign countries, and even to Aunt Mary if my mother nagged. Such happiness, to fold the sheets perfectly, tuck them in an envelope and imagine the pleasure of my friends when the little package arrived.
I never wrote them on a typewriter, not when I was young – typewriters were for Della Street or Hildy Johnson or for writing the Great American Novel. No, I took my allowance (all one dollar of it) and went to Woolworths to shop for the latest in lovely fashionable stationery. I would spend hours picking through the shelves of boxes, unable to decide between lined stationery with kittens at the top or unlined with a breathtaking border of roses. And sometimes I’d try a new pen, if I had twenty-five cents left over. Most of the time Mom bought packs of ink refills and we’d unscrew the pen body and poke a new supply of ink down in it. My father grumbled about how lucky we were – they had to dip fountain pens in bottles of ink and it went everywhere.
I never noticed when the bump began to soften and disappear. It probably started some years ago when holding a pen to write more than my signature on a check caused my hand to seize up in a painful claw. I figured “hooray for the keyboard” and happily tapped blog posts, Tweets and entries on that twenty-first century form of family togetherness known as Facebook.
Until I posted a picture on my Facebook page and the entire file of photos, including the professional portfolio of an actor friend, ended up on the page as well, and I can’t remove it. I was so enraged that I seriously considered dropping Facebook entirely.
The problem is, I’m not sure my grandchildren or even my nieces and nephews have ever written a letter in their lives, and just try catching them on the phone. I compromised by continuing to read their posts, and made the decision to go back to writing letters.
I’m not comparing myself to Jane Austen or John Steinbeck, but who knows? Maybe someday my great-grandkids will be as intrigued by the quaint things I write about (and the quaintness of paper and pen) as I am by my father’s letters to my mother when they were young lovers separated by World War II. Voltaire left us novels, plays and essays, but how well would we know the man and his times without the twenty-thousand (yes, 20,000) letters he wrote? I can’t help but wonder how future historians will mine information about our era from “Tweets” and Facebook posts, even should these bits of our lives survive in virtual archives.
So I spent a few days trying to find stationery that’s not “letterhead” meant to roll through a printer, enduring blank looks from pimply-faced clerks at Walmart and everywhere else. I finally resurrected a miniscule selection at Staples. I bought new pens reputed to “flow easily”. (Boy, do they ever. My father would recognize the ink splotches all over the page.) I did some relaxation meditation, chewed a few aspirins and worked at producing a long letter for my kids. I didn’t do badly; it’s mostly legible. But, OUCH, my flabby unexercised writer’s bump is yelling like my thighs did after my first trip on an exercycle. I guess Aunt Mary will have to wait a few days for my genius.

When is a mystery not a mystery?

Yesterday I finished a book and was astounded.  Not by the quality of the writing, which was excellent.  Nor by the detail in the characters and the background, which was extremely enjoyable because I grew up in that setting and recognized the people and the places they inhabited.  No, what astounded me was that the author did such a magnificent job and then committed what is still considered one of the top no-nos for any mystery writer.

He didn’t introduce the killers until around ten pages from the end of the book.  Not a hint, no clue as to their very existence before that.

I can hear mystery readers crying “No fair!” all over the world.  Mysteries are meant to challenge the reader.  Half the fun is the head-smack at the end when we cry, “Oh, that’s what that meant!”  How can we enjoy the challenge if there’s no possible way we can even know of the killers’ existence until the very end of the book?  Much less try to ferret out the clues that give them away?  For all it’s virtues, the ending of this book was about as engaging as having the cavalry come riding to the rescue at the last moment, when we were never told there was a fort just over the hill.

Now, if a book is really good, even of literary quality, readers will forgive you for breaking a “rule”.  Or maybe not.  Anyone remember “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”?  The outrage has died down, but the embers smolder and will flare up whenever the book is mentioned in a group of two or more mystery diehards.  Because the author was the great Agatha Christie, people went on to read her succeeding books, of which, after 1927, there were a heck of a lot.  Most were written strictly by the unspoken contract between mystery writers and their readers:  i.e., to give them a fair chance to see if they can spot the clues and prove themselves at least as smart as the sleuth.  Dame Agatha was, if not wholly forgiven, at least not kicked out of the “Detection Club”.  Although from what I’ve read, Dorothy L. Sayers held onto her grudge.

For all my pleasure in the people and places of the book I just finished, I have to ask myself:  do I want to bother reading the next in the series?  What if they’re the same?  What if they, too, treat the reader as a passive unthinking consumer and not as a partner in the creation of new worlds in our minds?  I read mysteries for escape, yes, like everyone.  But I also read to stimulate my mind, to see if I can beat the author by spotting the clues and a-ha-ing the red herrings.  It’s a pact, it’s a partnership, it’s a puzzle challenge.  And it’s a promise that every mystery writer is still expected to make, that we will “play fair” with our readers.

It’s why I don’t write suspense or thrillers.  They’re a different kind of promise, a different kind of escape.  I love to read them, and they are an escape I indulge in frequently for the pleasure of it.  I love following the characters through their dangers, holding my breath and waiting to see how they escape, accepting my passivity as I munch my popcorn.  I’m just along for the ride.  It doesn’t matter whether I identify the source of the danger on the first page or the last, as long as the trip itself is a good one.  I know what I’m getting when the blurb says ‘suspense’ or ‘thriller’.

Mysteries are a different animal.  Time was when they were all blended together and called ‘crime fiction’.  But readers have branched off, created their own clubs and divisions.  They’ve forced bookstores to have separate shelving for each branch.  Readers know what they want and when.  And when the cover says ‘mystery’, I want it to be just that.  A mystery.