Tour: Three Sundays in May and June

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Pic: leaning on the parapet atop the Stockton tunnel.

Various people asked for some walks, giving me more than a month advance notice, so mark your calendars for Sunday May 11, Sunday May 25 or Sunday June 1 if you’d like to show up and join in. No reservations required, or taken.

You need at least 4 hours free. And $20.

Noon start near the n.w. corner of the Main Library in San Francisco.

As simple as that.

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Rediscovered: Eddie Little

Little

In May of last year Joseph Hirsch dropped me a note which mentioned, “I’m on the hunt right now for good literature by ex-cons. Not sure if you’ve heard of Eddie Little, but he was one of a small group of hardcore criminals who could really write.”

Not only had I heard of Eddie, but I got to meet him a few months before his death. I told Joe, hey, if you want to do something on him, just send it in. Eddie Little is about as perfect a writer to spotlight on Up and Down These Mean Streets as you can get.

And here is Joseph Hirsch, on his discovery of Eddie Little:

 

I have been fortunate in my short literary career to correspond with several talented writers, one of whom is John Sheppard, the author of the underground classic Small-Town Punk. Sheppard has turned me on to several writers with whom I was previously unfamiliar, like Charles Portis and Harry Crews. I have returned the favor to the extent that I can, recommending neglected authors such as Floyd Salas or Iain Levison.

Two of the books I gave John, Education of a Felon and Steel Toes, were written respectively by Edward Bunker and Eddie Little. Both men belonged to a select group of authors who excelled in both crime and in writing, unlike say, James Ellroy or Elmore Leonard, who had to rely more on imagination than experience when it came to telling their tales.

Both Bunker and Little were involved in robberies and the drug world, and both men did time, but this is where the similarities end. Bunker is (or was) emotionally a block of ice, similar in the affectless tone of his writing to someone like William Burroughs, or Bret Easton Ellison at his coldest. He can describe a fight with razorblades, a strong-arm robbery, or even the murder of a child with chilling dispassion. Eddie Little, on the other hand, was a raw nerve, more prone to mining the immediacy inherent in the present tense. His was the sentence fragment-laden prose of a man who must scream or go mad.

I remember the exhilarating and terrifying feeling that his second (and last) novel Steel Toes evoked in me the first time I read it. One passage in particular struck me as so strong that I underlined it. The scene concerns a racial conflict between the “Peckerwoods” and a gang of young black cons that has erupted in an Indiana prison:

As we roll into the gym, warmth and the smell of sweat hit me like a wall that is overlaid now by the rank odor of fear and adrenaline.

And the madness that we have worked so hard to create or that we are forced into.

Or that just appears like black magic, like we’re all voodoo dolls waiting to get stuck. Whatever causes the madness between races and religions in countries and neighborhoods.

The one thing I know is that everyone of us there is trapped by a tangible force that you can feel like the bass coming out of the hugest speakers ever made, rattling through your bones and shaking your soul, setting up its own rhythm that is going to make you dance.

If you got two left feet. If you’re on crutches. If you’re in a wheelchair. It doesn’t matter.

You’re going to dance. Like Nureyev, like Bojangles, like Gene Kelly, like Fred Astaire.

You’re going to dance, motherfucker, because your life depends on it.

There are other differences between Edward Bunker and Eddie Little. Little, as the previous quote shows, grew up in the post-MLK assassination milieu of America’s prisons, where he regrettably found that his skin was his uniform, and like it or not, his options were quickly narrowed down to becoming either a victim or a “peckerwood,” which in his argot meant a white male willing to fight and stand his ground on the inside of the rock walls, even if death were the price for his stubbornness.

In both Mr. Blue and Education of a Felon, Edward Bunker describes sticking up for a black inmate because he admired the man’s character. He also notes that such an act in the late 1960s would have been akin to a Hutu taking the side of a Tutsi. Judging a man by the content of his character rather than the color of his skin was by that time, at least in prison, something completely unthinkable.

Drugs were another generational gulf between Bunker’s era and Eddie’s. When Bunker embarked on his criminal career the “-land” suffix was still appended to the “Hollywood-” sign nestled comfortably in L.A.’s hills, and the mafia had not yet leaped with both feet into the heroin trade. To paraphrase the notorious Austrialian criminal Chopper Reid, drugs had not completely destroyed the criminal world when Bunker was an outlaw.

Heroin was in Edward Bunker’s orbit, but it was at the center of Eddie Little’s universe, and in the end dope took his life. “I’ve done time before for offenses ranging from robbery to mayhem,” Little once said. “That was before my career as a writer. This round I’m in because of a regular, aggravating character flaw of mine. Despite a book contract, a movie deal and a sweet girlfriend, I couldn’t stay off mama heroin. Even though I had been off the junk. So here I am, hooked like a laboratory monkey and kicking like a dog, trying to accept the fact that I fucked up.”

