David Edgerley Gates: Perspectives

David Edgerley Gates is one of those writers who “paints” with words, producing vivid and complex portraits of both the inner lives of his characters and the worlds they inhabit. Whether he’s writing about the internecine struggles of mid-century New York Mob families, or the turn-of-the-century American West of the lonely bounty hunter Placido Geist, or—as in our July/August cover story, “In for a Penny”—police procedures of modern-day New Mexico, David creates fictional worlds both detailed and complete. In this post, he discusses the “canvasses” of such word paintings: the sense of place.

Linda Landrigan asked me post some comments here, and she suggested I might say something about the sense of place in my stories, which got me thinking about landscape as character. Not backdrop, but an active presence, as much a part of the story as events.

Physical landscape is important to stories, and Westerns in particular, because so often the interior landscape is uninhabitated. The strengths or weaknesses of the characters aren’t explained, or revealed, but reflected–a mirror, set an angle to catch the light. This is another way of saying the characters are ‘existential,’ meaning they define themselves in their immediate circumstance, and more than likely a hostile environment. This is true of noir, especially, which depends on the pairing of two unknowables: the implacability of Fate, and a fatal lack of self-awareness. In this sense, the landscape provides no camouflage. You become a silhouette. The darkness doesn’t hide you, because everything’s in shadow.

Is character Destiny? Yes, in the staged confines of a fiction. But you can still bump into the furniture. The geography of place, in a story, can be frightening, or familiar, or both at once. It’s never arbitrary. It has a purpose, and more than just setting, or the view through the windows. It informs. It establishes context. And it breathes. Landscape isn’t static. It has a specific gravity, and it can shift its weight. As a function of story, the shape of the landscape is more than a narrative device. It bridges the gap between the observed and the imagined. Not that it has to be actual—Middle-Earth or Westeros will do just as well—but it needs to be grounded in a felt reality. You have to be able to smell the rain, or the heat of day, winter in the air, damp smoke from a campfire when the wind changes. You can make a lot of this stuff up. You don’t want to make up how the weather was.

I suspect Linda was asking me about specific terrain, the Bootheel of New Mexico, New York in the late 1940’s, Berlin during the Cold War. Each of these places has its own specific gravity, an orientation toward the horizon line, a roadmap. It’s peopled with incident, much of it imagined, but imaginary or not, the landscape itself is as convincing as I can make it.

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Robert S. Levinson: Clark Gable, Mama, and the Velour Stetson

Robert S. Levinson, who wrote “Little Miss Somebody” in our July/August issue, has been entertaining AHMM readers since 2003. Drawing on his years working in the entertainment industry, Bob infuses his stories and novels with the creative energy of Hollywood, and its destructive currents. His latest novel, The Evil Deeds We Do, is a thriller centered around the music industry in L.A. Here he writes about the source of his fascination with Hollywood.

Hello, my name is Bob.

I’m a show business junkie.

Most of the stories I’ve had the good fortune to see published in AHMM and elsewhere have somehow dealt with some form or other of show business, set frequently, albeit not exclusively, in the “Golden Age of Movies,” an era when MGM boasted that its talent menu offered “More Stars Than There Are in the Heavens” and justified the claim with Garbo, Gable, Tracy, Harlow, Shearer, Powell, Loy, Crawford, Beery, Dressler, Turner, Taylor, Lamarr, Rooney, Garland, the Marx Brothers, and even a couple Barrymores.

I begin this memory voyage back in time with MGM, not studios like Warner Bros., Paramount, Universal, Fox, RKO, or Columbia, because it was MGM where and when I believe my love affair took root, all thanks due my mother.

She was barely out of her teens then, a devoted Gable fan, who decided one day she had to meet the King, her screen idol. First, though, there was a little obstacle to overcome. The family was in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. Gable was three thousand miles away in Culver City.

Mama’s solution: We had to move west. My father, a hat maker, had no objection. Gable? Gable was competition for his wife’s affection only in her wildest imagination. Besides, Dad was anxious to escape to a new life with the family far from the Brownsville friends he’d grown up with, many of whom had graduated to Murder, Inc.

En route to Los Angeles, Dad found work making hats in Dallas, where he hand-formed a one-of-a-kind velour Stetson for Gable, who (long-arm of coincidence) he’d read somewhere loved and collected hats. Once settled in L.A., with three-year-old Bobby in one hand, an oversized hat box in the other, Mama set off by bus and trolley for Culver City, where the scene at the entrance to the MGM lot went something like this:

Mama: I’m here to see Clark Gable.

