Tag Archives: mystery novel

Interview with Author, Don O’Melveny on his novel, No City for Dreaming

28 Aug

Dear Readers, I wanted to share with you an exciting series of novel, by the author Don O’Melveny. Don is a screenwriter and former art gallery owner who has turned his lifelong fascination and love of Marilyn Monroe into three exciting novels. Last Year in the Life of Marilyn Monroe Volume One and Two and the most recent hit novel, No City for Dreaming is a historical exploration of what happened the night Marilyn Monroe died and of course, asserts that her death was no suicide, nor a mere accident. Kirkus Reviews, notoriously snarkey raved! RAVED! I’m a little jealous, but wanted to share this little gem with you.

“Hollywood noir mashed up with Cuban missile crisis-conspiracy theories and the shadowy death of Marilyn Monroe…makes for a dark and fascinating read.”

Actually, it is no small effort that landed Don here. He’s climbed to #10 in the Kindle charts recently, got over 3000 likes on his Facebook page, and 17,000 followers on Twitter. I’m a little more than jealous of his following.  Aren’t you?! But of course, I thought my friends who love historical fiction, noir, pop culture and Hollywood history might like to meet Don and hear all about his book.  Enjoy!

When did you first become aware of Marilyn Monroe? When did you know you wanted to write about her and her death?


Back in the early 80’s I was reading through some Marilyn material and stumbled into the mysterious  circumstances of her death.  The more I read up on it, I became convinced it would make a great premise for a story – and then developed the frame of the long-lost missing manuscript  around it to give the feel of a true story finally getting to be told.

What do you find most interesting about writing historical fiction?


What I find most interesting is digging down below the surface of what we’ve come to believe is true – or what we thought we knew.  Only to discover layers of hidden truth, facts, and untold details.  And I am particularly intrigued by the blending of history and fiction and the yield of another realm of truth that neither alone can present.

Are you ever frustrated by fans who are so loyal to Marilyn that they believe any exploration of her death is unfair to her image?

No… because it’s human nature to want to protect Marilyn in this way – not wanting her to be caught up in a messy murder scenario.  But personally, I think there are too many indicators that Marilyn had finally come to some hard-earned realizations in her life about herself and the life she  wanted to lead going forward (especially with Joe DiMaggio) that make her undoing by her own negligence far less appealing – and far less consistent with the inner strength I believe she had finally grasped.

You’ve written three books, two prequels and one novel, surrounding Marilyn’s life and death. What was the biggest challenge of the project? What has given you the most pleasure as an author?

The most challenging aspect was to compose a picture of Marilyn that wasn’t picture-perfect – and that wasn’t just about Marilyn.  An argument could be made that “The Last Year in the Life of Marilyn Monroe”  isn’t so much an examination of Marilyn’s life as it is a chronicle of so many interesting  dramas and personalities with Marilyn as the point of intersection. But to me, one must understand this historical context to ever fully appreciate why people did and behaved and acted as they did.  Character is action, and action is largely a result of cause and effect.  For me, Marilyn is the lens through which to see into a truly dramatically significant period of our country – that eventually culminated in Dallas with the assassination of president Kennedy.

What do you find most compelling evidence that her death was not an accident?

Without question the one compelling aspect pointing to murder – was really a ‘lack of evidence’.  Marilyn’s stomach contained no capsule sludge – as it must have to be consistent with a verdict of ‘accidental overdose’.  Because:  when victims die from overdose as the coroner found – this means the individual swallowed a lot of pills.  Which invariably results in the capsule sludge residing in the stomach.  Marilyn’s stomach had no so such refractile deposit.  This has never been explained.  Marilyn died from overdose – but not by oral ingestion.  It would have had to be administered in another way. And not by Marilyn.