Eddie Little died in May of 2003, “of a heart attack in a Los Angeles motel room,” at the age of forty-eight, according to his obituary. And while the world at large may be indifferent to the man’s memory, I’m not and I’d like to think that some other fans of the his work are out there, wondering if there isn’t more to his story, or quite possibly even an unpublished manuscript.

Little showed exponential growth from the writing of his first novel, Another Day in Paradise, to the penning of his follow-up, Steel Toes. Had he lived, I have no doubt that he would have continued to hone his skillset further, and that he would have produced a third book several orders of magnitude better than everything that came before. The successful adaptation of Paradise into a Larry Clark film starring James Woods and Melanie Griffith also makes me think he might have had another career waiting for him in Hollywood.

Few writers possessed his experience, his ear for realistic dialogue, or the descriptive powers he marshalled when writing about the underworld. His short fiction is a must for fans of gritty, lived-in accounts of the criminal world.

In the best of several articles Little wrote for L.A. Weekly, titled How to Rob a Drug Dealer, Eddie describes spending a lazy afternoon in the barrio with a man who makes his living robbing drug dealers:

I size up homeboy as he flips the carne. He’s got fine features, green eyes — could be of Spanish or Cuban descent, even Scot or Irish as long as you throw in some Latino cut. He’s put together like a boxer. Healthy without having the bulk you get from weights. A regular matinee idol except for the ink all over his face and neck — original L.A. tribal.

Andrew’s house is very much home sweet home, with the yard full of women and kids wearing bright colors; the men taking hits of cold cervezas and wine coolers; the smell of pot hanging sweet and heavy in the air, mixing with the aroma of barbecue

A heroin addict as a youth, he’s put that behind him for now. He kicked the habit on his own, because he sees 12 steps or any kind of program as a cop-out for the weak. “Sitting in a room of sniveling motherfuckers ain’t for me.”

But there’s something out of place in this scene of contentment, and it’s not just the 9mm stuck in Andrew’s belt, nor the rottweilers circling the yard silently. I narrow it down to Andrew’s eyes. They’re beyond watchful. It’s like he’s always appraising everything around him, always waiting.

That makes sense. Even when he doesn’t have cops to worry about, there’s always the chance, at any given moment, that some burned drug dealer with no sense of humor is going to settle the score for good.

The penalty for hitting a big-time slinger of hard drugs is death — obviously — and not by lethal injection or some other relatively humane method. Nope. It’s got to be bad enough to send a message.

“Anything you care about makes you weak,” says Andrew. “So I don’t care too much — I don’t let myself. That don’t mean I don’t love my old lady and kids. But I wake up every day knowing it’s like my last. Like I’m a dead guy already, and I just got one bonus day with my family.” This guy has learned to live in the present — without any help from a Beverly Hills shrink.

Andrew is once again playing cops and robbers with his boys, going down in a hail of play gunfire, and I’m wondering how long he has until it happens for real. No more magic resurrections. No starting the game over.

I ask him what he thinks his chances are of living to 40. He points a cocked finger at me and says, “None.” He punctuates his last statement with a whispered, “Pow. Gotcha.”

The carne is delicious, the tortillas fresh, the company pleasant. The oldies keep playing, and life is great.

Both Another Day in Paradise and Steel Toes are littered with references to Rosie, a young girl who Bobby Prine loved, a girl who died of an overdose in the midst of a crime spree, a girl who no doubt had her own counterpart in real-life, as assuredly as Bobby Prine was Eddie Little’s alter-ego. Hopefully, if there is an afterlife, they have been reunited there.

He was once a fatalist and a romantic, and it was perhaps impossible that things could have ended any other way for Eddie Little. That said, I see no reason why his memory should die with him. All eulogies aside, the man was frankly too good (and too rare) a writer to be forgotten.

I’ve done what snooping I can on the internet, searching out people who might have known Little or could potentially have additional info or leads into any extra literary works he may have left behind. So far my search has not turned up many auspicious leads. In a “Fresh Air” interview with Terry Gross, Eddie Little mentioned that he was running “We Care,” visiting AIDS patients in LA and the surrounding area.

Wikipedia has been of very little help, noting thatEddie Little was born on August 25, 1955,” and that “Little else is known about his early life.”

His obituary contains some biographical information about Little, specifically the means by which he developed an interest in the written word: “[H]is father, a schoolteacher, taught him to read by twisting his arms behind his back and squeezing tighter if he mispronounced a word. After that, Little said, he became a compulsive reader and writer.”

