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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Skidrow Serenade: Writing Back at Chandler

Alcoholic war hero Tony Leonard sees private investigator Edwin Malory being mugged outside a seaman’s mission in downtown Los Angeles. Tony takes Malory home and gives him clean clothes, a meal, and a hot shower. Tony discovers that Malory was hired by the very wealthy industrialist Linton Vanderbilt Stirling —father of Tony’s estranged wife Janet— to investigate him, because he suspects Tony is drinking away his wife’s personal fortune and contributing to her dissolution. 
Later that evening, Tony goes over to the Stirling mansion to see Janet, whom he suspects is ‘entertaining’ a gentleman caller in the poolside guest house. He finds Janet naked, dead, and tied up with ropes, her skull beaten in by some unknown instrument. Horrified, Tony flees the scene, knowing that as her husband he is the number one suspect in the killing.
Tony flees to Mexico where he meets Seeker, a Mexican federal agent with an interest in Stirling’s business activities south of the border. Seeker offers to help Tony disappear by faking his own death. Tony agrees, and with the help of some Haitian voudou, ingests curare, a deadly poison which, in lower than lethal doses, can give the appearance of death. Mexican authorities pronounce him dead and a coffin full of rocks is buried. Before he “dies” Tony writes a letter to be given to Edwin Malory, announcing his supposed suicide.
Tony’s suspicions are aroused when Seeker suggests he flee to the Yucatan. En route to the airport Tony learns that a mysterious blonde, identifying herself only as Tony’s sister, gave Seeker twenty thousand American dollars to make sure Tony gets to “where he’s going”—and stays there. The only trouble is Tony doesn’t have a sister.
He returns to Los Angeles where his appearance is anticipated. In Janet’s guest house he finds a man’s ring, wrapped in tape and rather obviously hidden in a bottle of Scotch. He takes the ring to Edwin Malory who is relieved to see Tony alive but annoyed that Tony allowed Ed to assume he’d died in Mexico. He welcomes Tony back by taking him to bed. They make love and Tony spends the night.
Ed reveals Janet had been beaten with the stiletto heel of a woman’s size six dress shoe. “You don’t just beat somebody’s face in,” he says, “unless you’re trying to erase them. There had to be a lot of hate, maybe a lot of resentment, or both. Whoever did that to Janet must have hated her guts.”

Ed and Tony visit Janet’s sister Deborah, who introduces them to Allan Layton, a Hollywood leading man with whom she is presumably having an affair. Later that same night, Layton approaches Tony in a bar with information about Janet’s murder. He doesn’t want to talk to the police, fearing the disclosure will negatively impact his career. Tony directs Allan to his house. Some fifteen minutes later, Tony arrives to find Layton sitting in his parked car, the handle of an ice pick protruding from the nape of his neck. Layton is very dead.

A few weeks later Tony is surprised by a visit from Pepe, the Stirlings’ Chilean houseboy, who reveals that he tied Janet up the night she died, but didn’t kill her. Later that evening, Tony’s house is ransacked. Ed is viciously attacked in his home, beaten, and left for dead. Tony’s inquiries lead him to a nightclub singer, Lydia Race, who suggests Ed’s attackers were working for local mob boss Vic Ramirez.  Ramirez has been making smut films with the help of Hollywood heartthrob Allan Layton.

Meanwhile, Tony’s search efforts lead him to Donald Whitlaw, a shell-shocked war veteran and killer-for-hire, whom he suspects might have murdered Janet, and who bears a long-standing grudge against Tony. Deborah makes a false confession, after which he confronts her about the size-six dress shoe found at the site of Janet’s murder. Deborah produces the matching shoe—“Designed by Adam Culpepper,” she said. “Five hundred dollars a pair”—and admits that she beat Janet’s skull in with the shoe, post-mortem. Later, Tony learns Allan Layton and Vic Ramirez were business partners. Tony questions Layton’s brother, and learns that Ramirez might have had him killed because Layton was trying to back out of their business arrangement.
Tony suspects Seeker is involved in drug smuggling with Linton Stirling.  Seeker kidnaps Tony, taking him out to the desert to shoot him, but he deliberately fouls the final shot by deflecting the bullet off a rock. Later, he comes back and retrieves Tony and takes him to the hospital, where he reveals that he’s been working deep undercover to take down a cross-border narcotics ring. Allan Layton was the man who was in the guest house with Janet the night she died, and he was the one who killed her on Vic Ramirez’s orders.  Ed takes Tony home and they make love, putting to rest the old ghosts of crime and murder.
In literary theory, the practice of ‘writing back’ occurs when an author writes a literary ‘reply’ to an earlier and often classic text. Often, this new text is intended to argue some aspect of the original, by writing the author’s own version of the story. My upcoming novel, Skidrow Serenade, is a deliberate response, then, to the original text – in this case Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye.

Chandler’s novel presents the shell-shocked alcoholic Terry Lennox as a sad, beaten man whose life has gone seriously off the rails after his wartime imprisonment and torture by the Gestapo. In Chandler’s novel, it is Marlowe, not Lennox, who is the hero – Marlowe, not Lennox, who solves the crime and ferrets out the truth of Terry’s assumed identity. I found myself wondering what Terry’s version of events would be, if the story were told from his point of view – if he and not Marlowe was the hero.
I had originally intended Skidrow Serenade to be a novella, but the more I got to know Tony Leonard’s character, the more interested in him I became. I didn’t see him as a weak, downtrodden man, but one whose life was singularly self-directed. Like Terry Lennox, Tony Leonard had been tortured while a prisoner of war. He understands the role this plays in his ongoing drunkenness and dissolution: “Most people, if given half a chance, will discover their own path to Perdition regardless of outside help – or outside interference.” Tony is in charge of himself and his own life. He knows he is an alcoholic; he knows why. Like his counterpart and eventual love interest Ed Malory, he rejects outsiders who attempt to tell him how to live. He alone dictates the course of his life. It’s Tony/Terry, not Malory/Marlowe who is the hero of the piece – Tony who investigates and eventually solves the murder. I didn’t want to show Tony as a down-and-out drunk who doesn’t have sufficient brain power to count on his own fingers. Despite his disease (alcoholism) Tony is clever, quick-minded, and more able than most to put two and two together.
He is, however, a martyr to the bottle, and he knows it. He is the first to admit this: “There was so much I needed to say to him, so much I didn’t get to say. I’m sorry, I thought. I never meant to involve you, but I didn’t know where else to go. How to tell someone like Malory that you’ve got no friends, that you never made any because at bottom you’re just no good? You’re no good.” Tony is fully aware of what his drinking has cost him – his moral backbone – but unlike Chandler’s Terry Lennox, he is willing to pull himself up out of the gutter.
I wanted Tony and Ed to meet under unusual circumstances, rather than at a club or a bathhouse. Tony makes reference to a Turkish bath “I toyed briefly with the idea of stopping in at Nero’s, a Turkish bath near Wilshire but I didn’t have the energy and anyway—I wasn’t sure I had the stamina for pretty boys” but he and Ed meet and begin their relationship at a street mission, where Ed is being mugged by three of the shelter’s inhabitants. It’s Ed who’s drunk, not Tony; it’s Ed who has to be taken care of, who has to be fed and cleaned and sent home in some of Tony’s clothes. Even though Ed isn’t portrayed as weak or broken, he is needy. He needs Tony to help him. This elevates Tony/Terry from the role of drunken slob to hero.
Tony is courageous in love, as well. He suspects he might not be the lover Ed needs or wants, but pursues him anyway. He makes stupid mistakes (deciding to ‘die’ in Mexico instead of telling Ed the truth) but he is willing to make amends for them. He believes in love, in its power to heal even the most broken man.


JS Cook was born and raised on the island of Newfoundland, somewhere in the north Atlantic, between Iceland and eternity. Her biggest influence was her Scottish grandmother, who fed her whisky and scones, and encouraged her use of the word ‘bawheid’.
As a young child, she was abducted by the faeries and spent a great deal of time wandering around in the woods by herself. Animals are her favourite people, but now and then a human slips through the net and must be dealt with in JS Cook’s swift and merciless fashion. In a previous life she was a superhero(ine) with the power to be invisible when no one was looking at her. Her past literary works include War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Wuthering Heights, the Canterbury Tales, and the Bible. She has yet to receive recognition for any of these. She once roamed around Dublin for seven hours. She maintained she wasn’t lost, but merely ‘looking around’.
She has been married to her best friend for 27 years. They live with their spoiled rotten dogter, Lola, in St. John’s, the oldest city in North America and the best place to have cod tongues for lunch. 

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