Security guard: Is he expecting you?

Mama: (Displays the hat box) No, but I have a hat for him. It’s a surprise gift.

Security guard: Sorry, missy. If you’re not expected by Mr. Gable, I can’t allow you in.

Man (Approaching): Aren’t you pretty. You got pretty violet eyes, you know? Is he your little brother?

Mama: He’s my son. My Bobby.

Man: Son? You don’t look old enough to be married. You sure you’re married?

The guard (Laughs): Pretty funny, Chico.

Chico! Now Mama recognizes him as one of the Marx Brothers. Her eyes grow misty telling him about Gable and the hat. He nods understanding, uses the security guard’s phone to make a call that results in a studio pass for us; is briefly our tour guide before halting a tram full of costumed extras heading for distant locations in the vastness of the MGM back lot, and instructs the driver to drop us off close as possible to Gable’s set. As the tram starts down the street, he returns my wave and blows Mama a kiss.

A cowboy directed Mama to an oversized trailer outside a soundstage. Gable, dressed in cowboy garb, was relaxing in a director’s chair, laughing it up with a pair of stagehands. Mama gasped at the sight of him, took a deep breath, and waited with as much patience as she could muster until the stagehands left and Gable resumed studying his script. Commanding me to stay by her side, she marched the most direct line to Gable and stood staring, silent, hesitant to interrupt him. Finally, he looked up. He saw Mama first, but the smile was for both of us.

“I got something for you,” Mama said at last.

“I don’t suppose it’s the little fellow here.” He leaned forward, picked me up, and sat me on his knees.

Mama offered Gable the hat box and launched an explanation.

Gable carefully removed the velour Stetson and held it delicately in his large hands. He studied its contours and smoothed the Stetson knowingly with the backs of his fingers. He tried it on and expressed delight at the perfect fit.

“I have to have a look,” he said. He took me into his arms, stood, and urged Mama to follow us up the stairs into his dressing room trailer.

He didn’t have to ask Mama twice.

In front of the vanity mirror, he tried the hat at various angles, studying the effect of each position, commenting as the tilt went forward and back, the angle left and right. Finally, he passed judgment. “It’s going to be one of my favorites,” Gable said.

They talked while I wandered the trailer. When it was time for him to head back to work, he first found two photographs to autograph. After signing one to Mama, he wondered about inscribing the other to my dad.

“That’s all right,” Mama said. “You can do it again for me.” Gable gave her a curious look. “It’s in case I lose one.”

He broke out what I came to call the Gable grin. “Then please thank your husband, and give him this from me,” he said. He gave Mama a hug and a handshake. “And this, Helen, is for you,” Gable said. He pushed back the Stetson, took Mama in his arms and kissed her gently on the lips.

That began my infatuation with the movies and, when I was a pre-teen, chasing after autographs.

I was much older, a newspaper guy with the Riverside Press-Enterprise who covered the major studio sneak previews that occurred regularly in town, the year Gable showed up for his Paramount picture, But Not for Me, and got a standing ovation when he entered the theater.

He and his wife Kay settled in the row directly behind my wife, Sandra, and me. I couldn’t bring myself to turn and ask him if he remembered Mama and the velour Stetson. Too many years had passed.

Maybe I should have.

What do you think?


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Double Trouble

Our summer double issue is boiling over with crime and unrest. Two stories feature slices of the recent American past: Bill Cameron’s Vietnam-era “Heat Death,” and Robert Lopresti’s “Shooting at Firemen,” set in the turbulent sixties. (Check out Rob’s post at SleuthSayers.org for a bit of background on his story.) Similarly, Robert S. Levinson’s “Little Miss Somebody“ turns on a Hollywood mystery from Tinseltown’s Golden Age.

Beyond the U.S. borders, Nick Spencer offers a tale of a Peace Corps teacher in Africa who witnesses a field fire where a body is later discovered, in “A Death in the Village.“ Joseph D’Agnese shows that Rome is the Eternal City in more ways than one in “Scintilla.” While on the border, David Edgerley Gates brings back Pete Montoya, an investigator with the New Mexico state police, to dig into corruption in a small town in our cover story, “In for a Penny.” And for a bit of international intrigue, two stories examine the private lives of spies and double agents: Albert Ashforth’s retired spy Alex Klear investigates the untimely death of a colleague in “Tangled Webs,” and a housewife in Janice Law’s “A Domestic Incident” unravels a net of secrets.

