Down These Mean Streets with J.S. Cook

August 14, 2015

Skid Row Serenade is a novel about Tony Leonard, a down-and-out alcoholic war hero suffering from what nowadays we’d call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In the 1940s – when this novel takes place – it was more likely to be called ‘shell shock’.  During the war, Tony was a commando; he and others of his squad were taken prisoner by the Gestapo and tortured. Because of this, he is emotionally scarred, and can only face the outside world through a buffer of alcohol.

Skid Row Serenade is a noir novel, or what might otherwise be called ‘pulp detective’, a genre that hasn’t always enjoyed the greatest respectability. (When I was in academia, writing genre fiction was seen as something undesirable, almost shameful. You did it, but you never admitted to it, and among the academic community, it wasn’t seen as legitimate writing, not like literary fiction. Writing pulp was and still is too often regarded by intellectuals as the creative equivalent of picking one’s nose in public.) In its earliest incarnation, pulp referred to inexpensive magazines published from about 1896 through the 1950s. It was called ‘pulp’ because of the cheap, wood pulp paper on which it was printed – a direct contrast to the ‘glossies’ or ‘slicks’, magazines printed on high quality paper and often including lavish illustration. Pulps were priced at ten cents each, and within easy reach for almost all readers, unlike the slicks, which were typically twenty-five cents per issue. It doesn’t seem like much money to us nowadays in 2015, but in the dark and dirty 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, a shoulder of lamb went for seventeen cents, and a dozen eggs were eighteen cents; bread throughout much of the United States cost eight cents. If you had twenty-five cents, you had a meal.

soupkitchen

Even though pulp fiction had a shady reputation, many of these inexpensive magazines played host to some of the greatest authors of the twentieth century. Writers such as Agatha Christie, (Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple); Dashiell Hammett, (Sam Spade, the Continental Op); Elmore Leonard, (Get Shorty, 3:10 to Yuma); and Raymond Chandler, creator of private detective Philip Marlowe.

Of Marlowe, Chandler said, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything.” Here is the detective as lone wolf, as modern knight errant, a man unafraid to tilt at windmills in pursuit of what he sees as justice.

Skid Row Serenade was directly inspired by Chandler’s The Long Goodbye—specifically, the character of Terry Lennox, the alcoholic war hero who befriends Marlowe and who calls upon him to whisk him out of the country when Lennox’s estranged wife is murdered. The story is told from Marlowe’s point of view, which got me wondering: what would the story look like if it were told from Terry’s point of view? In order to get into that 1940s detective vibe, I listened to the kind of music Tony Leonard – my version of Terry Lennox – might listen to: Billie Holiday, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington. I immersed myself (as much as possible) in the culture of the 1940s, specifically the post-war era, when millions of armed forces personnel worldwide were being ‘demobbed’ and sent back to the everyday world they’d left at the beginning of the war. While I didn’t take up smoking again (I quit back in 2001) I did indulge in the cocktails Tony would have ordered: whiskey sours, champagne cocktails, martinis, and Raymond Chandler’s personal favorite, the gimlet.

What’s a gimlet? Half gin, half Rose’s lime juice. Shake over ice in a cocktail shaker; strain into a martini glass and enjoy. Trust me: it’s delicious.

Gimlet_cocktail

Something interesting happened once I sat down to ‘write Tony’. Maybe it was because of the music, or maybe it was because of the drinks, but I honestly felt as if I were channelling him. Every time I opened my laptop, it seemed he was there, dictating his story to me. All I had to do was take it down. This seemed to confirm something writing teacher Julia Cameron says: ‘writing isn’t about making it up; it’s about taking it down’. I certainly felt that way with Tony living in my head twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

I wanted Skid Row Serenade to have the feeling of an old-time pulp novel, including the snappy patter the genre has always been known for. I wanted it to be funny, but funny with an undercurrent of grimness. For example, Tony muses on his dead wife Janet’s sexual escapades as he flees Los Angeles for Mexico:

“[She] prefer[ed] instead an endless parade of stout young swains eager to fuck her brains out,” Tony says, after Janet has been found brutally murdered, her head beaten to a pulp with what we later find out is a high heeled shoe. “Well, they were out now.”

I wanted the book to have the feeling of a Chandler novel, but not as an intentional copy. Rather, I wanted Skid Row Serenade to read like something Chandler might have written, if he had chosen to write The Long Goodbye from a perspective other than Marlowe’s. There are certain passages that deliberately echo Chandler’s style. For example, Tony’s thoughts as he regards Los Angeles from Mulholland Drive, high above the city:

“Down there, people were crying, being beaten to within an inch of their lives, being disappointed and abandoned, having their bluff called, letting their hair down. Somebody was sitting in an empty room watching the pulse and flicker of the disenchanted neon and waiting for a moving bar of light to fall at a predetermined point along the dank and rumpled sheets of someone’s lonely bed. People were being crushed, being knifed, stabbed and shot; people were bawling their eyes out and people were sitting in a bar drinking themselves into oblivion. People were laughing, celebrating, eating, toasting, gasping, breathing, and dying, and all the while the luminous flesh of the palpitating city didn’t give a sweet goddamn.”

