Sunday, April 26, 2009

The task of noir mysteries

Quite often the darkness of life is difficult to accept, difficult to express and occasionally impossible to survive. Each generation lives through times when many of the events, possessions--today’s ipod will one day be yesterday’s cassette--and even people one feels are vital are reduced to less than a historical footnote, a fading memory, or erased completely.

Of course, this happens for various reasons. I am not certain, but feel that motivations remain the same throughout history, but play out differently through time rather than being easily identifiable. If that were not true then the odds would not favor repetition. As society and the forces driving it adjust to the times, cause and effect adjust and change too.

In the 1950s, postwar America was wracked with social turmoil. However, it played out as fear of Communism, or fear of drug abuse, while the reality was high unemployment, homelessness, women who worked during the war forced into the home with doors to other options slammed in their faces, men--returning heroes--driven into jobs both mundane and unsatisfying. In fairness, I should say that many people of the time did not feel that way, but I think the underlying current ran opposed to what showed on the surface.

Writers of the time, such as Mickey Spillane--he once had 8 out of 10 books on the best-seller list--must’ve felt or sensed the turbulence, and translated it into serious noir mysteries. However, focusing on the roots of the problems systemic to society at that time in history would not have produced the needed outcome. Who wants to read a noir mystery about unemployment unless the unemployed man is a senseless killer driven by nightmares of war?

Noir or dark fiction is without vampire fangs. People, as we read everyday, can find a spark of evil, or reach deep into their despair and turn ordinary life into chaos without the twin needle marks in the side of their necks. Your neighbor mowing his lawn, the woman you pass on the sidewalk every lunchtime, may harbor resentment, twisted memories, a pain impossible to cure so that it festers and explodes unexpectedly.

The task of a noir mystery writer is to understand social ills, make them more palatable by viewing them through the eyes of a private investigator, or a cop, solve them with whatever means necessary--usually fists and gunfire--and destroy their source. For the hours we immerse our lives in these stories, we find release and relief.

Noir fiction, with its roots deep in the 1930s, has served that function and still does today. Read some of the authors I have mentioned in previous posts. You may find their writing styles dated and at times difficult to read, but look beyond it and discover the characters, their motivations and the underlying social messages.

They knew human nature has not changed in thousands of years and may never. They also knew that the good among us outnumber the bad a hundred thousand to one, but that single individual has the power to change all of our lives if not stopped before he or she commits the worst atrocity. What do I mean? The 1960s was drowned in the blood of their conclusions. Today, society suffers as deeply, due to the decisions of a small handful of like-minded men no different from their predecessors and blood again runs in the streets.


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Thursday, April 23, 2009

First Chapter of Sunset Orange Water

I'm seeking constructive criticism of this chapter.

Faustus: O, I have seen enough to torture me.
Black Angel: Nay, thou must feel them, taste the smart of all: He that loves pleasure for pleasure must fall.
Christopher Marlowe

