Friday, December 19, 2014

GOT PULP!

GOT PULP?

I was asked the other day to explain what makes pulp storytelling different from other types of fiction. My kneejerk reaction was to claim, it’s hard to define, but I know it when I read it – which does little to answer the question. I’ve since thought a lot about what constitutes the pulp style of storytelling, which engenders both excoriating scorn from critics and fanatical devotion from acolytes.

By now, most readers know the term pulp was coined in reference to the thousands of inexpensive fiction magazines whose heyday spanned the 1920s through the 1950s. Printed on cheap wood pulp paper, the pulps were typically 7 inches by 10 inches in size, 128 pages long, and sported eye grabbing, luridly colored covers, and ragged, untrimmed edges. Today, the original pulps are more often collected for their gaudy covers than for the fluctuating quality of the words in between. 

At the height of their popularity there were hundreds of pulp magazine titles gracing the newsstands each week. The demand for stories was as voracious as the pay per word was cheap. To make a living, a writer selling stories to the pulps had to be a word machine, churning out prose for a quarter to a half cent per word. The result of this constant demand was a straightforward, often formulatic, style of writing designed to entertain a vast audience of everyday, hardworking, folks looking for vicarious thrills and chills to escape the humdrum of their daily lives.

The pulps were also a refiner’s fire for many writers who are household names today – Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Louis L’Amour, John D. MacDonald, and others. To these men belonged the battered typewriters and hard drinking tropes, which themselves have become a cliché within the public conscious.

There were also giants of the pulp writing field whose names are not as familiar, but whose characters have gone on to become iconic examples of pop culture – Robert E. Howard’s Conan The Barbarian, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, Walter B. Gibson’s The Shadow, Lester Dent’s Doc Savage, to name just a few, all started in the pulps. We all know their famous creations, but most would look blank if asked who the creators were.

The downside of the insatiable demand for stories to fill the pages of pulp magazines was it also guaranteed much of what was published was slapdash gruel of little to no lasting impact. It is this explosion of dross that gives pulp dismissing critics a place to hang their clichéd hats. However, the beating heart of the true pulps – the best of the stories and characters born within their pages – has shined for almost a century of popular culture. 

Pulp has experienced a number of waxings and wanings over the decades, all leading to the current eruption of the New Pulp movement. Pulp in this new millennium encompasses not only a resurgence in reprints of the best of the original pulp tales, but new characters and stories, created in the pulp style, by some of the best up and coming scribes, developing their writing chops in the same way as their counterparts once did in the original pulps – check out Barry Reese’s Lazarus Gray or The Rook series, Derrick Ferguson’s Dillon tales, or my own Fight Card series for just a few examples.

So, what is this pulp style of writing? What makes literature snobs turn up their noses at the mention of pulp? 

First and foremost, pulp storytelling is for the masses. It is accessible, not particularly deep or thought provoking, and gets to the heart of a tale with simple, descriptive, action filled words. It is storytelling at its purest, capturing the imagination, taking the reader outside of themselves and dropping them into a world of fantastic slightly larger than life characters.

A lot of what passes for thriller writing today, even those on the bestseller list, are pulp inspired, yet for me they miss the point, consisting of bloated filler designed to turn books into 400 – 700 page doorstops under the false assumption more is better.  If you’re like me, you don’t have the time or patience to plow through 700 pages to read a story better served in 300 pages – or far less.

The writers who wrote for the pulp magazines back in the day understood this.  Their audience wanted stripped down yarns filled with action, twists and turns, all with the point of providing reader satisfaction.

In the 1930s, Lester Dent, creator of Doc Savage and The Avenger, famously shared his Master Fiction Plot formula for a 6,000 word pulp tale, which he claimed had never failed him. If studied in depth (http://tinyurl.com/94vtmh), it provides a concise insight into what makes a successful pulp-style story.  To break it down, I refer to iconic author Michael Moorcock, who summarized Dent’s formula to aspiring authors stating, "Split your six-thousand-word story up into four fifteen hundred word parts. Part one, hit your hero with a heap of trouble. Part two, double it. Part three, put him in so much trouble there's no way he could ever possibly get out of it...All your main characters have to be in the first third. All your main themes and everything else has to be established in the first third, developed in the second third, and resolved in the last third."

I love the lyricism of Jane Austen and Dickens, the thought provoking works of Thoreau, Asimov, and Neville Shute, and the expansive panoramas painted by Larry McMurtry and Hammond Innes. My reading vistas are as wide as they are eclectic, but pulp always provides the spice and zest that keeps my readers synapsis firing on all cylinders. Pulp is fiction stripped to its essentials, storytelling in its most raw and powerful form. It is engaging, enigmatic, and always entertaining.  

Have you been pulped lately?

PULP TRACKS!

PULP TRACKS!

With the explosion and growing popularity of the New Pulp movement, the vast changes in the world of publishing have also made it possible – and profitable – to reprint collections of many of the original pulp series, which once graced the newsstands behind lurid, eye-catching covers.

Revered pulp historian Ed Hulse has stated there were over 1,100 individual pulp magazines published during the pulp heyday from the ‘20s through the ‘50s, with each of those titles published either weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly, with each containing ten to a dozen stories in each issue. I’d need a calculator and a slide rule to do the math, but let’s just say that’s a lot of pulp…

For the new reader curious as to what the fuss is all about, it can be hard to know where to start.  The problem with the hug mass of original pulp and even the large number of current reprints is much of it is dross – forgettable filler published simply to feed the voracious demand.  There is also a lot of average tales – readable, but not strong enough to explain the lasting legacy of pulp.

