Mixing Memes and Memories - Umberto Tosi

I used a wire recorder on my first attempt to write a detective story. I felt tres avant garde. The wire recorder preceded tape. As the name implies, It recorded and played back your voice magnetically on a long spool of fine wire. I had purchased one when Sears put them on sale cheaply enough for me to afford from my after-school, part-time grocery-wrapping earnings. That was in 1953, the year Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye was published and twenty years after Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express.  

Dino Moro Sanchez, a Hollywood High School friend and I planned to use the wire recorder to co-author a detective screenplay-- under the illusion that we could somehow talk our way through the process doing our hip imitations of Hollywood tough guys and private eyes. Like any teen, I had no idea who I was. So I made up a noir character out of the flotsam and jetsam of the real-- and make believe-- Hollywood in which I had grown up.  

Dino and I were detective thriller fans-- more accurately we identified with them and their dark, loner,-worldly-wise, existentialist code.  Over the previous year, I had gone from reading pulp scifi-- what were to become the classic stories of "Amazing" and "Astounding" magazines-- to consuming detective pulps--which I found had more suggestive content. As a secretly nerdy kid, I had read various classic novels of the genre, including Dashiell Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon, and Chandler's "The Big Sleep." These characters captured our adolescent male imaginations in the play-acting way that the Godfather and Star Wars did a generation later.

We lived in Hollywood-- the district of Los Angeles as well as its state of mind. Dino worked as a grip at Paramount Studios during the summer, and part time at a local supermarket with me during the school year. He shared a sixth-floor, two-bedroom apartment near Hollywood and Highland Boulevards not far from Hollywood High School, where we were tenth graders pretending to be grown ups. 

Home wire recorder, c. 1948
We Hollywood High-schoolers were aware of ourselves as part of "working" Hollywood, as opposed to Beverly Hills high school and blue-blood private academies attended by offspring industry millionaires and true stars. Still we had our share of celebrity-- in the past, and contemporaneously on the make. Sally Kellerman, the original "Hot Hips" Houlihan in Robert Altman's movie mash, was in my drama class, an awkward, lanky, serious-minded dishwater blond. Already a star: Ricky Nelson, who appeared in "Ozzie and Harriet," his family's TV sitcom, was destined to become music pop star in his own right. Hollywood High's mascot was "The Sheik" in homage to one of its other movie star alumni-- Rudolph Valentino. Other noteworth alums included Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Robert Carradine, Carol Burnett, Cher, Dorothy Dandrige, Marge Champion, James Garner, Mitzi Gaynor, Gloria Graham, Barbara Hershey, Bugs Bunny animator Chuck Jones, Joel McCrea, Sara Jessica Parker, Lana Turner, Fay Wray, most of them before they became internationally famous. Off screen Hollywood alums outnumbered them-- the sons and daughters of and future screenwriters, directors, designers, producers, costumers, musicians, myriad technicians and staff. Everyone and no one was a celebrity, including my first wife-to-be, who also graduated from Hollywood High.

Sally Kellerman in Star Trek, 1966
I didn't think about it then, but I walked around in my own imaginary movie. The beaches and hillssides, palm trees and landmarks of Hollywood rolled by every time I drove my first car, a royal blue, Studebaker sedan, as unglamorous as it seemed to me. Living with a bachelor uncle instead of his parents allowed Dino an adult-like autonomy beyond our wildest dreams, with the understanding that we stay out of trouble. We dressed in jeans and leather jackets with Elvis-style pompadour hairdos, waves held in place with pomade. I had similar leeway as the son of a single mother, a classically trained, jazz singer,, battling depression, working at a record store between local stage productions, concerts and movie dubbing jobs.

After the night shift at our supermarket Dino and I, and a few other friends, would drive to a basement pool hall on Hollywood and Western, for few rounds of two-big Eight-Ball. The unshaven old-timer behind the register didn't ask for IDs when we ordered beers. On that track, I was to become either Sam Spade or a hoodlum, or later, a late-nighter cool on weed at a jazz club on Vine Street. I did develop a taste for bebop, but otherwise was more a self-deluded, punk pretending to own the night ten years before Paul Newman made it a meme in the movie of the same name.

John Huston's classic 1941 adaptation of the Maltese Falcon was an old movie, by then, but still shown in my favourite local art house where I could catch foreign movies-- sexy and arresting to me at the time. It captured me immediately, even more than Hammett's novel. We had another friend who ushered at the Egyptian Theatre-- a first-run house on Hollywood Boulevard-- who let us sneak in for free. We had just seen Fritz Lang's "The Big Heat," a cop-noir epic with Glenn Ford and Gloria Graham.

Predictably, our wire-recorder detective novel didn't go very far. I don't remember anything much about it now, except that too many teenage distractions kept us from it once the novelty of hearing our own imitation tough guy voices wore off.

In fact, I didn't try my hand at crime or detective fiction until nearly 70 years later, with my latest work that didn't start out that way.  Originally, I set out to write a memoirist novel about growing up in Hollywood that included many of the characters I remember as I grew up. I had been meaning to start that novel for a number of years. This was at the urging of friends and family, who encouraged me to do so whenever I'd happen to tell a story about my youthful experiences. Somehow, however, I'd never been able to get far with this project. Thus it became a perennial between other projects.