“He started sniffing glue at 10, ran away from home at 12, got arrested the first time at 15 and started his first novel 20 years later while he was serving yet another prison term.

“He spent most of his adult life on probation or in prison, convicted of phone fraud, robbery, assault and drug possession, among other crimes…”

And that, unfortunately, is about all I could find, aside from a passing mention of a woman who was a “longtime friend,” with whom he had a child and also operated “We Care.” I hesitate to mention her name out of respect to both her and the deceased, but if she is interested in providing any additional details about Eddie or his writing, and she happens to be reading this article, please email me at joehirs123@aol.com

Eddie is cold in the ground, and his works are on the verge of being forgotten by the masses.

Don’t let it happen.

If you haven’t read Little before, go for the L.A. Weekly articles. Start here: http://www.laweekly.com/authors/eddie-little/

Then when you get finished with that, take a trip with Mel & Syd and their two adopted junky surrogate children, in Another Day in Paradise and then in Steel Toes.

If after that you’re still hungering for more, then you may have to do some heavy lifting on your own. And if you do manage to unearth some as-yet unpublished gem, then please drop me a line. I’d love to read whatever you find.

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Rediscovered: Block on Willeford/Block on Block

The recent mentions of Charles Willeford caused Terry Zobeck to prowl the net for awhile, where he discovered an article from yesteryear in which Lawrence Block remembered his meetings with Willeford — pretty interesting, especially the bits about eating cat, though Block perhaps doesn’t quite “get” the appeal of the never-published novel Grimhaven.  It has become almost a mythical icon in hard-boiled lit, the Hoke Moseley novel written in the wake of Miami Blues to kill off the series. Yeah, at the time it was better that Willeford tossed it in the trunk and went on to do regular novels in the series, but there’s nothing much like it.

And, yes, I think it should be published. Willeford is literature, not merely commercial product, so I think his readers could “take it,” even enjoy it. (By the way, it amuses me how among the Willeford fan crowd people go nuts trying to track down some bootleg copy of Grimhaven, but don’t seem to have much interest in the very first proto-Hoke novel, A Necklace of Hickeys. Both these novels should be in a book — call it Alt/Hoke or something and let it roll.)

If you’re surfing over to that article, don’t forget the interview with Block up on Ethan Iverson’s site, which also covers some memories of Willeford.

And if you’re just a fan of Block — Zobeck also collects Block, though I’m not sure if he’s after Willeford first editions, too — our pals over at Contrapasso magazine put up an interview with him as a web extra, covering a variety of topics.

I especially liked the bits about Dave Van Ronk, of “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” fame — basis for the title character in the Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis. Block knew Van Ronk, lived in the Village in that era, thinks the Coens got it all wrong.

I never became a big Block fan — which is not to say I have anything against him — and consequently don’t have much to add to the topics covered in the interviews. Except, mention is made of various bad movie versions of Block novels, including 8 Million Ways to Die, a 1986 release starring Jeff Bridges. (I don’t think the populace at large even knew he was The Dude then.) Badly rated by history, terrible box office at the time. I saw it, which helped put me off Jeff Bridges movies for awhile. . . .

A song by Lonnie Mack pops up in the movie. Part of the comeback he was making at that moment with a boost from Stevie Ray Vaughan, who co-produced and sat in on his 1985 album Strike Like Lightning (featuring the instant classic, “Oreo Cookie Blues”). Probably about 1986 or 87 I caught a Lonnie Mack show in the Great American Music Hall (formerly Blanco’s, for those of you who have gumshoed the mean streets on the tour).

Before starting the number, Mack strummed his guitar a bit and said, “This song appeared in the movie 8 Million Ways to Die. . .,” more idle strumming, “. . .and they showed every one of them. . . .”

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Death Lit: Rolling Country by Joseph Hirsch

rollingMentioning Willeford lately courtesy the In Memoriam Palm Sunday Tour reminds me that I’ve been meaning to blurb Rolling Country by Joseph Hirsch. Read it awhile back, was thinking about doing it up for Halloween, but then something came along to derail the blog impulse.

(If days and weeks have slipped past recently with no new posts, we can lay the blame on a John D. Haefele project I encouraged him to do — figuring I was an instigator, why not sign on to proofread one PDF after another, shoving to the side almost everything else? That one is almost ready to pop — though now I’m worried I might experience Haefele Proofreading Withdrawal. . . . HPW — whoa. Almost HPL, but that one is in the pipeline, too.)

