The F. Scott Fitzgerald of crime writing

Kenneth Millar, better known under his pen name of Ross Macdonald, is largely recognised for scaling new heights in crime novel writing in the middle of the last century because of his finesse in handling the genre.

Born in California in 1915, but raised in Canada, he began writing in 1939 after being inspired by the success of his wife, Margaret Sturm, the mystery writer who wrote under the name of Margaret Millar.

They lived in Santa Barbara, California, for the remainder of their lives, and it became the setting for his Lew Archer character, a divorced former cop-turned private eye, in post-war Los Angeles.

Archer displayed all the traits of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe as a wisecracking PI crusading against the bad and the ugly, but in a later era. In fact, so inspired by Hammett, he took the name for his protagonist from Spade’s murdered partner Miles Archer in The Maltese Falcon.

Even the themes were familiar as he wrote about the idle rich, bad marriages and dysfunctional offspring. But for the author, who’d gained a PhD in literature, his real ambition was to become one day a serious writer under his own name.

And yet, ironically, he fulfilled his dream under his nom de plume with literary critics hailing him for blending a “whodunit” with a psychological thriller with such great aplomb.

Macdonald began to surpass his two famous predecessors when his hardboiled thrillers gave way to a retelling of Greek myths based on a modern Californian narrative about family secrets, childhood traumas and skeletons in the cupboard. He once told Newsweek that he owed this transformation in his work to seeing a therapist, claiming that Freud was an important influence on his newfound voice. Turning tragedies of ordinary life into potboilers became his signature theme.

Though the early Archer series were well written, including his first, The Moving Target (1949), it wasn’t until after his epiphany on the psychiatrist couch, when he wrote The Galton Case (1959), that he came into his own, writing about his personal life experiences. Archer becomes the conduit in piecing together the story of lives of others. While some critics complained that from that moment onwards he ended up reworking and rewriting the same novel, others claim that he was clever enough to keep unearthing something new in every version. It would be another 10 years with the publication of The Goodbye Look that he was finally rewarded with the critical accolades he’d craved for when starting out as a serious writer.

Many have written about the Holy Trinity of American crime writers of Hammett, Chandler, and Macdonald, but it was the latter who became the most academically respected. He also wrote more books than Hammett and Chandler combined with the Archer series totalling 18. Although Hammett created the PI genre, and Chandler perfected it, Macdonald pushed the crime novel into new directions.

Like Hammett and Chandler, he had critical success also in Hollywood with Paul Newman starring in both Harper (1966), based on The Moving Target, and later The Drowning Pool (1975).

Chandler didn’t take to the newcomer and described his prose as strained and pretentious. The feeling may have been mutual as Macdonald thought Chandler’s work lacked “tragic unity”. As a Dashiell Hammett fan, I could not comment. Hammett’s writing is pure and economical, while Chandler cuts clean and creates scenes that remain in a reader’s memory forever. Macdonald is silky and true to the traditions of Hammett and Chandler. In fact, he gave a new lease of life to the genre, just as his predecessors had done in their respective periods.

Was it such a coincidence that Hammett’s first PI novel hit the bookshelves in 1929, Chandler’s in 1939 and Macdonald’s in 1949? Was it not the sharp eye of the same publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, recognising what readers wanted from each author and shrewdly nudging the genre along in keeping with the time?

Macdonald’s books are written so elegantly that he was admired by poets as his stories were from the heart, and to describe him as the F. Scott Fitzgerald of crime writers would not be an overstatement as Fitzgerald was an author that had greatly inspired him.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at http://www.tomclaver.co.uk

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Hoping for a big thriller year

Last year proved to be a relatively quiet 12 months for the thriller market in terms of blockbusters. The publishing industry did its utmost to meet readers’ interests by offering the usual plethora of subgenres but there was no stand-out thriller as in previous years.

The ever popular domestic noir market still looks as strong as ever following the runaway successes of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and later Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train.

This subgenre has seen in recent years an exponential growth in interest as it changed the reading habits of many women who are preferring to seek out female-centric titles that keep them on the edge of their seats.

Women form the majority of thriller readers and their surge in interest in domestic noir has built up sales in the UK market of around 20m books per year.

This type of crime fiction is not only changing the psychological makeup of women in novels, but is possibly challenging the traditional narratives of the thriller.

The use of multiple narrators, a general absence of typical thriller tropes, and their softer climaxes seem to be altering the perspective of what is chilling, given that the stories often revolve around humdrum urban lives.

