Won’t Get Fooled Again

I am classified as a baby boomer because of the year I was born (1961) but I kind of think I am an exception to that rule, or should be, at any rate. My parents just missed being boomers, being born in 1942, but they don’t remember the war, and I think the war is the real defining generational moment. But I grew up around older people (they seemed ancient!) who had served. Our neighborhood in Chicago was a melting pot of various eastern/middle European refugees who came after the war, and for me that made the war seem very real as opposed to a historical event. We saw all the films in elementary school about the war–along with some extraordinary pro-American anti-Communist patriotic propaganda–and as very young children we were exposed to the films of the camps. The Holocaust was real, it was recent, and it was still absolutely horrifying. (We were also taught why using atomic weapons on Japan was the right, moral decision and hey, they started it after all–but that’s a topic for another day.) I remember watching a documentary series on PBS called The World at War, and of course, old war films were being shown on television all the time. (And somehow, Hogan’s Heroes was also on the air when I was a child–and then rerun in syndication for quite a while.) I read a lot of war fiction growing up–From Here to Eternity to The Caine Mutiny to War and Remembrance to The Young Lions to Tales of the South Pacific. I read a lot of World War II books–and there were even more books where it was a major part of the plot but it did affect the story and the characters in some way. (You can even stretch and include The Godfather–both book and movie–because Michael Corleone was a war hero at the beginning.)

I also fell in love with Hawaii the first time I went in 1991; I went every year after that until 1995 (thank you, flight benefits!) and I miss it. I would love to go back again, and I would imagine it’s very different there now than it was the last time I was there. But on one of those trips to Hawaii–I don’t remember which one–I came up with a very basic idea for a book, that would open on December 8, 1941. The wrecks in Pearl Harbor were still smoking and the entire island chain was on high alert. My idea was to then have an Army brass’ wife call the local police station to report a murder: she found the young Japanese man who worked for her doing yard work and odd jobs with his throat cut in her rose bushes. That was as far as the idea ever progressed, and I never have had the time to sit and think it through. But I love that opening idea, and that set-up; even as I type these words now characters are taking shape in my head (KNOCK IT OFF, CREATIVITY)…anyway, so it was a no-brainer that I wanted to to read Five Decembers by James Kestrel the first time I learned of its existence.

Joe McGrady was looking at a whiskey. It was so new the ice hadn’t begun to melt, even in this heat. A cacophony surrounded him. Sailors were ordering beers ten at a go, reaching past each other to light the girls’ cigarettes. Someone dropped a nickel in the Wurlitzer, and then there was Jimmy Dorsey and his orchestra. The men compensated for the new noise. They raised their voices. They were shouting at the girls now, and they outnumbered them. The night was just getting started, and so far they weren’t drinking anything harder than beer. They wouldn’t get to fistfights for another few hours. By the time they did, it would be some other cop’s problem. So he picked up his drink, and sniffed it. Forty-five cents per liquid ounce. Worth every penny, even if a three-finger pour took more than an hour to earn.

Before he had a taste of it, the barman was back. Shaved head, swollen eyes. Straight razor scars on both his cheeks. A face that made you want to hurry up and drink. But McGrady set his glass down.

“Joe,Tip said.

“Yeah?”

“Telephone–Captain Beamer, I guess, You can take it upstairs.

He knew the way. So he grabbed the drink again, and knocked it back. The whole thing, one gulp. Smooth and smoky. He might as well have it. If Beamer was calling him now, then he was going to be pulling overtime. Which meant tomorrow–Thursday–was going to be a bust. Molly was going to be disappointed. On the other hand, he’d be drawing extra pay. So he could afford to make it up to her later. He put three half-dollars on the bar, wiped his mouth on his shirtsleeve, and went upstairs.

I had heard great things about this book–it literally won the Edgar for Best Novel last month–and of course, it’s time and setting (a murder mystery set in Honolulu just before, during and after December 7? Oh hell yeah) made it a must-get. I didn’t read it as soon as I got a copy of course; it went into the TBR stack and moved up quite a few places after it won the Edgar. On the one hand, I’d heard nothing but great things about the book (and it won the Edgar)…but on the other hand, I also was worried about how this Pearl Harbor noir might affect my potential write-sometime-in-the-future-but-before-I-die Pearl Harbor murder mystery; namely, would I simply think oh this is so fucking good I can’t bear to write something that would be compared (unfavorably) to it because mine would inevitably be the weaker of the two? (I know how unhinged this sounds, but I’ve never pretended that anything that goes on inside of my brain is anything other than that.)

Yes, the book is that good, and no, it didn’t leave me thinking that I could never write my own book idea. If anything, it made me think, oh, I should try mine at some point but I am going to have to do a shit ton of research–which was something I already was aware of, to be fair–but its a good idea and could be interesting and fun to work on.