At times, Tony finds himself in down-at-heel bars and taverns, looking for some liquid comfort, most likely in a bottle of gin or bourbon. He’s well aware that his drinking habits are not normal, but he knows he is powerless to do anything about it. His frequent forays into less-than-salutary places and situations see him doling out his usual caustic wit:

“Here.” The barman came back with a bottle of Wild Turkey and a glass. […]“Anything else?” he asked.

“Eternal youth,” I said. “Good teeth. Strong bones. A will to live. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Did I leave anything out?”

The novel noir’s most pertinent distinction is a protagonist who isn’t a cop or detective, but who can instead be seen as either a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. The noir character is typically weak, morally corrupt, and self-destructive. If he has morals at all, they are likely his own, drawn from his view of the world; there is little in common with the laws or social mores of the larger world. Because the protagonist is himself a victim (Tony is a horribly damaged prisoner of war turned alcoholic) he has no choice but to victimize others in order to achieve the objective of his own personal end game. Bad things happen to – and around – the noir protagonist, who is sometimes an unwitting patsy and the author of his own destruction.

But it isn’t all bad news for Tony: there is a luscious and brilliant detective to whom he becomes very attached, and while having an alcoholic for a boyfriend isn’t exactly the stuff dreams are made of, Skid Row Serenade definitely has a happily-ever-after.

****

Now it’s your turn… For a free copy of any book from my backlist, share your favorite cocktail recipes. What really inspires your inner tippler? Tell me about the first time you had it, who made it, and why you love it so much. Does it include exotic or bizarre ingredients like wood, cereal, or vinegar? Does it have hallucinogenic properties, like absinthe or a Mickey Slim? Or does it simply fly you to the moon? Leave your reply in the comments.

 

 

Image Credits:

Image 1: ”Volunteers of America Soup Kitchen in Washington, D.C.” by Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum – Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum (53227(291), 06/00/1936, 27-0692a.gif). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: By The Delicious Life (Vodka Gimlet no. 5  Uploaded by admrboltz) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

8 Responses to “Down These Mean Streets with J.S. Cook”

  1. Su says:

    Oh I am so boring, but due to allergies I am unable to drink alcohol so I have to ask for non-alcoholic drinks like mocktails :( I have a friend who makes up different drinks for me, so I do not feel left out and once made a me pomegranate mojito mocktail and an iced fruit punch (a combination of passion fruit/mango/pineapple pulp/juice with ginger beer and lemonade, very delicious and refreshing)

    Thank you for the giveaway chance :)

  2. Oh YUM that mocktail sounds gorgeous!!! I bet it’s delicious icy cold on a hot summer day…

  3. Angela says:

    This coctail i had for the first time when going out with friends and it was a half price action so the perfect opertunity to try some coctails :)

    It is called: French Kiss Coctail
    30 ml Vodka
    15 ml Cointreau
    30 ml raspberries liquer

    Throw it all together and shake it ;)

    It is best served in a champagne glass. And if you want to drink it as a mix than you can add some sprite/seven-up to it.

    It is delicious.
    Thanks for this fun post and the giveaway chance.

  4. H.B. says:

    I don’t drink alcohol. I’ve never so much as had a wine cooler (which I’ve heard is delicious) or anything so I don’t really have a recipe. I do like to make tea and add honey and either lime or lemon on it (lime usually).

  5. Sara says:

    I’m not a heavy drinker of alcoholic beverages, and when I do drink it is never anything too fancy, but usually as simple as a Gin and Tonic with ice. I don’t remember the first time I had one, but I guess it was in my late teens. It’s a drink I associate with lazy summer afternoons or nights on the porch. I also like a few glasses of champagne, served cold on a summer afternoon in good company of family and friends, it puts me in a good mood. Neither drink requires a recipe, just open the bottle(s) and pour into a glass the amount wished for.

  6. Angela, I love the sound of that – especially the opportunity to try new cocktails! and the raspberry liqueur sounds delicious.

    H.B., tea with honey and lemon/lime is divine. It’s good hot or cold, any time of the year.

    Sara: Ah yes, champagne! Gosh, I do love me some champagne. (I’m beginning to sound lik ea real lush here. LOL)

  7. Dreamspinner Press says:

    Thank you for your comments everyone! The winner has been contacted.

    Happy reading!

  8. Thanks to everyone at Dreamspinner and to everyone who read the blog and commented! Here’s wishing you all a wonderful Monday. :-)

Leave a Reply