Love and Death
One hundred issues. Who would have thought something with a name as subversive, as wanton, as seducing and playful as “Bookslut” would survive one hundred issues in a world filled with pseudo-celebrities and a publishing industry with a future about as bright as the average mastodon?
But here we stand. And it is a very different time than it was when I first started doing this gig over five years ago now. This column was started by Melinda Hill in 2002, then carried forward briefly by my brilliant predecessor, Sarah Weinman, who quickly moved on to her high-profile gigs as one of the genre’s most prominent advocates. Then I took on the unlikely mantle in the winter of 2005. Impressed with Jessa Crispin’s blazing wit, I submitted a clumsy round-up of the year’s upcoming mystery titles. And when she offered me a regular column, my first reaction was, well, to unleash a religious epithet, to put it mildly. Once I got over my surprise, I rolled up my sleeves and got to work.
But it’s not fair for me to carry the name any more. My personal responsibilities, not to mention my professional gigs as a critic for places like Kirkus Reviews and The Denver Post, keep swallowing up all my precious time, leaving less and less of the passion, rage and cruel irony that it takes to write this column. So instead of letting months pass between columns like I have this year, I’m going to take my bow, and leave the stage. Yes, I’ll still be writing interviews and features for Bookslut, a gig I love and an association I cherish. I’m just not going to shoulder the responsibility of being Bookslut’s Mystery Stumpet every month.
I could say I need time to go off and reinvent myself like U2, but that would just be sad and awkward for everybody. So let me say this instead.
It’s your turn. Somewhere out there is a bright, funny and zealous young writer who thinks -- no, she knows -- that she can do this job a lot better than the middle-aged literary pugilist who delivers this diatribe every month. Bookslut needs a new voice -- someone wicked smart and sexy as hell who can breathe some much-needed life into this column.
You’re up, kid.
Let me encourage anyone who loves mysteries, crime novels, thrillers -- hell, even if you like to commit crimes -- to get in touch with my friend and inspiration Michael Schaub, and tell him why you want to be Bookslut’s new Mystery Strumpet.
Now that the dull part is over with, let me do my job one more time before Michael takes away my Bookslut employee badge and drink tickets.
This being something of a turning point, let’s spend the rest of our brief time together talking about love and death. What did I love about writing for you all these years?
First of all, I loved talking to writers. I used to be one of those youngsters who would faithfully show up early to book signings at Denver’s Tattered Cover with my stack of plastic-jacketed first editions in hand, thinking that a handshake and a Sharpie scrawl gave me some kind of connection to a hard-working writer. And then I got to talking to them.
One of the first people that Jessa set up with was Ian Rankin, the brilliant Scottish novelist and most widely-published crime author in Europe. I did my research, composed and relentlessly re-ordered my questions, and waited nervously to call the author in New York. Over the course of our run-in, the damndest thing happened. It stopped being an interview and started being a genuine conversation, a civilized exchange between fellow human beings about the nature of crime, the perils of fame, and the risks of drinking all night with actor John Hannah.
From there, I never ceased to be impressed with the qualities of the writers I interviewed over the years. The late, great Don Westlake left me roaring with laughter from his answer to a question about a run-in between Dortmunder and Parker. Walter Mosley stayed on the phone for hours a few days before Christmas, and is one of the great American treasures in modern literature. Despite his enormous fame, David Sedaris really is the guy that you expect him to be, commiserating with me over the weirdness of living in London. For Richard Lange, Tom Cain, Richard Price, Don Winslow, Denise Hamilton, Tim Sandlin, Alexander McCall Smith, Charlie Huston and all the other writers who elevated my work with their presence, I offer my undying thanks.
To finally give you an actual recommendation for this month, I say run to pre-order the latest novel by the great man himself, Elmore Leonard, who I will always be proud to have interviewed. Twice, come to think of it. Djibouti, coming out in October, takes Elmore’s characteristic killers and misfits and transposes them to the Horn of Africa, where the author takes on the unusual subject of international piracy. The last time I spoke to Dutch, he practically read me the first chapter, hot off the typewriter.
“Right now, I’m writing one that is very contemporary,” he said. “It’s going on right now and it’s about the pirates in Somalia in the Gulf of Aden. My main character is a young woman who does documentaries. Her first three documentaries were big hits. She won at Cannes and won an Oscar. She’s trying to think of what to do next. She gives some thought to a couple of ideas. First, she thinks of doing one on nuns. She visits some who taught her in grade school and they’re not doing much, sitting in the convent and saying the rosary. Nothing’s happening. There’s no young girl with a lot of spirit that she sees. So then she thinks about a call girl that she’s spoken to before, who is fairly negative, and asks, ‘You want to do a movie about me bitching?’ Then a friend suggests that she does one on AA meetings. She hears some really harrowing stories about how people get drunk and be very creative to hide the fact that they’re drunk. But the movie would be telling and not showing.”
Eventually, Leonard’s filmmaker character Dara Barr winds up cruising the Indian Ocean, looking to capture footage of Somali pirates in action. While the subject might sound as grim as some of the sequences in Pagan Babies, one of my favorite novels, it’s really not. Leonard puts his own unique spin on it and introduces some fantastic characters. Among the scoundrels dreamed up for this unique adventure novel are Barr’s gigantic companion and guide, Xavier LeBou; the imaginative Gold Dust Twins, a pair of mis-matched former pirates who are trying to track down terrorists; and American billionaire Billy Wynn, who’s out to impress his latest girlfriend. It’s a welcome test for Leonard’s talents and a terrific volume from a writer who never leaves his a-game behind.
What else? I loved great opening lines.
“An August Sunday, so hot you couldn’t tell sweat from tears.”
“Imagine that you have to break someone’s arm.”
“Well, I see by the cracked face of my Princess Grace wristwatch that it’s four A.M., and the City of Angels is a glowing necropolis as far as my win-tunnel eyes can see.”
The best opening line of a crime novel ever written is this: “All night should be so dark, all winters so warm, all headlights so dazzling.”
That’s the opening line to Martin Cruz Smith’s immortal Gorky Park, and last month the author continued his fine tradition with the shorter yet no less elegant Three Stations. In his latest case, detective Arkady Renko is no less tenacious, despite having been suspended from the prosecutor’s office. When he’s asked to cover for Victor Orlov, a drunken colleague, Arkady is drawn into the strange case of Maya, a fifteen-year-old prostitute who seeks help from Arkady’s teenaged ward Zhenya, the chess prodigy who memorably appeared in Wolves Eat Dogs and Stalin’s Ghost. Suddenly, the race is on for Arkady to figure out who in the Moscow underworld is taking such an interest in the disjointed family of Russian street urchins and runaways.
I also loved the history of the genre. While I think I sometimes lingered too long on the genre’s biggest names, there’s something to be said for knowing where your trade came from. Anyone who’s even slightly interested in the long tradition of American crime novels owes to themselves to pick up the deadly slab that is The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories this month.
Black Mask, of course, was the pulp magazine launched in 1920 by journalist H.L. Mencken that set the gold standard for crime and detective fiction in America. This collection, edited by the great Otto Penzler, includes the full gambit of the magazine’s output, touching on the classic contributions while also including a few surprises. Naturally, you’ll find “The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammett and “Try the Girl,” the last Black Mask story by Raymond Chandler, all sitting prettily alongside lesser pulp masterpieces like “Luck” by Doc Savage creator Lester Dent. But then along comes a gem like "Murder in One Syllable," a “startling action mystery novelette,” according to the original billing. “Bullets for breakfast were on the menu for thrill-hungry Cynthia Darrold -- when she picked up the right guy in the wrong tavern.” Sounds juicy, right? It gets even better when you learn about the author, a 33-year old OSS veteran on the verge of moving to Florida. And it turns out that “Murder in One Syllable” is a long-lost short story by one of my favorite authors: John D. MacDonald.
I always loved surprises.
While I’ve always embraced the more gritty crime novels of guys like MacDonald, I find myself drawn more and more to humor these days -- the perils of age, I suppose. As I’ve said before, I think great humor is very hard to do. One writer who agrees with me was kind enough to submit himself to my queries and questions this month about his latest novel, Star Island. Carl Hiaasen is one of the biggest writers in America, but like most of the guys who do this professionally, he was cool.
Star Island is a terrific little bit of insanity that examines the cult of celebrity in America. To foster his newly bred distaste for the subculture, Hiaasen examines it through the experience of a pop star, once just a dim bulb named Cheryl Bunterman, but through the alchemy of digital processing and media manipulation, now a singer dubbed Cherry Pye. Because of Cherry’s taste for drugs and alcohol, her helicopter parents are forced to hire the lovely, talented and smart Ann DeLusia, an out-of-work actress who doubles for the pop star at nightclubs and openings.