However, there are also – certainly – enough stories and characters with the spark of brilliance to justify that lasting legacy. The problem for the discerning pulp neophyte is to be able to pluck it from the current swirling pulp whirlwind.

While other pulpsters will wax eloquently about the justifiable popularity of the hero pulps – featuring such characters as The Shadow, Doc Savage, The Avenger, Tarzan, and more – my own expertise and enjoyment comes from those pulps featuring stories from the high adventure genre. The reigning pulp titles in the field were Argosy, Adventure, and Short-Story. Collections of tales from these magazines highlight the best of the best in both authors and characters. For a reader looking to escape into thrilling adventures set in faraway locals, here are a few solid starting points.

Black Dog Books, one of the premiere publishers of pulp reprints in beautifully bound trade-paperbacks, has produced two volumes (with more to follow) featuring The Best of Adventure magazine. Edited by Doug Ellis, these collections include stories by the best of the best – Talbot Mundy, H. Bedford-Jones, Rafael Sabatini, and many other writer who were once household names. Volume 1 contains one of the single greatest pulp adventure yarns, Talbot Mundy’s, The Soul of a Regiment, which never fails to give me chills every time I read it. 

The second volume of The Best of Adventure includes The Getting of Boh Na-Ghee, a cracking story set in Burma by Gordon MacCreah. Known for the verisimilitude of his African set stories, MacCreah’s expertise has been captured by another top notch pulp-centric publisher, Altus Books, who have reprinted a two volume collection featuring MacCreah’s most popular character Kingi Bwana. 

The Lost End of Nowhere: The Complete Tales of Kingi Bwana Volume 1 and Unprofitable Ivory: The Complete Tales of Kingi Bwana Volume 2 unleash the magic behind the words, “Anything can happen in Africa!” Big game hunter, trader and safari guide King, known all over the Dark Continent as Kingi Bwana, together with his two loyal companions – the deadly Masai warrior Barounggo and the wizened, cunning Hottentot Kaffa – battle slave traders, ivory poachers, gold smugglers, arms traffickers, evil witch doctors, and secret societies in the savanna and jungle of Central East Africa. These stories, tempered by the author’s firsthand knowledge of Africa transport the reader to a world long vanished.

I’ve only just discovered the tales of Kingi Bwana myself, but I enjoyed and was fascinated by every tale. I also found them surprisingly modern in the main character’s attitude and treatment of indigenous Africans and scorn for the trappings of the British overlords. 

Some of my personal pulp favorites are the Foreign Legion stories from the battered typewriter of Theodore Roscoe.  Altus Press has produced four volumes to give us The Complete Adventures of Thibaut Corday and the Foreign Legion. The stories in Better than Bullets (volume 1), Toughest in the Legion (volume 2), The Heads of Sergeant Baptiste (volume 3), and The Kid and the Cutthroats (volume 4) are all narrated by the ancient and querulous Foreign Legion campaigner Thibaut Corday. Corday spends his days smoking and drinking in small French cafes until he is nudged into spinning another fantastical yarn about his life as a Legionnaire. One of my favorites is The Wonderful Lamp of Thibaut Corday, a variation on the story of Aladdin’s lamp which had me on the edge of my seat.

There are many other pulp reading choices out there, but the above titles will give anyone a feel for the genre along with a quickening of their pulse and a longing for adventures of their own.

WHIPLASH WRITING!

WHIPLASH WRITING!

I’ll get this clear upfront – I saw the movie Whiplash recently and thought it was brilliant. The story of Andrew (Miles Teller), a budding jazz drummer at a prestigious New York music school and his sadistic mentor, Terrence Fletcher (an amazing J. K. Simmons), was a riveting, disturbing, rollercoaster ride coming off the rails to the beat of persistent percussion. By the final explosive twist and amazing musical finale, I came away emotionally rung out and in awe.

My column today, however, is not about the brilliance of the film or even to convince you to see it, but to talk about the pervasive use of the F-bomb and a raft of other explicatives and sexually explicit references, which almost undermined the power of Whiplash’s story.  There are so many people to whom I would like to recommend this film, but can’t do so in good conscious.

This isn’t about me being a prude. I was able to get beyond the language and take away from the film a poignant experience. Still, every time J.K. Simmons’ character Terence Fletcher began another explicative laden rant, the writer in me wanted to scream because the profanity was stealing away the destructive power of the screed.

Anyone who ever attended an Eddie Murphy concert in the eighties came away realizing that by the time Eddie had dropped the 800th F-bomb, the word itself held no power – it had become innocuous and weak. Profanity used in public at the top of the lungs became the go-to escape for every standup comedian whose funny lines were falling on deaf ears. Apparently the theory of the times was even a lame joke is funnier if you use the F-bomb three times.

What I believe is profanity is lazy writing. It is camouflage for the weak expression of thought, grist, and point. I’m not standing on my soapbox here without experience. I was once as guilty of anyone else of using a cacophony of explicatives in my writing.

My argument for using profanity was it was the way people talked. An F-bomb was a shorthand way of showing somebody was upset. How could you be sure the reader got your point if you didn’t make it clear by exploding an explicative?

Frankly, all of those arguments are bull****, er, excuse me, invalid. Dialogue in a novel or a screenplay, no matter how natural it sounds, has nothing in common with how we speak in real life. Everyday dialogue is filled with broken sentences, filler words, ers, uhhms, and inconsistencies…all made whole via physical gestures, tone and intonation. All of which goes out the window when writing tight, meaningful, dialogue in a screenplay or novel.