Chapter One

June 1951

The hand of death rests lightly on all of our shoulders from the day we're born as if to inform us that only death knows its appointment. However, for some who walk among us, death's cold fingers lightly caress the back of their necks as if to express affection. In reality, it's more like the warning hiss from a viper. Once heard, you expect the strike, until anticipation wanes like receding tide, and life's bittersweet taste becomes a burst of sunshine sweetness and then the cold fingers of death clench tight and light and life fade rapidly into someone else's memories.
The abrupt end of a young life horrified me since I first experienced it during the war. The occurrence never got easier, and that knowledge surprised me. Death strode boldly through the battlefields, trenches, and the streets and avenues of the city snipping off pieces of humanity where least expected, leaving others to wonder at their good fortune when they witnessed the results.
I exhaled a burst of air to smother the gasp I felt build in my chest, shook my head and wiped my face with both hands. The tremor that ran the length of my hands would not stop, so I jammed them in my pockets.
Paul Dunbar, a homicide detective working out of the thirteenth precinct had spoken with a calmness I found offensive. Somehow, what he had said didn't make sense, or couldn't make sense.
"Tell me did you say she died?" I sounded normal, but bitterly skeptical. My hands wouldn't unknot from fists bridling rage as my nails sliced moons into my palms.
"Like I said, the M.E. told me her death was a simple act of suicide." Dunbar had deliberately removed his hat, something he never did under normal circumstances. He held the snap-brim in his right hand, worried it with his left and then used the back of his suit coat’s sleeve to wipe sweat from his brow.
"What the hell do you think is simple about any goddamn suicide?" I demanded. When he didn't respond, I nodded to let him know how I felt about his silence too.
"Tell me the rest of it, and then get the hell out of here," I hissed between clenched teeth. "I'm not feeling real comfortable with the company I'm keeping today."
"He told me she put the barrel of the .32 they found at the scene in her mouth and pulled the trigger. We saw signs of bruising on her left forearm and calf, her hip, but a few mild bruise are not enough to indicate a struggle. Our guys found a half-empty whiskey bottle next to her and she smelled like she'd been drinking." I knew he saw the displeasure flash through my eyes as I felt its heat spread color under my skin.
"Look if it helps you, I'm sorry, Marlowe, really," he spoke fast and glanced at the floor. "I couldn’t think of a way to tell you that might make it any easier on you, pal." He mopped his brow again.
Swell. "The way you broke the news is not what’s pissing me off, Dunbar," I said, not caring how he felt or what he thought. Enough animosity hung between us from our past. When I worked under him on the force for three years, he'd been a miserable sonofabitch. Our friendship during the war and before was beyond a point where any remnant of camaraderie stood a chance of revival without serious effort. I wasn't about to make the effort, nor was he about to try to recoup what we'd lost.
My throat felt tight with grief. "Lois didn't have a reason to kill herself, and hell, she didn’t even own a gun. She told me she hated the sight of mine so I left it home when I visited her. I never took it with me when we went out someplace together."
Slowly, he lifted a small pistol from his jacket pocket. Fingerprint powder remained stuck among the gnarls of the grip like a rabid dog's dried saliva.
"You ever see this before?" Arm outstretched, he extended the handgun towards me.
I walked across the room, and accepted the .32 revolver, holding it by the end of the barrel. The weapon was not heavy. I turned it over, and carefully examined it as if I might find something the cops had missed to identify the killer.
"Serial numbers are gone," I said and rubbed my thumb over the abraded surface where someone had used a file and roughly ground off the digits.
Dunbar had lowered his hand to his side as if he didn't want the weapon returned to him.
"No, I’ve never seen it before." Intentionally, I dropped the gun on the corner of my desk. It made a loud bang that we both ignored.
"They find a note?" Instinctively, I again reached for the pistol, and then pulled my hand back as a picture of Lois' small delicate fist wrapping the grip filled my mind.
"We didn’t find one." He frowned, gave me a look that told me he knew more than he had revealed, but would wait until I gave him a good reason to share the information.
"I'm telling you that she didn’t kill herself, Dunbar. I don't give a damn what your M.E. told you or what you think. He didn't know her the way I did and neither did you." I spoke slowly, emphasized each word.
"Only prints on the gun belonged to her. Hell, the only prints we found in her apartment belonged to you and her." Finally, Dunbar took the pistol as if it was a tainted throwaway. He dropped it into his pocket and turned to the door.
"Case is closed on this one, pal. All you can do is bury her and mourn her." He didn’t sound like he really cared about how I felt. He stopped with his hand on the doorknob, and glanced over his shoulder. "She have any family in town, do you know?"
"They’re all dead. Her brother bought it on Tarawa. She said his death hit her parents hard, and the grief killed them. She was the only surviving child."
And we had planned to get married in a few weeks, I reminded myself unnecessarily.
Moving with nervous restlessness, he cleared his throat. "You two getting along lately?"
"What the hell are you implying, Dunbar?" I squinted.
"I’m doing my job, so answer the damn question."
I felt my hands relax and pump into fists again. Blood dripped off my right palm and splattered the floor noisily.
"We’d discussed marriage remember, Paul? I told you about it two or three weeks ago you remember?" I took a few steps in his direction and stopped short of getting in his face where I wanted to be. Hell, he was still a cop. I couldn't hit him.
"She might’ve changed her mind." He stared, flat brown cop eyes not revealing his emotions.
"If she had changed her mind, she didn’t let me know." I pressed one shoulder to the wall by the window, glanced at the streaked glass, and thought about putting my fist through its center. "The last time we were together she told me she loved me. That was two days ago. We talked about her moving into my place, laughed about me not liking dogs and her having one."
He sighed quietly. "Where do you think she got the gun? Bought it or borrowed it?" Now he turned and walked away, after asking one of those questions no sane man would ask a grieving fianc? let alone an old friend. However, I didn’t think he cared, and only wanted to avoid seeing my reaction or catching my fist. I really wanted to hurt him.
"Lois didn’t own a gun." I answered with a rough edge that should have warned him to back off. "No more of this shit, Dunbar. Tell your fucking captain you did your damn job. Now get the hell out of my office, and shut the door."
"Sorry," he said again and closed the door with no more than the click of the latch after he stood in the hallway.
I returned to the window. The fog from my breath had cleared off the glass. The rain slowed so each drop pelted the panes like insects trying to burrow their way in.
Something bad happens inside when you lose someone important so abruptly, as sudden as a stray lightning strike on a cloudless day. It erodes memories and leaves behind shadows drained of any color they might've once held. Moreover, you know eventually those memories too will fade like dried leaves blown by winter’s first storm until all that remains is a haunting wisp of who she had been when alive, and a fading framed picture bleached by time.
To hell with that, I thought. Mourning will have to wait until I can find her killer and deal with him.
When I sat behind my desk, her photograph confronted me. Her smile reminded me of the warmth of her love, and an invitation for a future together.
Then, I recalled one night about a week ago that I spent with her that had been so special her words had melted my heart. We were sitting in the living room of her apartment with the rust of sunset sparking across the floor.
"I'm pregnant," she'd said softly touching my face with her fingertips.
"Marry me!" I had blurted without forethought.
She didn't hesitate to answer as tears shimmered her eyes. "Oh, Marlowe, you don't know how much I'd hoped you'd say that."
"So you'll marry me then?" I asked still stunned to know I'd be a father.
"Of course I will, darling." She leaned to me, I kissed her, and now she and my unborn child lay dead in the morgue.
With care, I lifted the photograph by the top edge of the gold frame, slid open the bottom drawer on the left side of my desk, and placed her in it face down.
"Now what?" I said, felt the wedge grow in my throat, and knew I’d find and serve her killer the justice he deserved. Suicide was out of the question.