How to Write a Mystery Novel…

16 Apr

I’ve got a few new tricks up my sleeve this week and thought I’d revisit a topic that I posted about early in the life of this blog. I’d love to hear from the aspiring and published writers on this topic. Enjoy! Brad

How to create a mystery novel?  Of course, the answer is to read as many mysteries as possible.  There are no better models than the classics by Raymond Chandler or the modern thrillers written by Martin Cruz Smith – who I unashamedly admit to be my lord of lords, creator of the Moscow-based detective, Arkady Renko, who first appeared in Gorky Park.  (I would sacrifice a very private portion of my anatomy if I could write a fraction as well as Mr. Smith can – the left one, in fact.)  You can even learn something from Janet Evanovich, who is more machine these days than writer.  Though her plots may be thin and repetitious, they still obey certain rules that a new writer can observe, internalize, and replicate.

I never wanted to write mysteries.  I wanted to write historical novels along the lines of those written by Mika Waltari (The Egyptian) or Gary Jennings (Aztec).  But no one wants to read these epics today, and certainly no publishing house wants to publish them either.  (All those pages – such expense!)  But historical mysteries are another matter.  Mysteries, you see, rarely take more than a month to solve in a novel’s timeline.  They are never epics.  I like to tell my students that mysteries are not like symphonies, with hundreds of musicians, but more like chamber pieces with eight musicians at most.

So my first mysteries were set in Ancient Egypt and Babylon respectively, allowing me to write about history, true, but using the format of a mystery and keeping the action fast, hard-hitting, and distinctly non-epic.  My books have been called, as a result, “pharaonic noir” and my detective, Semerket, the clerk of investigations and secrets, an “Egyptian Sam Spade.”

I like it best when a detective is a flawed man, like my poor, alcoholic Semerket, so that in addition to solving the mystery at hand he must also solve part of the mystery within himself. Like the protagonists in Martin Cruz Smith novels, they also become the seat of moral authority.  All around them are crimes, official corruption, and indifference, but they remain committed to the truth, regardless of how unpleasant it is.  No matter how dark or dismal they are, they become heroic in the process – and your readers root for their success.

As to the plot, I like to think of it as a beautiful, decorated plate – intact and gorgeous – that has been viciously smashed to pieces by the crime at its center.  It is your detective’s task to pick up the pieces one by one, to find how they once fit together.  He or she is constantly picking up this piece and that piece in random order, until by the end of the book the plate has been put back together – irretrievably damaged, of course, but whole.  And though the mystery is solved, the denouement (literally, “untying” in French) should always resolve itself in a melancholic mood – for by solving the crime we come to know how unpleasant and corrupt the detective’s (and our) world really is.

In a mystery, the secondary characters are almost as important as your detective protagonist, because they will mostly fall into two groups – the criminal(s) and the “information passers”.  Each of these characters has one of the pieces of the plate in their possession; for reasons of their own, usually because they are implicated in the crime, they are sometimes reluctant to surrender it.  Others may be too willing to give up their piece, their information, but they are suspect, too.  Not only must your detective gather these pieces, the clues, but also perceive why and how these people who surrender them to him are connected to the crime, and how valuable their information really is.

Now, having said this, I have to confess that my latest mystery, The Stand In, violates most of these rules.  There is no real central detective; instead, the readers themselves take on this role.  This is because the story is actually a “smoke and mirrors” mirage – a special effect, if you will, something that Hollywood does so well – and Hollywood is the location of the novel, after all.  What is the truth?  What is really happening?  It’s all there in front of your eyes, yet it seems like something else is happening altogether….  Some will figure it out right away, others must wait until the very last sentence in the book…which is last piece of that plate.

Much Prejudice, Little Pride, A review of P.D. James’ “Death Comes to Pemberley”

28 Feb

I have to admit, I am officially of two minds about P.D. James’ latest mystery novel, “Death Comes to Pemberley.”  Given James’ prodigiously wonderful way with a phrase, I expected that the book would be many things –  a parody, a tribute to, and an extenuation of the beloved novel written by Jane Austen, which is of course “Pride and Prejudice.”  But it turns out to be something more, and very much less, than that.  Disappointing in almost every way, it was still a book I laid down but reluctantly, and always looked forward to picking up again.