If you can’t convey emphasis or emotional upset in your writing without resorting to profanity, you are shortchanging your reader. You are also losing the opportunity to enrich and deepen your characters, to layer the narrative of your writing. By not relying on easy, pervasive, profanity to hide lame dialogue, you are forced to find better, more creative ways for your characters to interact, making your pages come alive.

When I had the opportunity twenty years later to rewrite the manuscript of my profanity sprinkled first published novel, Citadel Run, in preparation for republication as an e-book – under the title Hot Pursuit – I made a conscious effort to excise the explicatives.  In doing so, I found my skills as a writer had sharpened over the intervening years. It was easy to dump the F-bombs, and other emotionally blunting profane words, in favor of incisive cutting phrases, which gave a new sparkle and ingenuity to my dialogue.

I am not maintaining there is no place for profanity in your work. In Whiplash there is a seminal scene where the young drummer, Andrew, is emotionally forced over the edge and attacks his mentor. As he is dragged away, Andrew’s mental and physical state is such that cogent thought is almost impossible. As Andrew throws the only two words he can conjure – F*** you! F*** you! – at his nemesis, the audience feels the pain behind those words and instinctively understands they would be screaming the exact same thing under the circumstances. The explicatives hit like a one two punch, which would have been even more devastating had the F-bomb not been launched over and over throughout the film’s earlier scenes.

Bottom line: Less is more. When you are tempted to cheat yourself and your reader by using profanity as a crutch, dig down and find the real voice of your characters. Save those explosive words as if they were the very last grenades in your arsenal. Use them only when they will have the devastating effect of an atom bomb and not the wasted effort of a wildly sprayed machinegun.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

MYSTERIOUS PEEVES!

MYSTERIOUS PEEVES!

Recently, I wrote about the early mystery collaborative known as DAPA-EM, an Amateur Press Association publication consisting of (at its height) thirty-five separate mystery newsletters bound together and sent out to members every two months. While much of the conversation within DAPA-EM’s pages was of literary merit, there was also a lot of fun nonsense about pet peeves within the mystery genre.

Some of these irritations revolved around cover art. It was collectively decided in a tongue-in-cheek manner to never to read books with a swastika on the cover (which always seemed to indicate over the top purple prose within the pages). Impaled fruit covers also came in for a share of mockery during a time period in which they abounded, although there were one or two contributors who felt these spectacularly uninventive covers were actually collectible. I have no doubt the current popularity of cats on covers and bad, repetitive, generic, clip-art covers would be eviscerated if DAPA-EM was still publishing.

The standard clichés of mystery writing were often whacked around like errant tennis balls with a sum zero effect of making any of them disappear. In fact, like tribbles on the Enterprise, genre clichés have a way of multiplying exponentially – not only are many of the old ones still around (writers still put silencers on the end of revolvers, and there is still an ever growing roll call of defective detectives), but many new clichés have also been established.

Quite naturally, different readers are more accepting of some genre conventions than others. What doesn’t bother one mystery fan can drive another to fits of apoplexy (such as silencers on revolvers). However, aside from the aforementioned S-on-Rs, here are a few of clichés in the current incarnation of the mystery genre guaranteed to make me personally throw a book across a room – which, apparently, is frowned upon in the middle of a bookstore.

Before I begin, I need to make it clear, I’m going to overlook cat mysteries with cutesy titles, dog mysteries with cutesy titles, and mysteries with recipes, since I don’t want to get the dangerous folks who enjoy them and buy them by the barrow load mad at me.

Instead, let’s start off with serial killers…especially brilliant, evil, serial killers who are smarter than the broken down, anguished, detectives who are the only ones available to chase them. I am so done. Hannibal Lecture is the standard. Val McDermid, in particular, and one or two other scribes get a pass because they are brilliant writers who manage to take the cliché and twist it into something new and frightening. In general, serial killers are drab, boring, sick, sordid, and screwed up. Yes, they exist, but there aren’t enough of them to go around (thank goodness) for every mystery to contain one – especially now Dexter has killed off four season’s worth before HBO killed Dexter. The other issue here is the attempts to make serial killers more and more horrible and scary by making their murders more and more depraved. Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! Stop describing in great detail killers carving off faces and desecrating corpses. Enough!

Parker has Hawk. Elvis Cole has Joe Pike. Rafferty has Cowboy (if you don’t know who the last duo are then do some research – you’re in for a treat). Beyond those three sets of characters, let’s have no more invincible psycho partners for the hero to turn to when he doesn’t want to do his own dirty work because of his moral code, or needs somebody to haul his cookies out of the fire. 

Terrorists…especially brilliant, evil, terrorists. See serial killers above for further. If I see the word terrorist on a book, I immediately put it down before it explodes. These books are particularly dangerous if the hero is a burned out, disgraced, agent who nobody believes, and the heroine is statuesque and wears glasses to show how brilliant she is. 

Moving on … 

Out of control Sherlockian deductive reasoning. Sherlock is brilliant. However, he is the only character who should be allowed to deduce a killer’s identity from his hat size and a butt print left behind on a damp park bench. Stop giving us deductive savants who solve crimes by their esoteric knowledge of sixty-seven types of bananas while displaying the social skills of a sociopathic chimpanzee with Tourette syndrome – no matter how high functioning.

Penniless private eyes with a drinking problem. It was a cliché back in the day. It’s worse than a cliché today. And while we are on the subject of private eyes, I’m totally over vampire private eyes, zombie private eyes, werewolf private eyes, and any other supernatural variation thereof. Simon Green, Jim Butcher, and Patricia Briggs et al. have mined this twist to death and – not to put too fine a point on it – beyond.