Halloween would have been an apt season for the Rolling Country blurb, because it is quite horrific and squishy. A serial killer, knives, viscera — none of which bothers me, but more sedate crime fiction readers might wince a lot. Still, nothing fans of the genre shouldn’t expect. Strictly as a serial killer deal, look it up, if you’re a fan.

But if you recall, Joe came into the Mean Streets action because he’s a big Willeford fan, and I couldn’t help but notice that this novel seems to be something of a tribute to Miami Blues — or a Miami Blues variant might be a better way to put it. Both novels feature a trio of main characters: a Psycho, A Young Hooker, a World-Weary Lawman.

The Hirsch novel isn’t a carbon copy of Miami Blues by any means — less humor, in general, but the major themes all seem to be in play.

(Interstate trucking is a major aspect of the action, and I almost got to thinking: Could this angle be in tribute to the trucker lore Willeford tosses into his San Francisco novel Wild Wives? That’s probably a stretch, but I was impressed that the main thing Willeford remembered about that novel, a few decades after writing it, was how truckers signaled and made the road their territory.)

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Rediscovered: “Reasons Why Writers Write” — Encore Variants

Willeford-Why_Writers_Write

I just did the Palm Sunday Walk in memoriam Charles Willeford — mostly locals showed up, but we did have a couple haul in all the way from Massachusetts — so how about we continue the memorial action with a second installment of Guest Blogger Michael S. Chong’s series of cool Willeford stuff he’s found by surfing around the web?

The idea was that Michael had noticed some items not recorded in the bibliography in my book Willeford. Technically, Keasler’s “Reasons Why Writers Write” isn’t in the biblio — but I’ll add a note at the end that ought to be of interest.

Here’s Michael, first with some background on how he tumbled into Willeford fandom, then with the data on this bit of newsprint:

 

Working my way through the Black Lizard editions after being turned on to Jim Thompson and David Goodis, I was using the line as a guide to great crime fiction. The Black Lizards got me reading Fredric Brown, Peter Rabe and Dan Marlowe. Through my perusals of the back listings in the Black Lizards, I wanted to read Charles Willeford, but the problem was, I couldn’t find them browsing the usual used bookstores and sales.

After much searching, at one of those paperback exchange shops, I found a battered blue and yellow copy of Miami Blues, the one that says “Now a major motion picture” on the cover. After reading that, I wanted more — and the rest of the Hoke Moseley quartet were not difficult to find. (I also have read Grimhaven, with apologies to Betsy Willeford, but I did not pay for it if that’s any consolation.)

There was an absurd reality to his characters. What is that quote of Willeford’s? “Just tell the truth, and they’ll accuse you of writing black humor.”

Eventually, I came across the Black Lizard editions of Pick-Up, Cockfighter and The Burnt Orange Heresy at the late, lamented Jamie Fraser bookshop in Toronto. The RE/Search double of High Priest of California/Wild Wives was found at an outdoor book market in the Netherlands. At Los Angeles’s Mysterious Bookstore, I got a PBO copy of The Machine in Ward Eleven and at Partners & Crime in New York, I got a Black Lizard copy of The Black Mass Of Brother Springer. I don’t recall where I found The Woman Chaser or The Shark-Infested Custard but I think those are my favourites along with Heresy.

Could there be any more different genres and styles than these works? What is common across them is a sense of absurdity but a grounding of reality in the chaotic worlds the characters inhabit. His memoirs I Was Looking For a Street and Something About a Soldier share the same distinct perspective on the world. As time goes by, I reread these the most.

“Reasons Why Writers Write” is a John Keasler column found in the Danville Bee from”Friday, March 14, 1975.” For this piece on why people become writers, Keasler went to his friend Willeford and James Jones, here called Jim, writer of From Here to Eternity and Some Came Running.  Willeford relates how he began as a writer and when he “decided to go into the literary life.”  This being Willeford, it is both unique and funny.

 

Okay — me again. As soon as I scanned the article and noticed “a Bright Saying for Children” the aging brain cells began to spin, and I looked through the biblio in the back of Willeford. There, page 457, I found what I remembered, a cite for John Keasler, “Why Does a Writer Write?” from the Miami News, April 25, 1975. Same article, slightly different title. Since Keasler’s column was syndicated, who knows how many appearances any given article may have had, and how many times some local editor on the way changed the title?

Michael’s discovery pre-dates the Miami paper, and perhaps some other paper has an Ur appearance. Big can of worms. Something for any dedicated Willeford researchers that come along to beat their brains out over — which, if you’re into that sort of thing, is kind of fun.

