Why this black-and-white 1940s Minneapolis picture? Oh there might be a reason.
I had to come out with a 40s crime noir the same week as James Ellroy, didn't I? Magnificent timing, I think. Really: the two books couldn’t be more different, and even though I haven’t read a word of Ellroy’s newest - it comes out tomorrow - I know “Casablanca Tango” has none of his clipped brusque style or parade of bad men and hard cops.
Saturday; Target. With Daughter. It’s fun. We had the usual josh and banter with Linda, the product demonstrator; I bought what she was selling, which was Chex Mix Cheddar Cheese Snack Mix. Truly dreadful, but daughter liked it, and it was on sale for $2.75, and there was a coupon for a dollar off, so. I just tried some now to see if my initial impression was correct; it’s ghastly.
At the checkout. Young skinny Aimee Mann-type, except with many more tattoos that had deep shadows that gave her skin an unnerving 3D dimension, came up to the cashier from the end of the check-out area. She had a collection of Hello Kitty stickers and a few Halloween items.
“Can I just get a bag?” she said. Charming bright smile. “I forgot to get a bag.”
The clerk, who is busy swiping and bagging, gives her a cursory look, and grabs a bag - then click click, hmm, er, what?
“Do you have a receipt?”
Aimee looks at the items in her hand, as if there might be a receipt, and says “It’s in the car.”
The clerk says she’s sorry, but she can’t give her a bag without a receipt.
“I have a Red Card, maybe it’ll show up on there?”
The clerk keeps bagging.
Aimee goes back into the store towards the card department where they sell things like Hello Kitty stickers.
“The receipt’s in the car,” I said to the clerk. She shook her head.
Daughter asks what that was about. I said I thought the woman was trying to shoplift. She couldn’t walk out with the stuff without a bag. Think about it: who buys some stuff, says “don’t bag it,” goes to the car, thinks “I should have a bag,” then leaves the receipt, but takes the stuff, and walks back in to the store to ask for a bag? Why not just leave it in the car and go ask for a bag?
When we get home I look at my own receipt and realize that I was charged for a $3.59 juice-slurry thing, which I thought I got for free if I bought two other juice-slurry things. Hmm. I highlight the items with a yellow marker, put the items and the receipt into a RED TARGET CLOTH BAG and go back. First I check the shelves, and learn that I was wrong about what I had to buy to get the free stuff. I had to buy 12 of something else. So. Return counter; get credit.
Ended up wandering through to see if I needed anything else. I had forgotten to get Almonds for Daughter’s lunch. Those I bought. There was an opportunity to purchase Food Truck Tacos with Korean Beef and Kimchi for 5% off.
I availed myself of the opportunity. Five percent! You don't sniff at those deals.
Drove home, having spent more money on gas and other items that I had spent paying for the fruit-goop. Looked in the trunk; there wasn’t the 8-pack of Low-Calorie Gatorade. I remembered putting it on the bottom of the cart, and telling Daughter “Don’t let me forget this is on the bottom of the cart.”
Looked around the house; nowhere. I had forgotten it on the bottom of the cart.
Receipt says I saved $4.64 on my purchases. Factoring in the Gatorade, I only lost $1.21, but let’s not think about the gas, or the impulse kimchi purchase. At least I’m on the right side of the law.
I can understand why desperate people steal, but taking Hello Kitty stickers suggests you are not in Jean Valjean territory yet.
Question: let’s say the next time I go to Target, I put the Gatorade at the bottom of the cart, but forget to pick it up for the beep. When I get out to the car I realize it wasn’t paid for. Am I justified in taking it, since I paid for one before and didn’t get it? I would say yes only if I knew that the cart-wranglers returned it to the store to be put back on the shelf. Otherwise you’ve no idea if someone else took it.
Ah well. Now to watch “Boardwalk Empire” and cheer on some unconflicted criminals.
This was the hardest thing I ever did.
And that means absolutely nothing. A good book can come easily. A bad book can come with no effort at all. Working and reworking a book could be like renovating a house that was poorly designed; if you walk into a room with crooked beams and slightly skewed windows, and the host says “man, this is the hardest room I ever built!” you might wonder when it’s coming down around your head. So I wrote and rewrote and set it aside and wrote some more and stood back to see what I had.
That was 2002. That was the first time I took a run at the idea: a murder mystery set in the late 40s at a Minneapolis newspaper. Aside from the narrator, the first character I met was the grinning thin photog with the pencil moustache snapping shots of the nurses sunning themselves at the hospital across the street from the paper - and he’d be pleased to know he made the final cut, years later. But the General Hospital was across the street from the StarTribune, and I didn’t want to write a Strib novel, for reasons you’ll see in the next novel.