As usual with the July/August double issue, we are pleased to feature the latest winner of the Black Orchid Novella Award: “Dyed to Death” by K. G. McAbee. Congratulations to the author! AHMM co-sponsors the BONA with the Wolfe Pack.

Finally, this issue features the final AHMM story by Donald Moffitt, “A Handful of Clay,” featuring the scribe Nabu-zir from ancient Sumeria. Sadly, Donald Moffitt died just as we were starting to put this issue together. Though he was known mainly for his science fiction, Mr. Moffitt had turned his attention to historical mysteries these past few years. We were delighted to publish them in AHMM and to work with a charming man and all around pro.

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Listening to Stories

Not too long ago I attended the Malice Domestic conference in Bethesda, Maryland, where the lovers of cozy mysteries meet once a year. I always enjoy my time there catching up with old friends and discovering what new books are out. This time around I had the pleasure of moderating the “Make It Snappy” panel, where I had a chance to probe the nominees for the Agatha award for Best Short Story about the finer points of writing short fiction.

Kathy Lynn Emerson, Linda Landrigan, Barb Goffman, Art Taylor, Edith Maxwell

Kathy Lynn Emerson, Linda Landrigan, Barb Goffman, Art Taylor, Edith Maxwell

Malice also gave me a chance to meet up with and record a new podcast with Leslie Budewitz, who lives in Montana. Leslie read her 2006 story “The End of the Line,” and after that we talked about her inspiration for the story, how she manages two culinary series, and her non-fiction book, Books, Crooks and Counselors, which is a must-have legal reference for mystery writers. Continue reading

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Bob Tippee: Unhinging the Workplace Setting

Bob Tippee is an award-winning business journalist who writes about the oil and gas industry. His stories for AHMM are often set in fiercely competitive workplace cultures; our June cover story, “The PLT,” is an excellent example.

Fiction, of course, must transport the reader beyond immediate reality into a world of the writer’s imagination. Hugely important to that world is setting, a bundle of qualities unique to any story that might be said to fit along a spectrum defined by other-worldly fantasy at one extreme and here-and-now familiarity at the other. Settings between those poles must be somehow exotic: places where a reader might wish or be loath to go but cannot, possibly in combination with times inaccessible as well. Continue reading

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A criminal act is never an isolated event: There are always consequences. Victims want vengeance; detectives want truth; citizens want justice.

In Marianne Wilski Strong’s “The Breaker,” an old coal processing plant is haunted—a consequence of the exploitative treatment of its workers, including children. In Brian Tobin’s “Entwined,” a moment’s distraction leads to the death of a professor, a man who touched many lives. A history of brutality entangles young lovers and parents alike in William Dylan Powell’s dark family drama “Sewing on Sunday.” And Elizabeth Zelvin’s nuanced “The Man in the Dick Tracy Hat,” set in the Cold War fifties, examines the results of a decision to become a traitor of sorts.

In other stories, Key West P.I. Megan Trevor boards a dowdy gambling cruise to find out where the money is leaking out in John C. Boland’s “Her Father’s Daughter.” Bob Tippee brings us a tale of the corporate snares that await the young and ambitious in “The PLT.” And for our Mystery Classic this month, Evan Lewis introduces us to a hardworking journalist from another era in Richard Sale’s “Flash!”

But in all these stories, the intended consequence is reading pleasure.

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The Two Mississippi Rivers by Joe Helgerson

Joe Helgerson is the author the very entertaining series of stories featuring Sheriff Huck Finn set in turn-of-the-century Marquis, Iowa—continued in our May issue with “The Case of Captain Nemo’s Half Brother.” He has also written two clever YA books, Horns & Wrinkles (2006) and Crows & Cards (2009), both published by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children. The latter was named a Smithsonian Notable Book. The Sheriff Huck stories, which he talks about here, go back to June 2002, but he published two stories with us in 1983, beginning with “Eighty-Seven Miles of Smoke and Mist” (April 1983).

I’ve always had a soft spot for crackpot theories, especially when they’re my own. One of my favorites contends that there’s not one but two Mississippi Rivers that drain North America. One’s measured in miles, the other in pages. One carries away our topsoil, the other our imagination. The first starts in Lake Itasca, the second in Samuel Clemens’s inkpot.  Having grown up in a small town on the Mississippi myself, it was probably inevitable that these two rivers would eventually mingle in my writing.

I wish I could say that my love of Mark Twain’s work dates back to my childhood, but that would a lie, and we all know how fiction writers hate those. So I’ll give it to you straight: I’ve only a faint memory of my parents reading Tom Sawyer Continue reading

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