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Hammett: “Arson Plus”

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Aha! Terry Zobeck is back, with the latest installment of Zobeck: Series Two. That’s where he looks into the edits made by Frederic Dannay, a.k.a. “Ellery Queen,” to Hammett stories that in recent years have been restored from the Dannay-blue-penciled versions to the “pure text” versions that first saw print in the pulp and slick magazines of the 1920s and 30s. You’ll find the pure text of “Arson Plus” — the first case of the Continental Op — in Crime Stories from Library of America. Just make sure you look for the best edition of that book, the third printing, where Terry helped them finally establish the pure text for  another Op yarn, “This King Business.”

Terry launched Zobeck: Series One in 2011 with his textual detective work on “This King Business,” and since then has gone through each and every Hammett story yet to see a pure text version — you can track down the various posts in the archives. Only one story — “The Nails in Mr. Cayterer” — remains to write Fin on Series One. Terry’s still hunting down a copy of that one. But as many of you know, he’s as determined as any man-hunter found in Hammett’s fiction.

Here’s Terry:

 

This time out we have the first Continental Op story, “Arson Plus” — Hammett’s seventh published short story and only the third appearing in Black Mask. Up to this point, he still hadn’t committed to being a crime writer. For most of these early stories he used a pseudonym, usually — as with “Arson Plus” — “Peter Collinson.”

“Arson Plus” appeared in the October 1, 1923 issue of Black Mask. Dannay reprinted it in the August 1951 issue of EQMM and collected it that year in Woman in the Dark.

While the story is only middling Op — the plot turns on a point that even in 1923 was pretty much a cliché (one Doyle used 20 years earlier in the Sherlock Holmes story, “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder”) — it has many of the characteristics of a classic Op tale. There are some interesting comments on detective tradecraft, the Op’s good working relationship with law enforcement, and some off-beat crooks.

Pretty much from the start, Hammett has the Op fully formed; all he needed was some better plots and more excitement and he would be hitting his classic stride.

We’ve mentioned before that one way Hammett achieved a sense of realism in his fiction was by referencing actual events or people. In “Arson Plus” he does this at least once and possibly twice; both of which were edited out of the story by Dannay.

Near the end of the story, the Op and his sidekick, sheriff’s deputy McClump, head over to a garage to question the owner, who he finds talking “Hiram Johnson” with two other men. Johnson was the Governor of California from 1911-1917, and a U.S. Senator from 1917-1945. Politically, he was a progressive who ran as Teddy Roosevelt’s vice-president in 1912 when he split from the Republican Party. Apparently, Dannay did not think Johnson was sufficiently well known six years after he left the Senate for EQMM readers to remember him.

The other person is far more interesting. The Op is riding a bus from Sacramento to the outskirts of the county along a bumpy road, “and the bumps, as ‘Rubberhead’ Davis used to say about the flies and mosquitoes in Alberta in summer, ‘is freely plentiful’”. Despite some extensive web surfing, I could not turn up any information about the colorfully-named Mr. Davis or his saying. It’s difficult to believe that he was a product of Hammett’s imagination.

As unfortunate as these deletions are, Dannay commits a third that is far more perplexing. Right as the Op is explaining what led him to the conclusion of the case, Dannay cuts a significant portion of that explanation. This has to be one of the most unfathomable of all Dannay’s edits we’ve discussed so far.

As is usual by now, Dannay’s edits are identified by page number, line number, whether it is from the top or bottom of the page, and the text corrections, with Hammett’s original text that was deleted underlined.  The page numbers refer to Woman in the Dark –- the 1951 first edition digest.

 

Page no.    Line #     Top/bottom     Text

10                 3                top                Three for a buck Fifteen cents straight

10                 10              top                I get them for two bits each, two of them for a quarter;

10                 12              bottom          Tarr leaned back in his chair, turned his red face to the ceiling, and bellowed

13                 10              top                Tell us the whole thing—everything you remember.”

13                 16              top                I jumped up, and dragged her down the back stairs and out the back door, not thinking of anything but getting her out of there.

15                 9                top                with a check for $14,500 $4,500

15                 10              top                Howard Henderson Handerson

15                 14              top                “Northern California Agent for Krispy Korn KrumbsNorthern California Agent for Instant-Sheen Cleanser Company

15                 16              top                to the traveling salesman

15                 9                bottom          Henderson Handerson

15                 3                bottom          Henderson Handerson

16                 2                top                Henderson Handerson

16                 5                top                that breakfast-cereal Cleanser agency

16                 7                top                We get a car machine [After this short paragraph there should be a break indicating a shift in scene]

16                 8                bottom          our car machine

17                 5                top                if the price, of which neither of them knew anything, wasn’t too high

17                 18              top                our car machine

18                 4                top                “Who’s the night man of the garage? I asked him, after we had listened to the little he had to tell.

18                 15              bottom          “Curly Bbrown hair?”