But framing a story around terrible marriages and abusive relationships is nothing new to the thriller market. It is a deeply mined subject of the traditional psychological thriller. Rebecca, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Dial M for Murder are all examples of the subgenres popularity in earlier decades.

Perhaps the real difference between the older classics and the modern domestic noir, is, as others have already pointed out, that the investigation being carried out by the writer is really about the breakdown of the relationship rather than the murder itself. The murder is no more than a McGuffin.

Money and control are often at the heart of a thriller, and it is no different in domestic noir. The woman is invariably dependent on a husband who is unfaithful and she feels her position becoming suddenly vulnerable because the man poses a threat.

But unlike the archetypically doomed femme fatales of the past – written mostly by men – the female characters in domestic noir tend to end up coming out on top. They are no longer the victims.

Amy in Gone Girl manages to get the upper hand, Jodi, a psychologist, in The Silent Wife, gets away with despatching her philandering partner, while in Season to Taste, dear Lizzie Prain has no qualms in eating her husband.

The thriller market has always been the golden goose for publishers, film makers, theatre and radio producers, alike. Nearly everyone from all backgrounds enjoys being transferred to an edgy world where they can be frightened or held in suspense.

It is an organic genre that keeps evolving and sub-dividing into subgenres. How long domestic noir will remain popular is anyone’s guess. This trend will no doubt reach a limit amongst readers and will probably give way one day to a new vogue in crime fiction, in the same way that Nordic noir thrillers are now starting to lose their shine.

Could the absence of a big blockbuster in 2017 be a sign of uncertainty about the direction that the thriller market is currently heading? Even in the cinema it seems to me that fewer traditional thrillers are being made. Is there some uncertainty about what people really want from a thriller today as there is so much competition from other genres?

A relatively fallow year for crime fiction doesn’t mean anything, of course, as the whole of the book market goes through such trends from time to time. While it is not a rare phenomenon it does seem curious that there was no real big splash in the thriller market last year given the huge number of books in the marketplace.

Too much choice? Not enough book critics in the media shining their torches on hidden gems? I have no idea how publishing houses pick and choose books, but as a consumer of their products I would urge them to go out on a limb and just take more risks.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at http://www.tomclaver.co.uk

The poet of apprehension

Patricia Highsmith’s advice to budding writers was to begin a novel with events of everyday life that may spark off a story, and then capture the reader’s attention with invention.

Sounds simple, but it would coming from an author who turned the psychological thriller into a high art form.

At the age of 29 she wrote her debut novel, Strangers on a Train, a plot that captured the imagination of one generation after another. It was adapted as a film by Alfred Hitchcock a year later in 1951, and then re-used in several other adaptations in one form or another, including films, television, theatre as well as in other novels.

Highsmith’s book in my opinion was superior to Hitchcock’s version, which proved to be his comeback film after a couple of flops. Hitchcock chose the novel because it had the right type of material for him to work with. He was confident at the time that no other director would have spotted the book’s potential as a film. But converting the prose into a suspenseful script proved much harder than he imagined. Big names like Dashiell Hammett and John Steinbeck turned down the opportunity to work with him. He finally got Raymond Chandler to produce a script, which proved to be a disaster, and in the end Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville, came to the rescue with the help of other scriptwriters.

The story begins with an everyday occurrence of two strangers sitting on a long train journey chatting. Then the tempo rises when Guy and Bruno discuss carrying out murders for each other to solve their problems. Such random acts would make it almost impossible for the police to connect them to the victims.

On reading Strangers on a Train it reminded me more of Crime and Punishment than a contemporary thriller of its day. The two men could be one man, conflicted with guilt. Good at odds with evil.

The guilt of Guy when Bruno suddenly murders Guy’s wife without his agreement is palpable. But if that is not enough Highsmith adds more tension when Bruno blackmails Guy into honouring his part of the bargain of murdering his father. And if that is not ratcheting it up enough, a private detective gets wind of their pact.

In her book to help young aspiring writers, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, she explains she always likes to thicken the plot by bringing in new complications to freshen up the story. It certainly works well in the case of Strangers on a Train.

Her next book The Price of Salt, later retitled Carol, was also a big hit and was written under the pen name Claire Morgan. The story of a young shop girl falling in love with a married woman was recently adapted by Phyllis Nagy into a successful film in 2015.

Then in 1955, Highsmith created the wonderful psychopath anti-hero in The Talented Mr Ripley. She went on to write several more Ripley novels and then continued writing more novels exploring characters with a dark side.