Copyright property of L.F. Schliessmann. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

What readers read when they read.

I have not read a discussion dealing with what readers read. I do not mean what books they read. That might take forever, and is, for the most part, not relevant to this article.

My interest lies in what readers read, what their mind interprets from one story, or article. Non-fiction, it might seem, should be obvious, but I doubt that.

However, fiction is the place where one's imagination runs free and wild and this is what I want to discuss. Not that, readers have vivid imaginations, or that they allow their minds to roam through the words in a story, grazing and nibbling at phrases, images, or ideas to feed them mentally. That is after all, what fiction is about and does best.

A readers' group invited me to speak after I won the L Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future award in 2004. Totally prepared -- I thought -- after several book signings, I brought a copy of my book for each person in attendance. This as it turned out was unnecessary. The woman, who organized the meeting, had handed out copies of my story two weeks earlier. None-the-less, the participants seemed to appreciate the gesture.

After we did the usual small talk, conversation focused on me, and my words. I do not enjoy telling personal anecdotes, but do enjoy Q&A. Therefore, without expending time explaining myself and why I write -- which is a silly question at best to ask an author -- I listened, learned, and did what I could to respond intelligently.

Halfway through, it occurred to me that not one person in the room, read the story as I wrote it. Each of them read a slightly different version and a couple people something astonishingly different. Yet, they all enjoyed the story, and seemed to appreciate reading it.

How fascinating the human mind is, I thought, and how difficult it is to write in a style that conveys the identical message to each reader.

The underlying plot thread all of them missed, but I had believed to be obvious, was that the story, basically, was a love story in the distant future in a setting that might make love impossible. Well the latter part seemed to have worked too well.