Computer hackers who can get into any computer anywhere, anytime, within thirty seconds. Aaaaaaagh! Even the North Koreans and the Chinese can’t do it with any kind of consistency. If they could, you wouldn’t be reading this because the Internet would be crashed, your money would be worthless, the world would be in chaos, and we would have new Asian overlords.

Rouge cops…We have enough problems with police accountability. Don’t get me started.

Enhanced surveillance video and digital photographs. Not even NASA could enhance the stuff I routinely saw as evidence. Most of it looked like Bigfoot in a snowstorm. If the pixels don’t exist, you can’t enhance a photo of the tattoo on a hand caught in the reflection of the rain spatter window of a bus driving by.

And what is with all the family angst in mystery fiction. Why does every cop have to have a bad marriage, horrendous relatives, or vicious ex-spouses? Also, the number of single parents with bratty kids who expect their mystery solving parent home on time to take them to ball games and parties is getting out of control. I don’t want to read about family torment for chapter after chapter, I want fictional detectives to do something clever, say something clever, catch the bad guy and save the world. If a fictional detective has a problem taking care of his/her life responsibilities maybe he should be the focus of a self-help book and not a mystery.

Here is a cliché that make me cringe from my toenails to the tips of my rapidly receding hair. Detectives who put their gun down because their partner is being held hostage with a gun to his/her head. The first time I worked with a new partner, we would always discuss what to do if he/she was taken hostage with a gun to his/her head.  It was always very clear. I was never going to put my gun down as it’s the best way to get us both killed. If my partner had screwed up bad enough to be taken hostage with a gun to his/her head, they had less than five seconds to make a move to give me a better shot or I was taking the one I had available. This cut both ways. If I was the one who screwed up, it was up to me to unscrew the situation and give my partner a better chance. Welcome to the real world folks.

So there’s the tip of my mystery peeve list. I love the mystery genre, but I have a curmudgeonly list long enough to fill another couple of columns. I bet you do as well, so feel free to leave your pet mystery peeves in the comments below.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

ELEMENTARY. MY DEAR APA!

ELEMENTARY. MY DEAR APA!

Back in the prehistoric times before the Internet – when dinosaurs roamed the earth, the West was wild and the East was still the mysterious Orient – mystery fandom wasn’t a simple matter of keeping abreast of daily blog updates and Yahoo group digests…it had to be earned.

I’m not kidding…

In 1973, DAPA-EM (which stood for Elementary, My Dear APA – don’t ask, because I don’t know the origin of the name) became the first and only APA (Amateur Press Association) devoted to the mystery genre. 

APAs are limited membership groups whose members produce copies of their amateur magazines, which are then sent to an Official Editor. The Official Editor then collates the magazines, mails them to the members, keeps track of the APA’s finances (dues to cover mailing expenses), maintains a waiting list of contributors, and makes sure current contributors meet the requirements for minimum activity – which in the case of DAPA-EM was four pages of mystery related information or research (three of which had to be original material) every four months. Since issues were gathered and sent out every two months, a contributor could miss only one issue before facing an inactivity deadline.

This was hardcore, chisel and stone, tape and paste, mimeograph machine, surreptitious Xeroxing at work, seat of the pants publishing…and it was probably the most fun I’ve ever had in the mystery genre.

DAPA-EM was originally founded with six contributors. By the time I joined in the late 70’s, DAPA-EM was up to its limit of thirty-five members with a half-a-dozen names on the waiting list.  For a number of years, I published my contribution, The Thieftaker Journals, full of reviews and explorations of – mostly – hardboiled detective fiction. In my November 1983 issue, I even had the honor of publishing a controversial story, The Oldest Killer, by Edgar Award winning author Dennis Lynds, which went on to much acclaim and cemented a friendship of many years.

Critical appreciation of the mystery genre was in its infancy during the early days of DAPA-EM. Several mystery newsletters, including Marv Lachman's The Mystery Lover's Newsletter and Al Hubin's The Armchair Detective had laid the groundwork fo DAPA-EM, but the pivotal works of the genre were still on the horizon. The first of these works to have lasting impact (and still sits in a place of honor on my bookshelves – as do the others) was the Encyclopedia of Mystery & Detection by Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler (who has now become the acknowledged professor emeritus of mystery research and criticism). Al Hubin’s ambitious Bibliography of Crime Fiction followed in 1978, and John M. Reilly’s epic Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers came two years later in 1980. But before all these, there was the collaboration that was DAPA-EM 

And what a collaboration it was. Members of DAPA-EM spanned America with submissions also coming from Canada, Australia, and England. At the height of DAPA-EM’s existence, it was not unusual for two-thirds of the membership to show up, live and in person (except for George Kelley – an inside DAPA-EM joke), at the yearly Bouchercon mystery convention. There is no longer a DAPA-EM wild party room set aside in the convention hotel (we still can’t talk about some of the scandals), but just a few weeks ago, I attended the 44th incarnation of Bouchercon in Long Beach where I crossed paths with several long time DAPA-EM friends.

While the reviews and articles, which made up the bulk of most DAPA-EM entries, were interesting, it was the exchanges in the letter pages where gold and friendship was to be found. Here tales of booking experiences, convention antics, personal travels, and personal lives abounded – much in the same way the connections made in the Campfire section of the revered pulp Adventure raised that magazine to a level of reader connection above all others.

DAPA-EM contributors were a family and, like any such grouping, there were dysfunctions and arguments – both personal and literary. Sometimes, it could get ugly, and once or twice the heat from the pages could be felt through the mailing envelope. Rabid Mets fans and baseball had nothing on the contributors of DAPA-EM and the mystery genre.

