David Hagerty

Crime Fiction Author

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The Thin Man, a Classic Caper

Over the weekend, my wife and I watched The Thin Man, Dashiell Hammett’s comic final novel. What struck me most was not just how funny it was or how clever, but how modern it felt for having been made in 1934. In the midst of the Great Depression and Prohibition, it showed a tipsy, wealthy, crime-solving couple with nary a care in the world. Welcome relief from today’s woes as well.

Channeling Dead Blues Men

Today I had to write a blues song. The irony of this statement, coming from a suburban Californian, is intentional. Not only do I not listen to the blues, despite growing up in Chicago, I never entered a blues club (as the drinking age elevated to 21 during my youth). Nonetheless, for a story about an inebriate during Prohibition, I had to create the lyrics for a tune about Jamaican ginger, aka, the Jake.

Initially, I planned to use the lyrics from an actual blues song by some southerner from the era, but to my surprise, my editor at AHMM informed me that the song I liked remained under copyright. After an hour trying to track down the current owner of those rights, I gave up and decided to write my own.

Fortunately, I found plenty of examples. The beauty of the internet is that everything is available, including many things that should not be there because they are copyrighted. Regardless, there they were.

To simplify the task, I used my training as an English major to analyze the structure: rhyming couplets tending toward iambic pentameter. In fact, those songs I found most reminded me of poems by Langston Hughes.

Still, it felt odd to be counting the syllables of a song written by someone who sang from the heart, and probably never thought of his words in such a way. Ultimately, I found that if I used some of the words from the originals and filled in my own syntax, I could craft a passable imitation.

In case you’re curious, here it is:

Felt so thirsty, I couldn’t see

Needed some tipple to steady me

Bought a potion at the local drug

Instead it give me the limber leg

Boys, you better beware

Fore you end up in despair

That white ginger booze

Will give you the jake walk blues

Book 4 is Out of My Hands

Yesterday I turned in the draft of my fourth novel in the Duncan Cochrane series. Now it’s all in the hands of my editor, leaving me idle time as I await his comments. What’s next? Focus on short stories. Try to gel the story collection I’ve been working on for four years into a novel. Start another project. These interludes always feels like limbo, both uncomfortable and full of possibilities.

William Faulkner, Super Sleuth

Apparently, William Faulkner, winner of the Pulitzer and the Nobel, was a fan of mystery fiction, even composing a novel and a few shorties of his own in the genre, one of which was nominated for an award by Ellery Queen Magazine. If you read some of his most famous books, particularly A Rose for Emily and Absalom, Absalom!, you see the influence. Good counterpoint to all those snobs who think literary fiction exists on another plane from genre writing.

My Favorite Depictions of the Windy City

Recently, Chicago has served as the backdrop for many movies and TV programs, but my memories stem from my childhood there, so my favorites all date from the 1980s. Those of you who recall that era will also recall a few of the most popular: The Untouchables, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, everything else by John Hughes.

However, my favorites are none of those. Two linger in my memory even now: The Blues Brothers and Risky Business.

The first one is notable as much for who’s in it as what’s in it: Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin and of course Aykroyd and Belushi. It was also the first Hollywood movie filmed in the city for many years, so when it released, every Chicagoan went to see their hometown portrayed. If you haven’t seen it recently, rent it for the music alone.

Still, the movie that most accurately captures my experience of the city is Risky Business. At the time of its release, many critics characterized it as a teen sex comedy. And the plot certainly supports that conclusion (high school kid turns his house into a brothel when he parents go away for the weekend). Today, female viewers would dismiss it as male fantasy (happy hookers) mixed with misogyny (happy hookers). All of which is true and fair criticism.

For me, though, it captured growing up on the North Shore during a time when I was oblivious to the existence of others less fortunate than myself.

To whit, the hero, Joel, is desperate to reach an Ivy League college to please his parents and fulfill his cultural destiny. He joins his high school’s young entrepreneurs club to pad his resume and has nightmares about blowing the SATs.

He’s also a bit callow, scared to make a move on the girl he likes, caught boasting about his non-existent sexual conquests, being chided by his parents for playing the stereo too loud. Meanwhile, his greatest acts of rebellion are playing air guitar in the living room and driving his dad’s Porsche.

Then he meets Lana, the worldly-wise call girl who teaches him what cutthroat capitalism really means.

Throughout his encounters with pimps and prostitutes, car crashes and grand theft, Joel is insulated from any real suffering by the wealth and privilege of his upbringing. Although he’s oblivious to it, he exploits it. Tom Cruise gets the balance of fear and arrogance just right, exhibiting an insecurity we’ve rarely seen from him since.

While my family didn’t have a sports car or a big house, I had plenty of inhibition and self-doubt. Yet I also lived in an insulated bubble that protected me from crime and addiction and failure. (At least, so I thought. More on that in a latter missive.) Joel was the one character I didn’t have to analyze in English class to understand.

Left Coast Crime

Next week I’m packing my books and heading to Reno for my debut at a fan convention: Left Coast Crime. I’ve wanted to go for many years, but this is the first time I could get time off from teaching (there are advantages to joining the dark side of administration).

I’m told the event attracts equal numbers of writers and readers, which will be a refreshing change. Most of you remain anonymous to me, mysteries in and of yourselves. At times writing fiction feels like detection, looking for clues to how you found my work and what satisfies you.

Some writers I’ve heard about survey their readers or study the comments on their Amazon reviews, but the academic in me demands a larger sample size before drawing any conclusions. Still, analyzing website traffic or counting my friends on Facebook feels obsessive and self absorbed. I’d rather meet you all in person.

I’ll be appearing on three panels: speed dating for authors, where 140 readers get to interview me (and dozens of other writers) for 2 minutes apiece (note to self-prepare your elevator speech), as a panelist on political thrillers, and as moderator for a forum on suburban and rural settings. This last one has me furiously studying work by the participants, who include James Hayman and Heather Young (author of The Lost Girls).

Also, I’ll be staffing the author table for Mystery Writers of America at 2 p.m. on Saturday. If you’re there, please stop by and introduce yourself.

The Publisher Revealed

Now that the contract is signed, I can tell you the name of the magazine publishing my new story: Low Down Dirty Vote. It’s an anthology of political crime stories set for release on July 4 this year. My contribution is a prequel to the Duncan Cochrane mystery series, about the primary campaign when he beat a Machine candidate. I’ll put up links as soon as they’re available, but look for it at Amazon and B&N on Independence Day.

Until then, details can be found here.

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