The first version - called Mill City Blues - started with two guys from the paper sitting outside the drugstore across the street. It’s a parking lot now. It was a low-slung commercial block then, and I wanted to bring it back to life. The reporters are interrupted by a call to cover a shooting at the Casablanca Bar, a real establishment downtown. I wrote three versions of the first chapter - and never got through the front door of the murder scene.
Ripped it up and set it aside.
While writing “Graveyard Special” I saw some things floating up that might spark the story I had wanted to write, and after a month or two I banged out the book you have now. It was originally called “Autumn Solitaire” for various noir reasons. The book tumbled out like nothing I’d done, and I found myself in my protagonist’s position: I didn’t know who did it, either. The solution surprised me. There were innumerable loose ends.
I set it aside, took a month, and wrote the third book in the series. It’s not only a comic newspaper novel, it’s a mystery, and it ties together . . . well, let’s just say that if I write no more novels, there’s an arc, a terminus, a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. When I finished that one I set it aside and went back to the 1947 novel. And there my troubles began.
Two full rewrites. Gave it to my editors, who had, shall we say, copious notes. An exhaustive series of clean-up rewrites followed, but the end result is exactly what I wanted it to be: a headlong tumble through the summer of 1947, as seen by a newspaper photographer attached to an overly intellectual reporter - Watson and Holmes in a noir, almost.
Here’s what I don’t like, really: serial killer stories. Brilliant killers who taunt the cops and evade arrest. It’s been done. But there was no way to expand the Casablanca Killings into something else without taking a mad, horrible turn. I did not know where it was going to go. I’m still surprised it went where it did.
It’s not the end for our heroes; there are two more books to do, one of which continues the “Graveyard Special” characters in 1983, and our “Casablanca” team at the State Fair in 1951, a story told over 12 days. I may indulge these characters too much, but not at your expense. The second-to-the-last draft of “Casablanca Tango” had the main characters sitting outside the drugstore across from the StarTribune, watching Cedric Adams do a live TV broadcast. I loved that chapter more than you know.
But it got in the way. It had to go. Self-published books are indulgences, but there are limits.
Oh: of course this story intersects with Joe Ohio. I expect Joe will address that matter in collection that fills in the year 1956. It wasn’t the sort of event he would have forgotten.
Anyway: there's an ad at the bottom of the page, too. There will be lots of ads. It's Book Launch Month.
Hello, Rote Noir.
I’d never write a story like this. Even at the time it was cliched: good man meets bad dame, violates his moral code, PAYS THE PRICE. It’s interesting how it was usually the man who ended up on the wrong end of a roscoe, but that’s another essay. Or not - perhaps an exhaustive critique of the genre would say that the women ended up where they were supposed to be, aka, fallen. which was worth than death. All I know is that this thing is just a lump.
The hero is an insurance investigator. While flying out of town, his travel plans are overheard:
She’s a schemer. She wants his name so she can go back to the counter and get the spousal discount. Bad weather forces a layover; they have to share a hotel room. He’s peeved because he’s a guy what’s on the level and she’s a dame with all the angles figured out, hard and venal:
But he can’t resist! Why? Because she’s as poorly written and acted as he is. To be fair, Charles McGrawplays a good square-jawed dick, but Joan Dixon is unable to muster any of the smolder and come-hither power that the sirens of noir should possess. Long story short: he falls hard overnight, and they probably have sex, but since it’s 1951 we’re supposed to think they just kissed. He can’t get her out of his mind. Another insurance knock-over leads back to a guy who - surprise, surprise! </gomervoice> is her sugar daddy, and that leads our hero to decide that this by-the-numbers life is for mopes, and he’s better off going full-criminal so he can gather the scratch a woman like her requires, so they live in a high-hat place like this.
Sure, it’s a model, but a guy can dream, can’t he?
But! She’s fallen for him too, big lug that he is, and fallen so hard she doesn’t care if he has money. Uh huh. Well: they get married. He still decides to go for a life of crime, and enlists . . . her old sugar daddy.
It’s a Double-Indemnity thing. His old partner suspects. He makes One Crucial Mistake. And so on. It’s all over in an hour and ten minutes. Let’s look at some inadvertent documentary.
This location: look at the smeary street sign. Riverside, that we can figure. 1100? Possibly. Google it, and see if there's anything that makes the cross street name stroll into focus . . . there is. Fernleaf. Street. If I'm right, then this . . .
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. . . was this. Who knows.
Anyway, they’re chased by the coolest, meanest police car ever: this is what low men in yellow coats would drive.
The rest of the chase takes place in the Los Angeles River, such as it is, and here the director, or director of photography, finally gets to do something.
The good-guy-who-went-bad cannot be redeemed except by grimacing when shot with an expression that says I had it comin', but the script will give him one last moment . . .
And then she walks away.
Want something that's not like that? Here you go: