Scream Blue Murder

It was fun, yesterday, to see this entry on Sarah Weinman’s Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind:

Aside from founding and running January Magazine (host of the fantastic Rap Sheet) Linda Richards is a damn good writer in her own right. After three books featuring financial whiz-turned-sleuth Madeline Carter, she's changing directions by going back in time.

She’s referring to my novel, Blue Murder, purchased just this week by Thomas Dunne Books.

It’s way, way, way too soon to talk about that book. After all, I still have a September 2006 book that I’m very proud of to talk about, plus Blue Murder probably won’t be published until Winter 2008. But after keeping it under my hat for so long, I find I’m actually kind of in the mood to tell this story: tell the story of how I came to write a mystery set in 1930 after having written three set in the present day and against a fairly high tech backdrop. So I’ll tell the story now, then I’ll shut up about it for a while. Then maybe I’ll retell this story come winter 2008. Who knows? You might have forgotten the story of the story by then.

So here’s what happened. A couple of years ago, on the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, J. Kingston Pierce asked if I wanted to contribute to a feature he was cooking up for January Magazine to commemorate the occasion. Pierce has always been the one behind all of the especially mind-blowing features you might have seen on January. If it’s multifaceted and multilevelled and just very... multi, chances are, it was conceived and executed by Pierce.

So, anyway, the Falcon.

The portion of the feature I was going to contribute to was all about mystery authors sending their thanks to the master. (I paraphrase mightily, but the piece exists and is cool and can be seen here.) It had been a while since I’d read any Hammett, but I was excited to contribute: my first novel, Mad Money, had come out just a few months before and so this was to be one of my first authorly assignments, if you follow. I was chuffed.

The thing was, it had been so many years since I’d read Hammett, I needed to refresh my memory. I had a copy of The Maltese Falcon, but it was way in the back of a shelf somewhere, with a lot of dust on it. I blew the dust off, settled in and was swept away. It took me all of 45 seconds to remember why I’d been so enchanted all those years before.

In one of the paragraphs I wrote for that feature, you can perhaps sense the birth of Kitty Pangborn, the narrator of Blue Murder:

That paragraph of The Maltese Falcon where we meet Sam Spade -- as well as the single line not much later where we get our first literary visual of his secretary, Effie Perine -- can alone explain the enduring quality of this writer. "She was a lanky sunburned girl whose tan dress of thin woolen stuff clung to her with an effect of dampness." And with that single, simple sentence, Effie springs to life, fully formed: desirable and yet too youthful for our Sam. His tastes run to grown women who are perhaps less lanky and probably not sunburned.

So I wrote what I wrote for the feature and, had I been a sensible creature, I would have hung it up, moved on to whatever I’d been reading before the call. But I did not. I kept going. And going. And going. I ripped through Hammett and then Chandler and even on to Runyon and a few others, though I found that Hammett and the earliest of the novels by Raymond Chandler resonated with me especially.

Here is what I noticed: though I had at times read about how both of these seminal crime fictionists disrespected women, I didn’t experience that. And, read in a certain light and perhaps in a certain mindset, both of these authors hold women in high regard and though either might write a protagonist who is cavalier with a woman, neither would write one who was intentionally cruel. It’s an important distinction.

Here’s another thing I noticed: both Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade (especially Spade) drank an awful lot. Nick Charles, too. And others of the little flock of crime solvers these two authors cooked up. Most of the time, they’d get up in the morning and start hitting the sauce and they wouldn’t stop until the last gin joint had been properly closed, and maybe not even then. Considered by a reasonable person in the 21st century, it seemed glaringly obvious to me that Sam Spade was completely incapable of being as effective as he seemed to be solving all those crimes. It simply wasn’t possible. Let’s face it: the man was a drunk. Charming, certainly, and effective quite often, but self-medicating, nonetheless.

So how, thought I, did he accomplish all those things we thought we saw him accomplish? It struck me that good old Effie, sitting there all demure and sunburned, was probably doing a lot more than Hammett ever showed us. Maybe more than even Hammett knew. She was probably dogging her boss’s steps, making sure she did what needed doing because the only way she could be sure she would see her pay is if she made certain he actually solved a case here and there.

You see where this is leading, right?

So, OK: Kitty Pangborn is not Effie. And Kitty’s boss, Dexter J. Theroux, is not Sam Spade. It would be just plain goofy to try and duplicate those two: Hammett did such an exquisite job with them already. But the idea of the youthful secretary surreptitiously helping the gin-soaked PI boss, that idea floated to me while reading Hammett. Not the idea for a book: but the idea of how things must have been. Really, to me, it was the only logical thing.

There’s a lot more of this I could tell here. A lot more reasons for everything. A lot more motivations and thoughts and ideas. I think I’ll stop here for now, though. An author is not, after all, supposed to do stuff like this until you’ve a book in your hand you’re trying to sell. I’m not selling today, though. Today I’m just happy and, as I said when I began, the mood for telling was on me. Thanks for sticking around.


Sarah Weinman said…
Oh I'm so glad to have read this b/c after rereading THE MALTESE FALCON a year or so ago, I was totally captivated by Effie and what *wasn't* written about her. There's a lot going on with that lady, no question, and someday my curiosity is going to get the better of me.
Thanks for postng this, Sarah. The thing with a background post like this is, it's very personal. And you wonder -- you can't help but wonder -- if people actually wanna know this stuff. So it was super to hear that you not found it somewhat interesting.

And now I'm curious about what will happen when your curiousity gets the better of you! It sounds potentially Alice-like. Be afraid!

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