How’s that for fence-sitting?

 I’ve so far only glanced at the various sequels that the original book has engendered.  One of them began with a coach ride featuring an uncomfortable Elizabeth Darcy (nee Bennett), sore from having submitted to Darcy’s obviously gargantuan caresses on their wedding night.  Hastily I put that aside, thinking that Jane Austen quite rightly ended all her books at the altar, leaving the reader to only imagine what came next.  Then a friend loaned me a copy of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”, which proved such an unresisting imbecility that I could stomach only the first two chapters before I hurled it against the wall; all the good parts had been lifted bodily from the original, and all the bad were merely relentless accounts of zombie attacks on the village of Meryton and elsewhere.  Talk about one joke being run into the ground!

But with P.D. James, I hoped that a writer of wit and culture was going to give me something to care about.  Alas, no.  Though Ms. James makes a very good attempt to duplicate the arch sophistication of Austen’s prose, and comes up with some wonderful Regency witticisms of her own, this type of writing is largely abandoned after the first chapter.  However, it is more than fascinating to see how James comes up with a few trenchant alternate explanations about Elizabeth’s real motives in snaring Darcy and how her so-called friends (I speak now of the duplicitous Ms. Charlotte Lucas) cynically reacted to their wedding.  Come chapter two, however, and the novel becomes a dry, British procedural, with only flashes of Austen’s brilliance surfacing from time to time.

When I think of “Pride and Prejudice), I am instantly in a world of sunlight and clarity.  But James’ novel is much more like the dark, turbid world of the Brontes, wherein even the landscape is bleak and moody (not to say muddy.)  Pemberley, it seems, is not the graceful baronial estate as described in the first book; instead it borders a hostile woodland in which even ghosts walk and where, we learn, Darcy’s great grandfather committed suicide with his dog.  (Yes, you’ve read that right – with his dog.)  Perhaps James is correct in creating this mood and setting for what is, after all, a murder mystery.  But it is a mystery that concerns only the most peripheral of Austen’s original characters, and we are left to struggle as to why she would bother to write it at all.

In the original, the inevitability of Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s eventual union heats every page; here they barely have a scene together.   If you go in expecting to be reunited with one of the most famous pair of literary lovers in history, you will be greatly disappointed.  Though they have had two children since the last book ended, you may well ask yourself – how?  There is absolutely nothing between them.  Oh, they yearn and pine for one another, to be sure, but only in their fervid inner monologues.  One begins to furtively wish for Elizabeth to ache in her nether regions again, but this is obviously an area which P.D. James spurns.

And yet, and yet…I could never quite put it down.  Perhaps the novel will improve when I reread it.  James prose is always elegant, and she ties up all lose ends (resulting in a literary Gordion knot, if you want the truth); suffice to say my interest never flagged.  Next time, though, I will have shed all my hopes and assumptions and will be able to read “Death Comes to Pemberley” as just another excellent mystery from the estimable P.D. James.  But I will have also shed any hope of seeing my beloved Elizabeth and Darcy in this odd but oddly compelling book.

Have you read The Stand In? Available on Kindle, Nook, eBook, and iPad. Downloading the book is a great way to support this indie-author. 

Oh the Horror!

20 Feb

“Becoming a writer is not a ‘career decision’ like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You don’t choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accept the fact that you’re not fit for anything else, you have to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days.”  Paul Auster

I came across this quote the other day somewhere in my reading.  I don’t remember where I saw it, only that it hit me across the head like the proverbial sledge hammer.  It says, so elegantly and succinctly, what I’ve been trying to tell my students in every one of my writing classes; that writers are born, not made.  And I just have to write about that.

