Saturday, January 27, 2007

Dashiell Hammett and Edward Weston

Edward Weston is one of my favorite photographers. He died in 1958, but his model and wife during his peak creative period in the 30s and 40s, Charis Wilson, is still alive and co-wrote a book called Through Another Lens: My Years with Edward Weston that describes their time together.

Here, from the Edward Weston web site, is one of the more famous pictures Weston took of Wilson.

That's all very fine and good, Mark, you may say, but what's that got to do with mystery and detective fiction, which is the stated focus of your blog? Well, it turns out that Weston could not make his living doing fine art photography alone, and at least in the early to middle years of his career, would also do portraits to supplement his income. Charis describes one such portrait session in her book:

The silliest celebrity sitting during the Santa Monica period came when an acquaintance of Edward's, Marcella Burke, insisted that he should make a portrait of Dashiell Hammett, who, seven years before, had introduced Sam Spade to the world in The Maltese Falcon. Hammett appreciated good photography, said Marcella, and badly needed publicity pictures. The order was sure to be lucrative.
She then goes on to recount, in the form of a comic three act play, what happened during the session. In ACT I, Weston and Wilson arrive at the appointed time in the midafternoon at Hammett's "swank" home, only to discover that he is sleeping off a bender. They set up for a shoot on the patio anyway, and eventually Hammett makes his way out to pose. As she says, "Obviously, hours of sleep were too many or too few ... Hammett sits in chair. Big man. Handsome? Hard to tell; not really there. Edward fakes a few, makes a few. Decides to call it a day. We all know glazed eyes won't publicize, or do for anything else."

In ACT II, Hammett decides to play host and insists that they stay for dinner. They have pre-dinner drinks and then sit down for food, but Hammett excuses himself and wanders off. When he is absent too long, they begin a search. Wilson continues, "Find Hammett peacefully passed out in wet flower bed under fig tree. [We] ... have muddy, heavy transplanting job--flower bed to house bed."

ACT III begins with Marcella Burke trying to mollify Weston and Wilson by providing dessert, coffee and a tray of liqueurs. Hammett wakes up from his latest nap, joins the group and Marcella suggests that he should eat something. The suggestion falls on deaf ears. "'Somma that.' Hammett points to the bottle. Marcella pours liqueur-glassful. Hammett tips it down; throws glass against fireplace bricks. Seems to enjoy sound of tinkling glass. Repeats performance. Visitors feel must exit. Do."

It's a bit distressing to have a hero of one's portrayed so, but it is well known that Hammett was a drinker--especially during his time in Hollywood--although he gave it up entirely on doctor's orders in the latter years of his life.

Wilson never says if Weston developed or printed the pictures of Hammett he did take. My next blog post describes my search for any existing Weston negatives or prints of Hammett.

P.S. Speaking of photography, click here to see a photo by me that I've entered in the JPG Magazine "elegance" theme. Please vote yeah if you like it!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

E. Howard Hunt and Raymond Chandler

Steve Lewis, Bill Crider and J. Kingston Pierce at the Rap Sheet have pointed out that recently deceased Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt was also a spy novelist.

What may be less generally known is that Hunt and Raymond Chandler once corresponded. In 1952, Chandler wrote a two page letter in response to--of all things--charges from Hunt of ethical violations of "self-plagiarism." Hunt had written to complain that several of Chandler's 1930s Black Mask short stories, anthologized in the 1952 collection The Simple Art of Murder, had been the cannibalized to provide the plot lines for his first four novels.

Here is the full text of Chandler's response, which I have copied (plagiarized) from Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, edited by Frank MacShane:

Dear Mr. Hunt:

Your letter to the editors of Pocket Books, accusing me of self-plagiarism, was sent on to me by them without comment. Since the letter was not addressed to me, there is no real reason why I should answer it, but I will take up a couple of points. First, as to The Hard-Boiled Omnibus, you were perfectly right. As a matter of fact I suggested the idea of this anthology to Joe Shaw, a former editor of the Black Mask and a long-time friend of mine, and I signed a permission to him for this story when I was very busy at Paramount and not paying any particular attention to it. That is to say, I relied on his good faith. Later I read the story and immediately raised a howl and secured his undertaking in writing not to use it but to substitute something else which had not been, as I term it, "cannibalized." When the book came out he explained somewhat lamely that the editors of Simon & Schuster had overruled him. Legally of course I had no remedy, although I spent several hundred dollars in lawyers fees trying to find one. I had signed the permission. The most I achieved was to prevent the inclusion of this story in the English edition of that anthology.

You should not blame the editors of Pocket Books, because the volume of their business is so great that they naturally take these things on trust from the publishers from whom as a rule they secure the reprint rights. I consider that my confidence was abused, but that is just my personal opinion.

As to your broader charge of self-plagiarism, based on the use by me of scenes, characters, incidents, background, color, etc., from old Black Mask novelettes: first of all, let me say that I have a perfect right to use them; I am the copyright owner, I can use my material in any way I see fit. There have been many instances of short stories being expanded into books which were published, and then being dramatized into plays which were published, and so on. Where the novel takes over the essential plot and story line of the briefer story, I would say that the reader should be put upon notice of this, particularly if the title is changed. Where the material used is merely character and incident, there is no fraud on the public because the thing is re-created in another form. Even if occasional lines of dialogue are used, there is no fraud. There is no moral or ethical issue involved. You may dislike the procedure, but that's as far as you can go.

There is another consideration which may have escaped your attention. That is that these old stories of mine were written for the most ephemeral possible kind of publication, one which had a life of thirty days and then was as dead as Caesar. At the time it would have never occurred to me that any of these stories would ever be resurrected, remembered, republished again in any form. I am not sure that they ever should have been republished in their original form, but I took a wide selection of opinions on the subject before I consented. It was brought home to me that a whole generation had grown up that had never known the Black Mask, and that that generation might just possibly want to read these stories, and certainly would not be able to read them unless they were republished. There might happen to be a few odd copies of the magazine obtainable in some secondhand magazine store, but who would be likely to look for them except a fanatic. I was even assured by a somewhat austere critic of this type of fiction, James Sandoe by name, that even people who knew the stories and had perhaps kept them in some other form would still be very likely to want them in hard covers.

I have a further remark. As you may know, writers like Dashiell Hammett and myself have been widely and ruthlessly imitated, so closely as to amount to a moral plagiarism, even though the law does not recognize anything but the substantial taking of a plot. I have had stories taken scene by scene and just lightly changed here and there. I have had lines of dialogue taken intact, bits of description also word for word. I have no recourse. The law doesn't call it plagiarism. Against this background you must pardon me if I find it just a little ludicrous that you should object to my using what is mine in the way that seems to me most suitable and most convenient. If my early stories had been published in a magazine of prestige and significance, the situation would have been rather different, and I would have been much more reluctant to do what you complain of. But as it is, I wish I had carried the process much further and used more of my old novelettes as material instead of republishing them with all their crudities, some of which crudities I know find almost unbearable.

I think my principal reason for writing this letter is that in all these years you are the only person who has ever raised this objection, that is to say, the only person other than myself. I have a file of pretty bitter correspondence on the subject of the first paragraph of your letter.

Yours very truly,

Monday, January 22, 2007

August Alley

Since the name of my protagonist is August Riordan and I write about San Francisco, you might guess I was intrigued to learn--via my friend Larry--that San Francisco has short one block street called August Alley.

Click here for a Google satellite map of the area on the highest magnification. And here is a photo of the start of the alley on Green:

I've already cranked a description of August's visit to a house on the alley in my forthcoming book Runoff--like so:
The neighborhood was a mix of Victorians, fake Victorians and blocky buildings from the 60s that weren’t fooling anyone. August Alley itself was clean and neat and the houses along it modest and jammed shoulder to shoulder, but well-maintained. I went along a narrow sidewalk, past a girl’s brightly-colored bicycle with teal and silver fringes hanging off the handles up to a sawed-off “pocket Victorian” with the requisite number.

It was painted blue with white trim and a redwood fence ran from the back of it to an apartment building next door, enclosing a miniscule backyard. A frost-bitten orange tree with stunted fruit grew in the yard, dropping a harvest of curled leaves onto the sidewalk. There was no one else in the alley, but the sounds of a hammer and a circular saw filtered down from construction going on in the top floor of an apartment house at the corner with Union. I went up two concrete steps to the door and pressed the buzzer. It didn’t produce any sound I could hear. I wadded up my fist and banged on the door. No soap. I stepped back to examine the front of the house. There were no windows facing the alley, but I could see the convex bubble of a skylight cresting over the edge of the roof line.
Strangely, that description corresponds very closely to my impressions from a recent visit. (See my earlier Notes from a Location post for more color.) As for what happens next in the story, all I can say is August Alley does not turn out to be very lucky for PI August Riordan.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Toronto Mystery and Horror with the Colonel

During a business trip to Tornoto over the weekend, I took the opportunity to do a "drive by" signing at the wonderful Sleuth of Baker Street bookstore. I had a great time chatting with Marian and Wendy at the store and ended buying copies of Immoral by Brian Freeman, Death without Comapny by Craig Johnson and Kockroach by Tyler Knox for my own reading. Only bad thing was I made the mistake of walking (the approximately 5 miles) from downtown and just about frooze my a** off. Turns out a quick subway/bus ride would have gotten me there without the frostbite.

The night before I had dinner in a fancy restaurant whose decorations included miniature statues of Colonel Sanders. Using my (lousy) cell phone camera and a candle from the table, I produced this picture:

It's too bad the Colonel is the namesake of a fast food chain because I think he'd make an excellent slasher movie villian.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

What's Up Tiger Lilly for Murder, My Sweet

If you're a fan of What's Up Tiger Lilly or Mystery Science Theater 3000 *and* you like Raymond Chandler, you might like this send up of Murder, My Sweet, which was, of course, based on Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely.

Brought to you via YouTube from the good folks at Totally Looped ...