So, yeah, there was clearly no need to wait to read this outside my own neuroses.

Joe McGrady is the hero of this tale, which does indeed open in late November/December 1941 and finally wraps up the case in December 1945–the “five Decembers” of the title. Joe is ex-military and wound up in Honolulu on the police force, where he is neither liked nor trusted because he didn’t come up through the ranks; the thin blue line in Honolulu considers him to be an outsider. The case he catches while having a drink in the bar involves two bodies found butchered in a hut on a pineapple plantation; a young white male and a young Japanese female, stripped nude and essentially gutted. The case has wider implications other than the apparent (“my god, someone butchered two people in an extremely violent and gory way!”) as the young man is the nephew of Admiral Kimmel, the commander-in-chief of the Pacific Naval Fleet. As tensions between the United States and Japan are heating up to the inevitability of war, the murder of someone related to a person so high up in the chain of command could be espionage, could be any number of things that could have an effect on the security of the country and the Pacific fleet–and we, as readers, are also very aware of what’s around the corner in just a few days. Joe does note that his boss seems a bit weird about the investigation, and he’s paired with a bruiser detective who likes to beat information out of people and confessions out of possibly innocent people. He’s dating a young woman who attends the University, and may even be falling in love with her. We don’t get a lot of backstory on Joe, but the strength of the authorial voice makes unemotional, mostly internal Joe a hero you can root for. The trail of the murders eventually leads to Hong Kong, and Joe sets off on the transoceanic flight, which includes stops at Guam and Wake Island, where he picks up more clues and the trail of the possible killer–and there’s a murder victim on Wake kind of similar to the ones in Hawaii. But once he arrives in Hong Kong he decides not to immediately go to the police department there and ask assistance; rather he decides to follow the trail himself at first…a mistake, as he winds up getting arrested and framed for a rape. He is in the Hong Kong jail hoping that the US Embassy will get him out when the bombs start falling. He is taken to Japan as a prisoner of war, and the case–and the book, take a completely surprising twist and turn once he is there.

Anything else would be a spoiler, so I can’t really talk about the story anymore–but it’s compelling, convincing, beautiful and tragic and sad all at the same time. We see a lot of things through Joe’s eyes–both inhumanity and humanity; the absolute horrors of war (there’s a horrifyingly grim account of the fire bombing of Tokyo), and finally, the war ends, he returns to Hawaii, and is able to at long last close the case in a way that is enormously satisfying.

I really really enjoyed this immersive book which used a hardboiled crime story to talk about the horrors of war and the inhumanity that xenophobic and racist values and beliefs can create. It was riveting and very hard to put down once I started.

Highly, highly recommended.

Dress You Up

I started writing another book yesterday.

Please note I didn’t say worked on the book, but started writing another book. Yes, that’s right; I am working on a Scotty book (I did start writing Chapter Fifteen yesterday), have the WIP as well that I’ve not touched in a while, and am trying to whip the last two stories for my short story collection into shape–but I started writing another book yesterday.

I am clearly completely insane.

I’ve been toying with an idea for a noir novel for awhile, with a gay main character; kind of a Hard Case Crime-style novel with a gay male protagonist. I know who my main character was; I knew who the young, sexy young man and young woman who would be the focus of the cover were, and even had a slight, amorphous idea of the plot of the book; I even knew the opening scene of the book would take place in a deserted alley late at night behind the gym the main character owned; the gym was simply called Muscles, and that was also the name of the book. But as I finished polishing “My Brother’s Keeper” for it to be read aloud for its final polish, an idea kept nagging at me. And as I started writing Chapter Fifteen, it began taking shape in my mind. And I knew it was the opening of Muscles, which I’ve never known quite how to structure. It came to me yesterday while I was working on other things, so I decided–in my Greg is completely crazy way, that the smart thing to do was go ahead and write it down, before I forgot it–I’ve done that so many times–and so I started writing it. Next thing I knew I was a thousand words in, and I ran out of words–but I know where it needs to go from that opening, and I even know how chapter two is going to play out. I really have this wonderful idea for the continuation of the chapter that I really want to try to do–weaving back story in around action–which is going to be hard to pull off, but I am very excited to try it.

I can’t wait for this weekend to get here so I can seriously work on all of this stuff!

I’ve also had three more ideas for short stories pop up lately–all amorphous, all thoughts simply swirling around inside my head, without form, without fully formed characters, without a cohesive plot or story–but the titles are there: “Malevolence,” “Headshot”, and “One Night at Brandy’s Lounge.” It feels so good to be creative again, you have no idea, Constant Reader; last year was such a barren, fallow experience creatively that, while it’s frustrating in some ways to have so many ideas swirling around inside my head, making it hard for me to focus the way I need to on the stuff that needs to be focused upon, it’s also kind of a blessed relief to know my creativity is still there. It’s also weird, because I’d forgotten that it’s always like this when I am writing a book; my creative ADD kicks in and I am all over the place, and every time I have to re-discipline myself, keep it under control and focus it on the work at hand. I think this is also why I never like my novels very much and am never very satisfied with them; because the entire time i am working on them I want to be working on something else and it feels forced.

WHY DIDN’T I FIGURE THAT OUT THIRTY BOOKS AGO?

Sigh.

At least I’m still capable of learning, which is something.

So, in honor of me learning something, here’s the opening of the first Chanse MacLeod short story EVER, “My Brother’s Keeper”:

It had been twenty-five years but Cottonwood Wells still stank.

I’d forgotten about the smell from the oil refinery just outside of town, near the oil fields where my father had worked. It hung over the town like a shroud, poisonous and foul. When the wind blew from the north the stench was almost unbearable. The trailer park where we lived was on the side of town closest to it so there was no escaping it, but I never got used to it. I tolerated it, like so many other things I tolerated growing up in that town, but I was always aware of it.

There was a Best Western now at the exit from I-10, and a Days Inn across the street. I pulled into the Best Western parking lot because it was easier. I got my briefcase and rolling suitcase from the hatch of my Subaru Forrester. In the distance, on the other side of town, I could see the flaming stacks where they burned off excess gas at the refinery. What used to be fields just on the way into town from the highway was now the enormous parking lot of a sprawling Wal-Mart Super Center, a Lowe’s on the other side. Like everywhere else in America, Cottonwood Wells had fallen victim to the plastic commercialization of the chain stores. There was a Whataburger and a McDonalds on the other side of the highway, and gas stations. I could see the line of fast food signs on the way into town past the Wal-Mart: Burger King, Arbys, KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut. All we’d had when I was a kid was a Sonic Drive-in downtown on the main drag, and a McDonalds.

And now, back to the spice mines.

30171497_151853328989314_1784543801178865197_o

Never Gonna Let You Go

Have you read the comic book co-written by Megan Abbott and Alison Gaylin, Normandy Gold?

IMG_1772

It will come as no surprise that its fantastic. Megan Abbott and Alison Gaylin are two of the best crime writers of our Golden Age of women crime writers.

One of the things that can get confusing with crime fiction is the subgenres and the sometimes slight distinctions between them; take hard-boiled vs. noir as an example. I think the confusion comes because a hard-boiled crime novel, when made into a film, can fit into the film noir category, which is a bit broader than the genre definitions crime novels can use and books can fall into; for example, The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep are hard-boiled detective novels; the films, however, are classic film noir. (Your mileage may vary; I am speaking only for myself and how I classify books.) For me, a detective novel that is dark and brooding and cynical in nature is hard-boiled, Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky’s novels, for me, fall into this category, as do Hammett’s detective fiction and Chandler’s. James M. Cain’s novels were noir, as are Megan Abbott’s. Alison Gaylin’s detective novels are more hard-boiled; her stand alone novels are more noir. For me, a noir novel doesn’t have a professional investigator as the main character; those are hard-boiled.

Charles Ardai’s Hard Case Crime line of novels contains both noir and hard-boiled fiction; the team-up of Gaylin and Abbott with the graphic serial novel Normandy Gold is a fine addition to Hard Case, and one of the best comics/graphic novels I’ve come across in a long while. As I read the first issue on my iPad, all I could think was how glorious this is; excellent, crisp dialogue and incredible storytelling, along with some amazing artwork. If there are awards for graphic novels, just start sending them along to the team that produced this now!

Normandy Gold firmly straddles the line between noir and hard-boiled with guns blazing. Set in the 1970’s, Normandy is a small town sheriff in rural Oregon. Her mother was a prostitute, and she ran away when she was a teen to try to find a better life for herself, leaving her younger sister behind. One day she gets a call from her sister, and is still on the line with her as her sister is murdered. Normandy comes to Washington DC to find out what she can about her sister’s death; the cops have written it off as just another dead whore no one cares about and unsolvable. But Normandy also finds out her sister wasn’t just a prostitute; she worked for a very elite, high level escort service, and decides to go undercover to find what happened to her sister.

This typical-sounding set-up comes alive in the hands of two master storytellers, and the art itself is stunningly beautiful. The story moves very quickly, and the 1970’s setting is perfectly done; not a false note in the entire first issue. This is the kind of story that, as a film in the 1970’s, would have earned a star like Jane Fonda or Ellen Burstyn or Ann-Margret an Oscar nomination, if not the statue itself. Vividly realized, you keep turning the pages to see what happens next…and when you get to the end of the issue, you’re sorry it’s done but can’t wait to read the next.

Highly recommended.