Those upsets, however, were minor glitches now lost to the winds of time. More importantly, through the pages of DAPA-EM, I established cherished friendships, acquaintances, and contacts, which have continued across the decades and are still viable today. A number of DAPA-EM contributors are no longer with us, and while I may only hear occasionally – usually through the wonders of Facebook – from my buddies Bill Crider, Cap’n Bob Napier, Art Scott, and others still on this side of the sod, those early days of writing, publishing, and sharing of our love for the mystery genre still bind us together.

Every two months when my copies of the magazines bound into DAPA-EM arrived in my mailbox – usually after a frantic rush to get my own entry finished, collated, and submitted – I knew I was in for hours of enjoyment, spending time learning about new books and writers in the genre I loved, and catching up with thirty-four of my best friends in the world of mystery – many of whom have gone on to successful writing careers.

Work and commitment are needed to keep up with a semi-monthly publishing schedule of even a small publication. Original research and writing had to be done aside from the dexterity needed with glue sticks and those old fashioned things called typewriters. DAPA-EM not only represented the best of the mystery genre, it also represented a massive collective effort on the part of its contributors. 

In February 2011, after 216 issues, DAPA-EM gave up the ghost to the siren call of blogs and social networking. I love physical books, but I’ve shifted to mostly (only mostly) e-books with ease. However, I still miss DAPA-EM, the work it entailed and the never to be had again rewards it provided. I recently read through some old issues and marveled and the breadth of knowledge still contained there.

What do you say, Bill…Art…are any of us crazy enough to resurrect DAPA-EM for a final retrospective/tribute issue? Just kidding – seriously, just kidding… 

Monday, December 15, 2014

EBENEZER ~ A HARDBOILED CHRISTMAS CAROL

EBENEZER ~ A HARDBOILED CHRISTMAS CAROL

Bob Marley was dead to begin with.  I don’t know why that thought entered my head, but it may have had something to do with the radio station playing reggae on Christmas Eve.

I was in my office in the Star Building overlooking what had once been a thriving amusement park called Jungle Land.  It was now deader than disco, and had been for years.  Where Jungle Land once stood, there was now a monstrosity that housed not only city hall, but also a huge concert auditorium, a dinky concert forum, and a rat warren of other offices.  A typical story of city officials getting together to waste sixty-five million tax dollars on the effort, all in the name of culture.

The structure was a four story building in a city where only two story structures could be built.  It was a cubist, architectural eyesore, in a city where all other buildings were required to have a Spanish-style motif.  So, it was sixty-five big ones spent for an edifice that broke every standard the city had ever established.  It wasn't even decorated for Christmas.  

The way this project had been ramrodded through the city council, I wouldn't doubt there's a body or two doing the concrete boogie in the foundation. Intimidation and greed can move mountains a hell of a lot quicker than faith.  Somebody ought to start an investigation.  But not me.

No. Not me.

I'm a private eye, but my heart isn't in the game anymore.  I'm an ex-cop, an ex-husband, an ex-altar boy, and an expert at self-delusion.  I hadn't had a client in a month, my rent was overdue, my heart had a hole in it, and I was down to my last fedora.  So much for a merry Christmas.  Bah humbug.

I milked the last of the bourbon bottle into a tooth glass and swilled the swallow down.  I looked out the window at the Christmas lights in the surrounding hills and despised each and every one.

The door to my office swung open and a dame stepped in.  Trouble always starts with a dame.  This wasn't just any dame, mind you.  This was a dame named Tricksy Spillane – more trouble than a bitch in heat at a dog show.  

Tricksy had been my last partner before I was bounced from the force a couple of years prior to retirement.  She was a looker with legs going straight down to Hades, blond punked-out hair, and a libido that was kinkier than a permed afro.

She swayed over to my desk one hip at a time on spiked heels that defined cruel.  The rest of the voluptuous package was wrapped in a gray trench coat.  The collar was turned up and the belt cinched tight at her almost invisible waist.  There was a soft tinkling whenever she moved as if she were an android and some of her parts were loose.  In Tricksy's case, however, it was probably just her morals.

"Merry Christmas, Ebenezer."  Her voice was honey over a three day growth of beard – throaty and full of prurient promises.  It brought images of torch songs immediately to mind – silk stockings being dragged over smoke and whiskey and the bad lighting in a hundred cheap motel rooms.

"Bah humbug," I said.

"Sounds as if you've got a bad hairball there, Ebby baby.  Maybe you should be drinking Petromalt on the rocks instead of the rot-gut in your hand."

"Go scrooge yourself," I said, setting the bourbon glass down on the desk with a bang.  "What do you want coming 'round here anyway, Tricksy?  Can't you see I'm busy celebrating?"

"Busy wallowing in self-pity."

"What do you know about anything?  Get lost, why don't you?"

She hitched one of those marvelous hips onto a corner of my desk, leaned forward and placed the palms of her hands flat on my blotter.  The view down her trench coat was enough to make a grown man cry.  I brought my eyes up to her face.  Her baby blues smirked at me, knowing they'd caught me looking.  She breathed deeply and the tinkling noise made itself heard again.

"I'm on my way to a party, Ebenezer, but I wanted to stop by and give you a Christmas present."  She undid the belt at her waist and the trench coat fell open.  Underneath was a sliver of a black sheath covered in chains of tiny silver bells.  It was cut low on top and short on bottom to save on weight.  Two things appeared to be holding it up, and they were both pointed at me.

"You expecting an assassination attempt?" I asked.

"Humor was never your strong suit, Ebby."

"I’m more a polyester guy.  It's lighter than those bell chains you’re wrapped in."