My particular favourite The Cry of the Owl (1962) was a psychological thriller that she didn’t care much for. It was apparently based on her own experience of stalking a woman, the same one that inspired her to write The Price of Salt. There have been three film/television adaptions of the book, including one by the renowned French filmmaker Claude Chabrol, who was of course a great admirer of Hitchcock.

Highsmith didn’t see herself as a crime writer and preferred to be called an entertainer. According to friends, she didn’t suffer fools but her troubled life tended to follow her wherever she went.

She moved to Europe from the US in the early 1960s and surprisingly enjoyed a higher recognition there than in her native country. She eventually settled in Switzerland in the 1980s where she remained until her death in 1995, aged 74.

The Times once named her number one in their list of the greatest ever crime writers, although her ranking elsewhere is inexplicably much lower.

She completed 22 novels and eight books of short stories, but she admitted rather candidly in her handbook on writing that the possibility of failure was always ever present for the author. It is difficult to believe that she had suffered failures of her own, but she viewed every failure as teaching her something.

Highsmith was an admirer of Graham Greene and he reciprocated by describing her as “the poet of apprehension.” He said that she “created a world of her own – a world claustrophobic and irrational, which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger.”

 

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at www.tomclaver.co.uk

The countdown begins

Having reached a very respectable age I thought it was high time to fulfil a lifelong ambition of publishing a thriller. I hope you will enjoy reading HIDER/SEEKER when it is launched as an e-book by Amazon from 29 April.

If you take a look at my home page you’ll read why it has taken me so embarrassingly long to get my act together and how I got the bug to write when I took creative writing classes with Dr Rod Whitaker in the early 1970s. He wrote under the pen name of Trevanian and was possibly best known for his debut thriller, “The Eiger Sanction,” which was turned into a film by Clint Eastwood.

I’ve paid a big tribute to the late Dr Whitaker on my web and would really like to hear from anyone who studied under him or who knew him well. He was an elusive author who baffled many people in his lifetime because of his keenness to keep his real name a secret. This led to all sorts of conspiracy theories, which I would imagine he enjoyed.

I didn’t go to his evening classes with any specific intention other than to get away from my awful bedsit and an annoying tenant. But I was captivated by the story of his first book becoming an international best seller and being turned into a film by Eastwood, a film maker I have always admired.

So he gave me the appetite to write and I did nothing about it all my life until 10 years ago when I decided it was now or never to learn how to write a thriller. I read lots of books on writing, but they didn’t mean anything to me until I wrote something that resembled a book. It’s only once you have written a novel that you understand what these books are trying to teach you.

Dr Whitaker inspired me to write, but showing me how to do it was largely down to three women who I’d like to thank in my first ever blog.

I sent my first attempt at writing a thriller to Bernie Ross, a former fiction editor and literary editor, who provided me with a 10-page critique (singled lined) blitzing my prose. There was absolutely nothing, and I mean nothing, that she thought was right about the book. When I read her response I think I laughed aloud at how hopeless I was because that was all one could do. As a professional journalist, I didn’t see it as intimidating but as a perfectly good analysis of what was wrong with my writing. It was nothing personal, just business, as they say.

I took it upon myself to re-write some chapters as an academic exercise, doing it the way Bernie had suggested. And what an improvement. I’d hit upon a style of writing that suited me and I re-edited the whole book. We became friends and we have remained in touch ever since. Bernie still writes occasionally, but her great passion now is painting. (http://www.bernrossartist.com)

Now that I had written a book, I needed an agent. I was soon to discover that this would be the most depressing part of the whole writing experience. Although I never found an agent, I did receive a most encouraging telephone call from the indefatigable Betty Schwartz. She was with Futerman Rose at the time, and had previously been submissions editor at Hodder. Betty took the trouble of picking up the phone and telling me that she liked my style of writing. She helped sharpen my prose and told me not to give up. Anyone who has had the good fortune of coming into contact with Betty knows she is one of the nicest people you could ever wish to meet in publishing.

The book never got published, however, and I wrote another one, which also bit the dust. My third attempt was HIDER/SEEKER, which was a reworking of a film script I wrote many years ago. This time around I think I have hit all the marks, thanks mainly to the critical eye of Hilary Johnson Authors’ Advisory Service. There is no hiding place when Hilary analyses your MS. Hilary is always at the ready to administer the castor oil when it is needed and delivers it with such charm that you feel like asking for more.

So a big thank you to these ladies who have played their part in getting me over the finishing line.

But there is a very special fourth lady I would like to praise, my wife. She has put up with all my anxieties and pushed me into completing this ambition. She is the first reader of my books, and I want to especially thank her for making me stick to the course that I had set such a long time ago.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at www.tomclaver.co.uk’.