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|
|Sally Kellerman in Star Trek, 1966|
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|
"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.