She shimmied her gorgeous shoulders and the bells tinkled louder than a young boy in the morning.  "Polyester doesn't feel near as good with nothing on underneath."

I swallowed.  "There is that," I agreed.

She twitched the trench coat closed, disappearing all that lovely, bell-chained wrapped, feminine flesh, and treated me to one of her rare smoky laughs – an aphrodisiac for the ears.

"Ebenezer, you were a good cop once, but you allowed yourself to be foisted on Romeo's petard."  She reached into one of her trench coat pockets and pulled out a fresh pint bottle of bourbon.  She hefted the bottle in her hand, as if judging its weight, then set it in the center of my blotter.  "The facts were clear," she said.  "Romeo was a dirty cop.  He got what he deserved."

I shook my head at her, feeling the cold in the pit of my stomach.  This was something I didn't want to get into.  I felt like a tiger looking at a staked goat.  The tiger knows it's a trap, but it has to eat the goat anyway.  

I looked at the bottle and licked my lips.  "Romeo was my partner before you, and what he got was dead.  Whoever did it is still out there running around when he should be worm food.  Tonight the bastard is probably swilling wassail, eating plum pudding, and counting visions of sugar plum fairies.  So, it ain't such a merry Christmas, if you ask me."

"Stop it, Ebenezer.  You want to blame everyone but yourself for your troubles.  You ended up in this dump trying to follow the trail to the Romeo's killer.  You did everything you could, but in the end all you hit was a brick wall.  You were making too many waves.  Making the department look bad.  Telling everyone that if Romeo was crooked, there had to be somebody higher up more crooked."

I shrugged, feeling renewed anger.  "Internal Affairs did a whitewash.  It was a typical damage control action – fry the little fish, but let the sharks keep swimming."

"So you claim, but there was never any evidence."

I shrugged.

You couldn't let it go, though, so they found a way to expose you for the drunk you are, and you ended up out on your ear."

I didn't need this stuff.  "Romeo was the worst of cops and the best of cops.  He may have been on the take, but he was there when I needed him –"

"Yeah, yeah.  I heard it all before, Ebby.  He saved your worthless life.  So what?  He's dead and buried."

"He was my partner.  I owe him.  You of all people should know what that means."

Tricksy smiled and stood up.  "Yeah, I know what that means."  Her voice had softened.  "You were my partner also.  You taught me a lot when I was still wet behind the ears.  I owe you."

"What does that mean?"

"It means that while you've been sitting on your sorry butt scratching both your groin and a living by peeping in keyholes, I've been using what you taught me to dig up Romeo's killer."

I felt my bowels clench.

She smiled again.  Thin lipped this time.  She knew she'd hooked me good. "I know who killed Romeo,” she said.

Sweat broke out on my forehead and my heart was pounding my ribs hard enough to break them.  I finally forced out the one important word.  "Who?"

"I owe you a chance to figure it out for yourself, Ebby," she said.  "But it's going to be up to you to do the right thing."

"Why the games?" I asked.

"Why don't you just hang around and have a drink," she said, ignoring me. "Maybe it'll give you some inspiration.  Think about things, Ebby.  See if there isn't a way for you to square your past and change your future."

She started to walk out of the office, tinkling all the way.

"Wait," I said.

She turned and, just like Santa in the story, she lay a finger alongside her nose.  "Merry Christmas, Ebenezer.  Keep up the good fight."  

She rose up the proverbial chimney before I could stop her.  But then again I wasn't sure I wanted her stopped.  I'd learned a long time ago playing with Tricksy was like playing with a flamethrower – sooner or later you were going to get burned.  She was a good detective.  Maybe too good.  If she could prove who killed Romeo the prior troubles would be nothing compared to the coming storm.

I reached forward for the bottle she'd left on my desk.  The seal was already cracked, but I wasn’t going to deny Tricksy a swig or two off the top.  I sat there contemplating the bottle.  I tried not to think about the glad tidings Tricksy had brought my way.  Well, I had my visit from an angel.  Now, all I needed was a visit from three wise-guys to make my Christmas Eve complete.  If I'd had a manger handy, I'd have crawled in and gone to sleep.

***

When the cuckoo clock on my wall chirped one a.m., Tricksy’s bottle was three quarter's empty – even from an optimist's point of view.  I didn't remember falling asleep, but then they say your memory is always the second thing to go.

I jerked my head up from the desk when there was a loud clatter outside my office.  My door swung open and somebody ducked their head to enter.

"Santa?" I asked.

"Call me Ishmael," the black giant said.  Mickey Mouse would have envied his voice.  This guy was going to be a whale of a lot of fun.

"I'll call you whatever you want,” I said, thinking of the old joke about what you call a six hundred pound gorilla.  "But as I remember, the last time you and I did the nightstick and handcuff two-step, you were called Tiny Tim.  What's with this Ishmael stuff?  You convert to Muslim all of a sudden?"

The giant smiled and what light he wasn't blocking glinted off a gold front tooth.  He looked around the office.  "Ain't much," he said.

"You a critic for Decorator's Weekly?  You don't like the furnishings then make like a tree and leaf."

"How 'bout a drink for an ol' friend?"

"You were an informant, not a friend.  What do you want?"

"Come on, we be goin' for a sleigh ride."

"I'm not going anywhere."

Suddenly, Ishmael had my collar in one of the meat hooks he calls hands and I was upright and heading for the office door.  My head was swimming and I realized the bottle Tricksy left behind had been doctored.  I'd been slipped a mickey as easily as a john trying to pick up a Singapore whore.

I don't remember the sequence, but the next thing I knew, we were in Ishmael’s sled – a convertible Caddy held together by rust and luck.  The cold wind cleared my head, but my body felt too heavy to move.  I could only hope we were going on a sleigh ride and not a slay-ride.