18                 11              bottom          Henderson       Handerson

18                 7                bottom          Henderson       Handerson

18                 5                bottom          Henderson       Handerson

19                 4                top                Henderson       Handerson

19                 15              bottom          and big hazel eyes that looked black until you got close to them.

19                 8                bottom          business connections—everything. [the em-dash was added by Dannay]

21                 4                top                I admit it is. But it has to be asked.

21                 8                top                addresses, or you can get them from the phone book,

21                 9                bottom          $15,000 $4,000 worth of Liberty bonds

21                 1                bottom          Continental Detective Agency

22                 4                top                GN FOUR FIVE TWO

22                 12              top                The trunks had been delivered to Mrs. Evelyn Trowbridge’s apartment. [Dannay italicized this sentence]

22                 11              bottom          her until they get there. [After this sentence there should not be a break]

23                 15              top                about the weather, or a book that hadn’t interested her particularly.

24                 16              bottom          went on, as I didn’t say anything.

25                 6                top                with every bump in the road.; and the bumps, as “Rubberhead” Davis used to say about the flies and mosquitoes in Alberta in summer, “is freely plentiful.”

25                 15              top                out of it our case against them.

25                 18              top                with stories that matched hers in every detail.

25                 15              bottom          three of ‘em cold, and there’s nothing else to it. Tthey’re as good as convicted. of murder!

26                 13              top                What’s What the hell’s the matter

26                 19              top                car machine

26                 15              bottom          whom he had been talking Hiram Johnson,

26                 3                bottom          socks sox

26                 2                bottom          car machine

27                 5                top                Henderson       Handerson

27                 9                top                We were within ten feet two pavements of the garage when Henderson                     Handerson

27                 11              top                “Oh, Mr. Henderson   Handerson! I cried, trying to keep my voice level and smooth.

27                 16              top                We climbed in aboard

27                 17              top                Henderson       Handerson

27                 17              bottom          Henderson       Handerson

27                 16              bottom          car       machine

27                 11              bottom          Henderson       Handerson

27                 3                bottom          Henderson       Handerson

28                 3                top                “Because he was—Thornburgh.” [Dannay added the em-dash and italicized Thornburgh]

28                 15              top                “Then nobody but the Coonses, Evelyn Trowbridge and Handerson ever saw him except between the tenth of May and the middle of June, when he bought the house. The Coonses and the Trowbridge woman were tied up together in this affair somehow, we knew—so that left only Handerson to consider. Now consider Henderson You had told me

28                 17              top                until after Thornburgh [Dannay italicized after]

28                 18              top                Henderson       Handerson

28                 6                bottom          Henderson       Handerson

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Tour: And As the Year Ended, the MWA Slipped on Their Gumshoes

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For the penultimate walk of 2013 I took out no less than twenty members of the Mystery Writers of America on a two hour version of the tour, highlighting The Maltese Falcon — you’ve got to figure that if someone is a member of MWA they ought to be more or less familiar with Hammett, so the biographical and litcrit sections can be tightened up or deleted, to speed things along.

It may be that not everyone was an actual mystery writer or crime-writer-in-training. Could have been a spouse or two along for the ride, plus I found out that we had at least one husband-and-wife (or wife-and-husband, if you prefer) team on the excursion.

On first glance I only knew one person — the mysterious Miss P, a.k.a. P. Segal, of the Cacophony Society. She gets a fair amount of ink in the new book on that group (I only get a mention or two, since I didn’t have much to do with it — compared to The Suicide Club, my preferred venue, it just wasn’t that interesting for me — like being on Facebook instead of on the streets).

Turns out Miss P is working on a mystery novel — I presume with Marcel Proust as the detective, since the Proustian thing is what she’s known for — and also is doing a Death Lit style blog of mystery reviews called Femme Noir. With archives going back to 2009! That’s a lot of reviews.

Who knew? I can barely nudge this blog along, much less keep up with what everyone else is doing. . . .

As the NorCal branch began to assemble I had the thought that the last time I went to a meeting was when Julie Smith was honcho, when she had her first two or three novels out, before moving to New Orleans. I thought to ask, “Do you guys know Julie Smith?”

One woman — I believe it was Claudia Long — replied: “She’s one of our finest mystery writers.”

Yeah, yeah, I thought — but I more meant, Have you met her? Hung out at a MWA meeting?

I got introduced to Sheldon Siegel, who is taking the reins for next term (who knows how many presidents they’ve had since Julie left town). Obviously a very nice guy. Aside from general impressions, Siegel is a New York Times Bestseller — and anyone with that kind of success who’ll take the time to run a local writers group is a Very Nice Guy.

Diana R. Chambers also was on that November 17th walk — author of the Nick Daley series of international thrillers, beginning with Stinger and The Company She Keeps.

And the married writers? Claudia H. Long, again, author of (among others) Weave Her Thread With Bones,  a San Francisco  — mostly North Beach — mystery published in 2000. And husband Clyde Long, author of The Bartender.

For the image this time I decided on Claudia’s new one, The Harlot’s Pen, just released February 1st, which Claudia describes as:

The fictional story of a lady reporter who embeds herself, physically and metaphorically, in a brothel during the labor and communist movements of 1919 and 1920 to write about the real conditions of working women. The story takes place half in San Francisco, on the very streets we walked, and half in Sonoma, at the El Verano salon run by the historically real Spanish Kitty — once the most powerful madam in San Francisco.

Striking cover, too.

But mostly I picked Claudia because she really got into the spirit of things. After we’d done the walk for awhile, left 891 Post and climbed to the corner of Sutter and Leavenworth, she pointed to the apartment building on the northwest corner and said, “That’s where we used to live!”

I am not going to be anywhere near as famous as Dashiell Hammett, but maybe one day when you’re on your tour you will point out the building at 805 Leavenworth and say, “That’s where the author Claudia H. Long lived with her husband Clyde Long in 1980!” and the folks will stop and take a picture!

I’ll toss it in on the next several walks, at least — that is the whole idea of Literary San Francisco, after all, of which the San Francisco Mystery is a vital element.

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Frisco Beat: William Worley

WorleyMy article on collecting San Francisco mysteries wraps up with a sequence from William Worley’s 1948 novel My Dead Wife, which captures in an evocative thumbnail moment the appeal of that hobby:

I ran uphill a dozen paces to the parapet and looked in the opposite direction towards Montgomery, where the street dropped steeply by concrete steps. No one there. Nothing. A hundred blank doorways, a thousand shadows, a million hiding places for murder.

And that has lead Lester Hardy to surf into Up and Down These Mean Streets, bringing with him more info on Worley — who was born April 22, 1915 in Glendale, California — died May 27, 1988 in San Francisco — in the interim enlisted in the Army in 1942 — a founding member of the Mystery Writers of America in 1945 — My Dead Wife in 1948 — the story “Mayhem on the Menu” in Detective Tales, November 1949 — with other members of the NorCal branch of the MWA contributed a chapter to the 1951 round robin novel The Marble Forest by “Theo Durrant” — taught English in Lowell High School in San Francisco from at least 1956 on.

And in his Tenth Grade Honors English class is where Lester encountered Worley:

“I entered Lowell in the fall of 1967 and graduated in June, 1970. In my English class Mr. Worley spoke of certain psychological elements common to the fiction published in pulp magazines, and it was my distinct impression that he had published short stories in the genre he referred to — this might easily have been before he entered the armed forces.

“It was very clear that after My Dead Wife, he published multiple mysteries under a pseudonym. And it seems to me there’s a pretty good chance he set at least some of those novels in San Francisco.

“Worley, as befits a mystery writer, was a real character himself, straight from Central Casting. He was a rather gaunt chain-smoker who rolled his own — the fingers of his right hand were permanently stained brown from the tobacco, and his skin had the distinctive, weathered texture of a lifelong smoker. He spoke to us about the ways in which an author’s psyche is unconsciously revealed in his or her fiction, and stated that was the reason he published under a pseudonym.

“That’s all very polite. The guy was flat-out weird.”

Lester tells me that a fellow student stopped into Worley’s office at 8 a.m. to find him taking a shot from a bottle of Scotch he kept in his desk — and that he seemed genuinely obsessed with the idea that a writer’s unconscious processes could be discerned in creative writing, hence Worley’s suggestion that he published under pennames later on.

Years after leaving Lowell, Lester says he bumped into another student from that time who clued him in to the moment that got Worley fixated on the idea: the writer went to a party where the father of a Lowell student — a psychoanalyst — spent most of the time expounding on the mindset of the author of My Dead Wife!

What’s more, the analyst wasn’t just some garden-variety shrink off the street. He was Dr. Meyer Zeligs.

Locally, Zeligs apparently was involved on the therapeutic side of things in the famous Cable Car Nympho case from 1964.

More importantly, he did a book in 1967 on Alger Hiss — his notes and papers for that project currently held at Harvard.

During one party, he apparently scarred Worley for life.

Lester wants to discover the crime novels Worley hinted at writing under assumed names, so he couldn’t be analyzed on the sly by Zeligs and company. If, in fact, these novels exist — who knows, Zeligs might have frozen his creative juices forever over those rounds of cocktails.