This time seemed no different until Frank Ritz came along. He's not one of those Hollywood people I remember. He's totally fictional-- part real, part Philip Marlow, part Sam Spade. But he lives in the Hollywood that I remember as a kid. He's older than me-- a member of my parent's generation and the uncles and aunts who joined the armed forces during World War 2.  That's how Frank Ritz lost an eye-- through which he sometimes experiences "phantom eye syndrome." Frank came with a life-- a complex history, an daughter, ex-wife and a pituitary dwarf, opera-singer mother. The train started moving once he came on board, with plenty of seating for all those Hollywood characters with whom I had been trying to populate my "serious" autobiographical novel. 

"You must kill your darlings," said William Faulkner. I had to throw a lot of them off the train, along with hundreds of pages I discarded before settling down with the notion that this was to be a murder mystery. I don't know any murderers and can remember only one murder victim in my life. (That's for another blog post.) But plenty of the colourful Hollywood characters who I knew growing up seemed to fit well into this new novel. So, away it went!)

The Phantom Eye - a Frank Ritz mystery -- became available in Kindle this past week, and is set to be published in paperback by June 10, in time for summer reading. I hope you'll enjoy it.

It has already garnered critical praise: I was pleased that several colleagues who were kind enough to share their critiques compared the writing to Raymond Chandler's work, even though from widely separated locales. I didn't intend it to be homage to Chandler starting out, only-- like Chandler-- an attempt to capture the dark essence of Hollywood during those unaware times.

The Sheik - Hollywood High's Auditorium
The cover blurb reads: '...Heiress, actress and old flame Lola Vale leads one-eyed PI Frank Ritz into a vortex of movieland intrigue, murder, and vice in this edgy, remastered homage to 1950s Hollywood Noir. "Tosi has a wicked eye himself for the sinister follies and misfortunes of primeval Hollywood, a territory he well knows from his own boyhood and his career as a journalist, from the ’40s through the early ’60s..." John Blades, Chicago Tribune book editor emeritus, fiction editor, Chicago Quarterly Review.

"In 'The Phantom Eye' Umberto Tosi takes to Raymond Chandler's mean streets, 'dark with something more than night', in a faithful homage that never loses a singular spring in its step. The labyrinthine plot would have delighted the Master. And when Tosi chooses now and then to slip into Chandler mode, he rocks the chandeliers. Highly recommended!' Reb McGrath, author of The Seattle BOP Mysteries. "... reminds me of Chandler's The Little Sister, and The Big Sleep of course." - Actor, playwright, author, director Gary Houston.'

Another critique reads:  "Tosi writes with tremendous style and a pitch perfect ear for everything that makes the classic noir detective story irresistible. Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer, make room for Frank Ritz!" - Elizabeth McKenzie, best-selling author of The Portable Veblen.

Here's an excerpt from Chapter One:

"...Detective Grouse rattled my aluminum bed railing.... “You’re lucky we don’t have you cuffed to this steel bar, asshole....” Now I could understand his meaning clearly and I didn’t like it. “We like you for Kingston’s murder... You better start talking, or it won’t go well for you, Ritzy.”
I moaned again. “Screw you, Grouse. You couldn’t find your dick, and if you did, you’d make it a suspect, you fat fuck ...Kingston wasn’t even murdered, far as you can prove.” I was bluffing. But this flatfoot wouldn’t understand me even if I wasn’t sedated, much less semi-delirious.
“How much did rich-bitch Lola offer you to kill her husband?” He rattled. “Talk now we might get the DA. to do you a deal, Ritz... He’s out for headlines. Wants Lola to get the gas in Quentin, not you. Use little fish to catch big fish. That’s his game.” ... Not that he would even be able to articulate this. It was mixed into the soup in which he floated like chicken fat. Dolores had money, but she wasn’t part of money. She was a bauble, an ornament of one of money’s princes, as seen from the streets Grouse cruised...."I couldn’t tell you whether I was the hero or the villain of my story. ... "

With most of the dithering out of the way, I've already made a good start to the Frank Ritz Mystery sequel - "Do or Die." I hope to have it completed by fall and out by year's end, if that's not to optimistic. It's not easy, but more fun to write than works I've done for years. 


Umberto Tosi's books include Sometimes Ridiculous, Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published widely, most recently in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. His nonfiction has been published widely in print and online. He began his career as a journalist for Los Angeles Times and an editor for its prize-winning, Sunday magazine, West, and as editor of San Francisco Magazine. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. His last post for Authors Electric was on May 3 - "The Fickle Feather of Fame." He has four adult children. He resides in Chicago.



Jan Needle said…
If the the book's half as enticing as this blog, Umberto, I won't have wasted my money! I'm on it…
Umberto Tosi said…
Thanks, Jan. I hope you enjoy it.
misha said…
Congratulations on publication. The book looks great and I'm looking forward to reading it.

Unknown said…
Dear Umberto, my name is Emanuele, I'm a reporter at The Times newspaper in London. Would you please be able to send me an email on emanuele.midolo@the-times.co.uk ? It's for an article I'm writing, for which I'd like to pick your brains. Many thanks in advance, Emanuele
Marsha CoupĂ© said…
Mazel Tov, Umberto.

Your latest novel sounds like a lot of fun. "Lola" is one of my favourite names. Colourful. I had an Aunt Lola, a redhead who would be very much at home in your "Phantom Eye."
Ruth Leigh said…
Utterly engrossing, Umberto! Dino Moro Sanchez is a great name for a character - I wonder who he'd be. I remember Sally Kellerman in MASH. Thank you for such a rich and interesting piece. Not a dull word in it.
Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you, Marsha and Ruth, I hope my writings continue to engross you. I'm happy to keep trying, at least.

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