My listeners appeared stunned by the concept. Some murmured agreement after a moment of contemplation, but others stared as if I'd threatened to hit them with a hardcover book for not seeing what I saw when I wrote the story. (Yes, I am a visual writer. If I cannot see it, I can't write it.)

Moreover, there lies the dilemma. How, if it is even possible, can a writer write so each reader reads what he or she wants him or her to read?

I do not know, but am convinced that this also applies to writing a query letter or plot hook. No two people read exactly the same thing.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Unmerciful - murder in NYC - Read the 1st chapter now!


The sun rose as if dipped in blood, turning New York Harbor from Battery Park to the mouth of the lower bay into a caldron of undulating reds that filled me with an eerie sense of foreboding.
I rubbed my face, checked the time. 6:28 a.m. I had spent the night in Manhattan after working in my office until 2 before I recalled telling the old man I would meet him at his building in Soho at 7am. He had sounded agitated by my reluctance. I reconsidered, and informed him I'd be there.
God alone knew what the old man wanted from me this time. Or, for that matter, what a man his age did with his nights that allowed him to awake fully alert as if still on the battlefield that cast his life at age sixteen in the pose of a combat soldier unable to find his way home after firing one final shot at retreating enemy.

The Medallion Cab rolled to a stop outside the converted brownstone where he had moved his office several months ago. Sunlight now speared yellow through the limbs of the barren trees, ten thousand fingers lifted in anguish.
Maybe I should have gone home to Jersey instead, I thought.
I took the steps two at a time, inhaled aromas of morning, cooked bacon, burned toast, brewed coffee; felt anxious to get beyond my thoughts, but dragged them along like a lone pallbearer at a mass burial.
My feet hit the second floor landing. I heard voices, both male, one the old man. The conversation sounded like a suppressed argument about to explode in a hail of bullets that would irrevocably alter a few lives, mine included.
Ten feet from the quarter-open door, I slipped the 9mm Glock from under my arm, dropped the safety. I have kept a round in the chamber since one of the Rovich gang shot me, to avoid the need to muffle the noise of the slide in an emergency.
Keeping close to the wall, so my steps wouldn’t snap the hardwood floor, I reached the door.
The old man sat behind his badly scarred wooden desk, both hands flat on its surface as if he intended to stand. His face appeared calm, but his eyes hardened blue. He blinked when he saw me, looked away. Then he finished his sentence. “... or die trying.”
The man standing alongside his desk, back to me, held what appeared to be a long barrel .38 with a neat homemade silencer. The silencer gave the gun a nasty look, like one snake nested in the mouth of another.
The gunman wore an expensive brown wool suit with brown tassel loafers. Well-groomed red-brown hair hung long at the nape of his neck. His profile seemed compressed by hate.
As he lifted his gun to steady his aim, I pushed the door open with the Glock. A hinge creaked like a desperate scream. The gunman turned to see who approached; his eyes emerald pinpoints of anger.
“Put it on the desk,” I said quietly despite my pounding heart.
He turned his weapon on me.
I didn’t see the old man move, but the man's suit jacket flipped open, as if he had stepped over a subway grate. Then the back of his jacket poked outward, exploded into a nightmare of color that rivaled sunrise.
The report from the .45 in the old man's fist, still leaking a spray of light gray smoke, hit me hard. I reflexively dropped to my knees. Then death's silence gripped the room. I holstered the Glock after I set the safety, looked at the old man's face. He stared at something he alone could imagine, a memory, a moment frozen in his mind that he wouldn’t share with me if I cared enough to ask.
I stood. My hands felt steady. Although my heart caromed like a golf ball against my ribs.
“Nice shot,” I said without expressing emotion.
“Glad you got here on time.” Then he nodded as if wanting to say, Lucky for you, but said, “Corner diner's open. What do you say to us getting coffee?”
“Think you'd best call the cops first. Then we'll talk ... you can explain what the hell's going on.”
He lifted the receiver. I watched his age hardened forefinger poke 911.

Copyright 2006. All rights reserved: Lawrence F Schliessmann
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