San Francisco's Museum of the African Diaspora does many things right. It's within walking distance of several other small museums and one big one (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). It's programming is varied and innovative. The staff is friendly and helpful.
It's architect also got several things right. The front of the building is a three-story window. It showcases stairways that take the visitor to all three levels. I love stairways flooded with daylight, and, if they have a view, so much the better.
The view from this stairway features a visual stairway of buildings across the street, two-story, four-story, six-story, skyscraper. I love the idea of a museum that puts a frame around a piece of the city, allowing me to see it as a work of art.
It helps to know that the lovely, two-story, red-brick building is the home of the California Historical Society, which includes exhibition spaces for history and the arts. Their programming is also excellent.
Taking a break from crime fiction, I picked up Stephen King's Carrie, his first novel, the one that transformed him from an English teacher sending short stories to men's magazines into a novelist with a brilliant career ahead.
I missed Carrie and Brian de Palma's film version when they came out because in 1974 I was transforming myself from a graduate student into an assistant professor. The job market was brutal and I had no time for pop culture.
I really enjoyed Carrie. Mostly, I think, because King is writing about real people in real situations as he observed them (he describes this process in On Writing, pp. 77-82). I cared about the characters, what they did, and what happened to them.
I was also fascinated by his narrative technique. His use of scenes told in the third person from different characters' points of view is conventional, but he interrupts the flow of scenes with texts from reports written after the climactic event: an academic study, a memoir, news accounts, letters.
These parallel texts do many things: foreshadowing, backstory, commentary. They do lots of things that are often hard to write and hard to read when they come from the principal narrator. King wisely keeps each inserted text brief.
Another novel that does this brilliantly is Dracula by Bram Stoker, also of course a horror story. The first page describes the novel as a collection of documents. Later in the book one of the characters sits down to transcribe a collection of letters, telegrams, diary entries, and news reports and thus we learn how the novel we are reading came to be . . . supposedly.
Dashiell Hammett wrote five novels. In 1975 Picador published a paperback collection of Hammett's work entitled, The Four Great Novels. The Thin Man was not one of them. Perhaps the editors did not consider it great because the tone is light. Comedy always gets less respect than tragedy. Otherwise, in The Thin Man, the crime is as weighty, the puzzle is as perplexing, and the solution is as brilliant as in the other four.
And The Thin Man has something else in common with perhaps the greatest of Hammett's novels. About one-third of the way through The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade tells Brigid O'Shaughnessy about one of his past cases in which a Mrs. Flitcraft hired him to find her husband. The case has no apparent connection to the plot of the novel. Numerous critics have struggled to explain the presence of this story, which has come to be called the Flitcraft Parable. My favorite of these discussions is Jim Nelson's.
Similarly, In The Thin Man, also about one-third of the way through, Nick Charles gets out his copy of Celebrated Criminal Cases of America, and opens it to the entry on "Alfred G. Packer, the 'Maneater.'" He gives the book to Gilbert Wynant, a young man who wants to learn about investigating crimes, and who, for no apparent reason, has asked about cannibalism in the United States. Hammett inserts the full text of the article in the novel. It runs a bit longer than the Flitcraft Parable, about 1750 words.
So far I have not found any commentary about why Hammett included this seemingly irrelevant story in The Thin Man. If you are aware of any, please mention them in the comments below. At the very least, I think this article on Packer, should be considered alongside the Flitcraft Parable when trying to determine what Hammett was up to with these digressions.
Gold Medal was one of the publishers offering paperback originals in the 1950s. A Trio of Gold Medals from Stark House Press contains three short novels of that era. Reading them has been an eye-opener.
It's easy to see these authors were writing for the same market as Jim Thompson. The world in which their stories are set is dark. Law enforcement is corrupt. The hero is a criminal. Women are just as likely to be greedy and cruel as men. There's a lot of drinking.
And yet, these books were not as satisfying as Thompson's. I know from Robert Polito's biography of Thompson, Savage Art, that the first 30 years of his life were dark, violent, full of cruel desperate people, and there was a lot of drinking. When Thompson wrote a novel with those elements, he was writing about his life.
I don't know the backgrounds of these authors, but their books read as if they are writing about things they have only read about in other books. They write very well, but they seem to be telling someone else's story.
However, this is my first glimpse of the other paperback original authors, Stark House press has more than sixty of them on their list of crime writers, and some of them may be well worth reading alongside Thompson. The quest continues.
Of all the topics I've heard discussed at writers' conferences, in writers' workshops, and in writers' groups, none calls forth more adamant opinions than how a book should begin. Everyone seems to have an opinion about what should be on the first page, or the first five pages of a book.
Many say the writer must provide a hook, something that makes the reader need to keep reading. Opinions vary on what will do the job.
For mystery, suspense, and thrillers, some say the writer must open with a scene of violence. Others say there must be a body on page one or by page ten. Still others say the main character must encounter a question to be answered or a puzzle to be solved.