So, no more crime novels — or quite a few, in disguise?

Anyone with info, vague leads, or further anecdotes of Worley in the English classroom or at cocktail parties, feel free to pop them in.

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Rediscovered: “Just Ask Luis Rodriquez”

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So, to follow-up on the idea of doing In Memoriam: Willeford, how about we premiere a new Guest Blogger with a new series?

The blogger: Michael S. Chong, Willeford fan (who ain’t on the mean streets?). The series: articles with some Willefordian presence he’s tracked down, which aren’t cited in the biblio in my book Willeford. In short, cool new-to-almost-everyone stuff.

Plus, you’ll find Michael’s story “Suitcase Pimp” in the forthcoming “sexy” issue of the magazine Crime Factory, going out under the moniker Pink Factory.

Here’s Michael:

Quite recently, I was in a used bookstore in London, Ontario and while browsing,
I heard a younger man asking the clerk, also quite young, if they had any books
by Charles Willeford.  After the clerk said she had never heard of Willeford, I
pulled him aside and spoke to him.  It seems he had read Cockfighter and (being
bit by the Willeford bug) was looking for more.  I walked him over to the Mystery
section where I saw a Black Lizard copy of The Burnt Orange Heresy.

It made my day. Hopefully, writing these pieces will have the same effect.

Working as a researcher has its perqs. While my colleagues are going for cigarettes and drinking their coffees, I will take the time to look for something interesting to read.

During one of these, I typed “Charles Willeford” into the archive I was already working in and up came some unknown articles. They were ones I had not read in Dennis McMillan’s collection Writing and Other Blood Sports, mostly from John Keasler’s column written for The Miami News.

In Miami Blues, Willeford writes about this column:

“Sergeant Bill Henderson, Hoke’s hefty partner, sat on a royal blue couch and read John Keasler’s humor column in The Miami News.”

Mr. Keasler and Willeford were friends for 25 years and the amount of times Willeford shows up in his column makes you think they were pretty tight.

In the obituary from March 29, 1988 for his friend, Keasler wrote: “The more serious he looked, the closer you had to watch him.  He was the confidence man supreme, and the more con-proof you thought you were, the more joy he took in stinging you.

“Willeford, a friend once said, had the rare ability to tell the truth and make you think he was lying.  And vice versa.  (Once he convinced outraged Thomas Mann admirers that Hollywood was substituting a pretty girl for the pretty boy in Death in Venice to get rid of the homosexual angle and thereby get a PG rating.)

“He looked right straight down the bore of life and, essentially, laughed at it.

“He was at home at a literary tea, and he was at home at an alley crap game.  And he was good at both.  Charles leaves great memories.  His humor is a rare thing.  A friend once wrote, ‘Charles, the old centurion, wearing his rue with a jaunty difference. . .’

“Different indeed, different indeed.  He lived enough life for an entire platoon.  He wasted nothing.  He wrote it all down.”

John Keasler’s Miami News column was syndicated and the pieces by and about Willeford I found are from all over the United States.  ”Just Ask Luis Rodriquez,” is from Mount Carmel Daily Republican Register for Wednesday, April 18, 1979, a guest column by Charles Willeford — while the circumstances depicted may not seem based in reality, the way Willeford writes about them, with a wry bluntness, makes them so.

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Tour: On Palm Sunday

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Jim Dinan sent in the shot above from the walk on September 8, 2013 — 891 Post is in the background, right, with the What a Grind coffee house sign and a bit of the front awning visible. Thanks, Jim.

To kick off the gumshoe action this year how about we return to an old tradition? — the Palm Sunday walks in memory of the late, great Charles Willeford. He passed away on a Palm Sunday, March 27, 1988 — an unbelievable 26 years ago this month.

This time around, though, Palm Sunday falls on April 13 — so if you’re in the mood to shadow the footsteps of Sam Spade, show up next month with twenty bucks and four hours to spare. I’ll toss in as an extra the hotel where Willeford told me he wrote his first novel.

(A couple of years ago I did a Memorial March theme — with notices for Willeford, and Lovecraft, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Philip K. Dick, as well as Robert E. Howard critic Steve Tompkins. Tough month for writers.

(I’m thinking if I can grab a moment I may have to use the rest of this month to try to catch up on various pals of mine who have been dropping like flies, a somewhat different handling of Memorial March. Honest, it almost seems as if everyone I know is dying.

(Depressing.

(Just heard last week that fantasy writer Michael Shea died last month. Only knew him casually, but a nice guy, came over for bar-b-que a couple of times when I was doing my stint in Sonoma County. His story “The Autopsy” in particular is one of the more gruesome things ever committed to paper.)

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