The Caddy was light blue with dark blue trim.  There was also something familiar about it.

The streets were deserted and it didn't take us long to drive to the small strip mall where Romeo had been gunned down in a drive-by shooting.  It was at the top end of the same boulevard where the Star Building was located.  The shops here, however, were set back from the street.  There was a bookstore, a hair salon, a nail clip joint, an escrow company, and a tux shop.  

I knew now why the Caddy was familiar – the guy who blew Romeo's brains out had been driving one just like it.  A drive-by shooting using a Caddy convertible.  Who says crooks can't have class?

The windows of the stores were like blind eyes staring into my soul.  I don't mind telling you I was scared – feeling more like Halloween than Christmas.

Ishmael pulled the Caddy over and parked under one of the spreading oak trees lining the sidewalk.  Actually, it was not just one of the spreading oak trees.  It was the spreading oak tree.  The one under which Romeo had died.

"What are we doing here?"

"Consider me the Ghost of Christmas Past," Ishmael said.  "Christmas day, one year ago, Romeo be catching the bullet train right here at this stop."

"Tell me something I don't know."  I looked at the sidewalk and imagined I could see the remains of the chalk outline where Romeo's body had fallen.  I felt sick.  Romeo, Romeo, why for did thou die here, Romeo?

"You always be tellin' me I was your best snitch.  Ain't that right, Ebenezer?"

"It's still Mr. Ebenezer to you, punk.  But yeah, you was a good snitch.  If you couldn't get the information by asking somebody, you'd beat it out of them.  Pretty effective."

"But you're gone now, Ebby, and I still gots a jones to feed."

"Ain't Tricksy taking care of you?  I passed you on when I was bounced."

"Detective Spillane, she's a nice lady.  She don't talk mean like you – just dirty.  She even pay more than you."

"Then she's a fool."

Ishmael C-clamped my throat back against the headrest.  "Don't you be talking bad about Detective Spillane.  You hear?"

"Yeah," I barely managed to croak.

"She bin askin' questions 'bout who killed Romeo –"

"I already asked all the questions," I said, after Ishmael gave me my throat back.  "There aren't any answers."

"There be answers," Ishmael said.  "They just ain't the ones you want to hear.  You know who killed ol' Romeo.  You just don't want anyone else to know."

I wanted to ask, "What are you talking about?" but my head was swimming again and things went blank.

***

When the haze cleared, I was sitting propped against the glass door of the bookstore.  Ishmael didn't seem to be anywhere around.  I peered through the glass and saw a soft light in the bookstore's back room and it drew me like a moth to the flame.

Things were getting mighty weird.  Whatever Tricksy had slipped me was bringing on the paranoia big time.  I clawed my way to my feet and freed my forty-five from under my left pit.  The butt of it in my hand felt as warm and familiar as a lover's breast.

The address on the glass door was 2-B.  Maybe I could run, but I couldn't hide.  If I left now, the past would just catch up again later.  2-B or not 2-B? That is the question.  Whether it is better to suffer the cruelties and self-recriminations of a coward, or to take up my forty-five against whatever sea of troubles lay ahead and by charging straight ahead defeat them.

Stream of consciousness wasn’t one of my strong suits either.  I pushed open the door and bulled in hard and fast.  I took the corner into the back room like a whirlwind and was brought up short by a classy looking dame munching on milk and cookies.

"Ah, Ebenezer," she said, in a calm voice.  "I'm so glad you came.  It's Christmas time in the city, you know?  And I'm just checking my list to see whose been naughty or nice."

"Isn't that the big fat guy in the red suit's job?"

The dame laughed.  "Don't be silly."  She took a huge scroll off her desk.  It had SANTA'S LIST in big letters at the top.  She started unravelling it as if she were a kid playing with a toilet roll.  "Now, let me see – Ebenezer? Ebenezer? Hmmmm."  She slid on a pair of reading glasses, which had been bouncing on her remarkable pulchritude on a chain around her neck.

"Ah, here you are."  She squinted a little.  "Oh, my."

"Oh, my?"  I asked.

She turned to me, brushed the forty-five away, and walked into the main part of the store.  I felt foolish holding the gun.  I slipped it back under my pit for safe keeping and followed the dame.  She turned on a low light at the front desk. 

She was studying the list again under the light.  "Oh, my. Oh, my. Oh, my!"

This was getting monotonous.

"Can we cut to the chase here?"

"I'm surprised at you, Ebenezer.  You have been a naughty boy."

"Who are you?  My mom?"

"No, Ebenezer, I'm the Ghost of Christmas Presents."

"Give me a break.  And don't you mean the Ghost of Christmas Present?"

"Ebenezer, you little dickens.  You always were a nitpicker."

"Used to sell those nits by the bushel load.  Made for good off-duty income."

"Yes, it certainly did."

"Hey, I was only joking."

"No, you weren't, Ebenezer.  The nits you picked were everybody's little secrets.  Cops get to know lots and lots of secrets.  They get to know all the skeletons in all the closets, where all the fabled bodies are buried."

"It goes with the territory.  You find out stuff, you make an arrest –"

"Ah, Ebenezer, but that's where you became a naughty boy, isn't it?  Instead of arrests, you started making blackmail demands.   No, no toys for you from Santa anymore.  Just a lump of coal at the bottom of your stocking.  You crossed the line, Ebenezer.  Naughty, not nice."

I felt grim.  This broad was getting under my skin.  She knew too much for her own good, and mine.  My forty-five was hanging heavy in its holster.  "Make your point,” I said.