Obviously Dashiell Hammett did not attend these writerly events. He opens The Maltese Falcon with a detailed description of Sam Spade's face. By the way, Spade does not look like Humphrey Bogart.
When I recently graduated from learning how to write a book to learning how to market a book, I discovered a handy way to see how a book should begin. For each of its categories, Amazon provides a list of the 100 best-sellers. The writer has only to choose one and use the "Look Inside" feature to read the opening pages.
I did this recently and discovered the top ten best-selling examples of the kind of book I am writing begin in all sorts of interesting ways. One of them even starts with a physical description of her sleuth.
Reading Robert Polito's biography of Jim Thompson reminded me of just how revolutionary paperback originals were in the 1950s. At first scorned as an outlet for inferior writing, and later accused of de-stabilizing the publishing industry, paperback originals actually created a market that hadn't existed and connected readers and writers in new ways, just as ebooks have done in the last ten years.
I became aware of paperback originals last April, thanks to an article by Bill Crider. He points out that some well-known crime writers such as Lawrence Block and John D. MacDonald, got their start in paperback originals, and he appends "A Reader's Checklist" of less-known authors who compare favorably to them.
Since he was writing in 1971, Crider recommended searching used-book stores for original copies of these mystery novels. Today those copies would be available only from specialty dealers such as Kayo Books.
Checking my libraries (The Mechanics Institute and The San Francisco Public) I discovered new copies of these novels from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Stark House Press has been publishing re-issues of paperback originals for several years now. They offer books by every author on Crider's list and many more.
Much as we enjoy San Francisco's large fine arts museums, the town wouldn't be the same without its smaller museums. Over the weekend we visited the Contemporary Jewish Museum to see their exhibit of "The Art of Rube Goldberg."
Goldberg's drawings ran as comic strips in newspapers when I was a boy. Although he wrote and drew conventional multi-panel cartoons, his name became synonymous with his "inventions." Here's one from the exhibit:
Prof. Butts creates complicated solutions to simple problems. This one is an eleven-step system for putting a stamp on an letter. These were so popular that people took to describing anything that was too complicated as "a Rube Goldberg contraption."
As the exhibit showed, he wasn't all slapstick. The drawing below, entitled "The Future of Home Entertainment," was a cover for Forbes magazine in 1967 . . . 1967!
I've written four books, and have not published any of them.
That's about to change.
First, I wrote a suspense novel about a businessman who will do anything---anything!---to protect his business, his reputation and his family. I consciously set out to imitate the novels of Patricia Highsmith and the films of Alfred Hitchcock. After rewriting it several times with the help of fellow writers, I concluded I had a lot to learn and set it aside.
Next, I wrote a murder mystery about an art history professor whose research on a mural at the college where she teaches turns out to be like picking up a snake by the tail. It's like Dick Francis's novels, except it's about art history rather than horse racing. While rewriting it several times, I wrote . . .
. . . the next novel about that same art history professor. This time she curates an exhibition of paintings by a contemporary artist without fully understanding their symbolism. Someone does understand the symbolism and is not amused. People die. While rewriting it several times, I wrote . . .
. . . a third novel about that same art history professor. This time she sets out to advise a wealthy donor who has purchased a rather peculiar painting by Picasso. There's a lot of money on the table. People die.
While writing this third novel, I wrote to some agents about the first art-history-professor novel. A couple liked the idea, but passed. One asked to see the manuscript and passed.
I also researched independent publishing (putting it on Amazon). This used to be considered a poor substitute for "real" publishing. That's no longer true. When you break it down, there are only minor differences between the two paths.
So my series about an art-history professor will be coming soon to a Brazilian rainforest near you.
Two weeks ago I re-read that suspense novel after not looking at it for two years. I'm surprised at how well it reads. I'll keep you posted about it.
Reading that brief online biography of Jim Thompson by Patrick Deese prompted me to seek out the book-length biography by Robert Polito, Savage Art, published in 1995. It is 500 pages of detailed research, served up in easy-to-read prose.
Among its revelations is the idea that Thompson never set out to be a writer of crime fiction. In 1931, he majored in Agricultural Journalism at the University of Nebraska. While there he wrote and published nonfiction except for one detective story in Nebraska Farmer.
During the 1940s, he published Now and on Earth and Heed the Thunder, novels based on his years working on the farms of Nebraska and Oklahoma and in the oil fields of West Texas. He seemed on the way to a career comparable to that of his contemporary, John Steinbeck.
Thompson turned to crime---crime-writing that is---out of necessity. His mainstream novels would not pay the bills. In 1949, at the age of 42, he published his first crime novel, Nothing More than Murder.
Thanks to the introduction of paperback originals in the 1950s, a lucrative market for genre fiction opened up, and publishers called out for writers to supply it. Thompson went on to produce what some call the greatest American crime novels.