Enter Bang Abbott, a defrocked journalist who’s such scum that he seeded a South Florida beach with chum just to capture his Pulitzer-winning shot of a shark attack. Now he’s in his proper element as a paparazzo, skulking in bushes waiting for the next hoo-ha shot of some other brain-dead celebrity. After missing the carnival of Michael Jackson’s death, Bang has set his sights on Cherry Pye, hoping to capture every last misstep right up to her coffin portrait.
“I was finishing the book up and inundating myself with these ridiculous shows like TMZ,” Hiaasen told me during a recent conversation. “I saw this mob surrounding Sandra Bullock’s house and you truly do feel pity for them with this crowd of idiots who won’t even let the car out of the driveway. But my first thought as a novelist is not to go to the person cringing in the back of the car but to the guys who have been staking the place out for ten hours. How empty is that life? What do you put on your tax return as an occupation? It’s legitimized stalking.”
Bang isn’t the only dangerous character in the book, either. To fan’s delight, Hiaasen also resurrects two other favorites. The unforgettable killer Chemo has been released after seventeen years in prison, following the events in Skin Tight, and manages to be hired as Cherry’s bodyguard and life coach. And a stellar Hiaasen novel wouldn’t be complete without turning loose Skink, the disgraced Governor and legendary swamp-dweller, who unleashes his own unique brand of justice on the circus acts of South Beach. Hiaasen has an amazing ability to turn what could be characters straight out of central casting into full-bodied human beings, as despicable as they are. Hiaasen told me that it’s a knack he picked up from years working as a journalist.
“That’s the way it is in real life, too,” he said. “I’ve sat in prisons and interviewed guys who were in there for horrible crimes -- really bad stuff. These are people you would never want your loved ones around. But they occasionally exhibited a sense of humor. And, they all had their own set of values that made it okay to do what they had done, while it might not be okay to do something else. I wouldn’t call it sympathy, but it’s definitely insight. That’s what novelists are supposed to be squeezing out of their novels.”
We also talked about some of Hiaasen’s fellow writers, among them MacDonald, with whom Carl had a brief correspondence shortly before MacDonald’s death in 1986, and Elmore Leonard, who wrote Hiaasen personally to express his pleasure that Chemo lived.
“Years and years ago, I introduced Dutch at an author’s dinner in Fort Lauderdale,” Hiaasen remembered. “Someone asked if he knew how his books were going to end when he started them, and he gave the greatest answer. He said, ‘Why would I write them if I knew how they were going to end?’ Amazing talent. He writes every day, and that’s what you do. He’s as productive now as he was thirty years ago. That’s something to aspire to. He’s as excited about the storytelling now as he was when he started. That’s the trick: to have a story and a set of characters that you can live with for the duration of the novel.”
Of course, Hiaasen still finds the time to write his regular column for the Miami Herald, where he’s had a home for more than a quarter century. But we both realize that journalism is not in a good place these days.
“It’s tragic,” Hiaasen said. “In addition to the people whose lives have been affected by being thrown out of work, it’s tragic for the communities. Not to have warm bodies covering city commission meetings, zoning board meetings -- hell, the police beat. The ultimate victim is the citizen. There are days in which you feel that it’s just hopeless. You look at all the words you’ve written in all the years you’ve written them, and then you look around at the political landscape. Why would you keep writing?”
“And the answer is,” he continued, “How can you not? To go down fighting is the only way you can live with yourself.”
And then, as they say, we came to the end. I’m still writing. And hopefully soon, someone else will be writing the Mystery Strumpet column, giving voice to these things that are still worth fighting for. I said a long time ago that we’d get around to talking about death in this strange little shared space we’ve created over the years. But I don’t think a moment of silence is in order just yet.
If you’re ever worried about your own ending, take a moment to field some advice from the heroes who have inspired this column over the years, like Bill Hicks, who said, “The world is like a ride at an amusement park. It goes up and down and round and round. It has thrills and chills and it's very brightly colored and it's very loud and it's fun, for a while. Some people have been on the ride for a long time, and they begin to question. Is this real, or is this just a ride? And other people have remembered, and they come back to us, they say, ‘Hey -- don't worry, don't be afraid, ever, because, this is just a ride...’”
Thank you, Cleveland, and good night. Remember to tip your waitresses on your way out.