"The point is, Romeo wasn't the dirty cop.  You were.  Blackmail is such a sordid little sideline.  Romeo was on to you, wasn't he?  Partners are close, very close.  You couldn't keep something like blackmail hidden from him forever."

I felt as if I was sweating blood.  My head was starting to sway and fear was crawling out of my gut like an evil specter.  "You don't know what you're talking about!"

"Oh, yes I do, Ebenezer.  It's all here on Santa's list." The dame held up her scroll.  "All the naughty and nice things everyone does.  I check it twice and then forward a copy to St. Peter."

I gave the dame a quizzical look.

"What?" she asked.  "You didn't know Heaven subscribed to our mailing list?  Absolutely.  Helps keep the lines down at the Pearly Gates if St. Peter already has St. Nick's list.  There's a lot more riding on this naughty or nice stuff than just a new red bike or a lump of coal."

"Give me that list," I said.  I reached out to grab it, but the big dark opened up again and I fell in.

***

When I came around, I was back in my office sitting behind my desk.  I thought maybe I was looking in a mirror, but then I'd never installed a mirror in the client seat opposite my own.  I closed my eyes and shook my head, but I was still there when I looked again.

"What are you selling?" I asked. "Gold?  Frankincense?  Myrrh?"

"You don’t look as if you could afford anything, boy," my mirror image said. "In fact, you look like Hades."

"If you're me," I said, "then I don't look too bad."

"I'm you, alright, but I'm you before you became what you are now."

"Run that by me again.  Ain't you supposed to be the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, or some such nonsense?  I mean, let's keep the story straight."

"There may be no Christmases left for you, Ebenezer.  This might just be it."

I stared into my eyes and knew I was telling myself the truth.  I reached for the remains of Tricksy's bottle with a shaky hand.

"You drink too much," I said to me.

"What are you?  My friggin' conscience?"

"Exactly."

"Whoa," I said.  I was taken aback, despite myself.  After a second, I found the nerve to ask, "What about Ishmael and the weird dame with the list?"

"All parts of you – just like me."

"Get outta here."

"Ishmael is the brute in us come to the surface, the terror that helped us face down scumbags without succumbing to fear."

"And the dame with the list?"

"We were a good cop, because we were anal-retentive.  Always had her around to take care of the details."

I went for my forty-five, fear running my every emotion, but mirror image or not, real or imagined, Mr. Conscience was faster. He was there first and snatched the gat away.

"Come, come, Ebenezer.  It's Christmas Eve.  Is this any time for gun play?"  He threw the gun on the desk in front of me.  I went to grab it, but it was suddenly heavier than an anchor.

"What do you all want from me?"

"Redemption, Ebenezer.  Redemption."

I started to cry.  "There is no redemption.  I killed him.  My partner.  Romeo found out about the blackmail.  I couldn't let him tell the world I'd crossed the line, so I drove by and shot him like a punk in the street.  I planted evidence.  Made him the bad guy –” I blubbered on an on, the words flowing out in huge waves, gasping for breath between tears.  "But nobody knew.  Nobody knew.  Just me."

"Santa knew," Mr. Conscience said.  "He knows who's been naughty or nice."

"There is no redemption for what I've done," I said to me again.

"There is always redemption.  There is always forgiveness.  Especially, on Christmas Eve."

I looked at the weapon on my desk.  "You want me to smoke my gun?"

"There’s no redemption in suicide.  There has to be atonement."

"I can't carry this burden anymore," I said, yanking at the gun to pull it free from the desk.

"Ebenezer, calm yourself."

I stopped my frantic tugging.  There was something, something from the part of me that hadn't turned rotten.

"Don't fight yourself anymore, Ebenezer.  You know what is right.  You've strayed from the path, but you still know what is right.  You can still be forgiven – can get yourself back on the nice list – get a red bicycle for Christmas.

I sat back slowly in my chair and closed my eyes.

***

It was cold up on the roof.  I was sitting at the base of the bright neon star topping the Star Building.  Could there really be redemption?

I'd had alcoholic blackouts before.  I'd even seen the creatures brought on by the DTs.  But I'd never experienced anything like the hallucinations Tricksy's bottle of bourbon delivered.

I looked at the neon star.  It was Christmas.  I loved obvious symbolism.

Next to where I was sitting were the two items.  My forty-five and my cell phone.

Two choices.

Naughty or nice.

A red bicycle or a lump of coal.

Redemption through confession and atonement.  Or having St. Peter displeased when he came to my name on his copy of Santa's list.

I'd been a nice cop once.  I was a naughty ex-cop now.

Could there really still be a chance to get back on the right side of the list.

When I made it, the choice wasn't really that hard.

I picked up the forty-five and snuggled the tip of the barrel up against my temple.

I always did have a flair for the dramatic.

I held my pose for a second and then slid the magazine out of the gun butt, flipped out the bullets, and scattered them over the edge of the building like hard raindrops.

I watched them fall and listened to them ping off the concrete so very far below.

I walked back and picked up the phone.

I dialed the number of the detective squad room.  I knew it by heart. 

She answered.  I knew she would.

"Hello, Ebenezer," she said.

"Hello, Tricksy."

"I was beginning to worry," she said.  "I thought maybe I'd overestimated you."

"How'd you like to come over?" I asked.  "I have something to tell you."

"I hope it's more than Merry Christmas."

"Bring your handcuffs,” I said and hung up.  Tricksy was kinky enough to like the last part.

I looked out across the city.  Christmas lights twinkled with promise in the false dawn.

Merry Christmas, I said to myself, beginning to unwrap the gift of redemption.  And to all a good night.