You can learn all the techniques for composition and how to write a grammatically correct sentence, of course.  You can learn how to properly format a screenplay or a play, for instance.  You can certainly learn clarity and how to get your point across without its real meaning being muddled or misconstrued.

But the drive to write, the compulsion to report, the urge to arrange words for the simple desire of communicating your thoughts, is natural only to born writers.  Really – who would wish to spend their time alone most of the day, locked in your head, trying to accurately describe the visions you see that seem to exist somewhere between your eyes and the computer screen…?  Isn’t that like schizophrenics trying to accurately describe the voices they hear?

Perhaps all writers should be medicated, if only to free them from their terrible Muse.  (God knows, I’ve tried the entire pharmacy.)  But the medications – booze, pills, dope, whatever – get in the way of the words and so I have to rid myself of pain killers.  The words rule.  The words dictate.  The words sap and diminish.  The words destroy.  The words kill.

I can’t remember being without the compulsion to write.  My first writing award came in third grade, when I was seven years old.  Later, when all the others in class moaned aloud whenever confronted with an essay question, I rejoiced.  (I hated to write greeting cards, however – absolute agony.  I wanted to write stories, not “keep in touch” – that’s what the telephone was for.)

Whenever I find such students in one of my classes, I look on them with recognition and pity.  “You’re a born writer,” I tell them.  “God help you.”

As Paul Auster says, you realize that you’re just not fit for anything else.  Yes, I can do a lot of other things well.  Producing, for one.  I loved to galvanize teams and get everyone to the finish line on time and on budget.  I had a talent for it; in fact, I was promoted to a Vice Presidency of Production because I was that good at it.

Ultimately, however, it was just a cover.  A beard.  By becoming a producer I was simply putting off being a writer because I was so scared of it.  There’s no one to hide behind when you’re a writer, no one to whom you can deflect the blame if it doesn’t come out so well.  When you’re a producer (or even a staff writer) you always have some dumb executive in the business office to blame, or any number of people in the marketing department.  When you publish a book, though – that’s you out there, naked, exposed, and alone.

Really – who would choose to do this?

Yet I had to leave producing, no matter what satisfaction it gave me and how lucrative a living it provided.  (Let’s face it, the real reason I put off writing for so long is that I knew I’d go through a lot of lean years.)

Ultimately, however, I couldn’t put it off.  There’s a line in “Cleopatra” that Richard Burton says, uttered directly after he shoves the sword into his guts:  “How could I have missed what I must have aimed for all my life?”

Writing had been, always was, what I was aiming for all my life.

And since I’ve become a full time writer it’s been every bit as scary, as impoverishing, as awful as I had imagined.  It kills you as slowly and insidiously as an inoperable tumor.  (And a tumor is exactly what this compulsion to write feels like – it’s always there, a deadening pain that forces you to forgo all other pleasures until you get those pages written.)

A friend of mine, Steve, has recently given up writing.  He can’t stand the lugubrious pace of the work, or the setbacks, or the 99 disappointments for every single success you have.  “It’s different with you,” he says.  “You like writing.”

No, I don’t.  I don’t think that anyone likes to write.  I like having written.  Writing “The End” on a novel you’ve just completed is the greatest orgasm of relief and joy that anyone can ever feel.  Everything that occurs prior to that is just so much horror.

Yet I have to keep doing it.  God knows, if for nothing else, my retirement plan can be summed up in three words:

Write.  Best.  Seller.

Here’s hoping that my latest, The Stand In, can do it for me.  But, really – who would choose to do this?

Inspiration–What inspired you to become a writer?

6 Feb

What inspired you to become a writer?  Believe it or not this question came up last night for me when I was watching Madonna during the halftime show of the Super Bowl.  Her appearance, drawn on a moving float pulled by gladiators and costumed in cloth of gold, was –well, what was it?  An homage?  A parody?  A rip-off? – of Cleopatra’s Entrance Into Rome seen in the 1963 Joseph L. Mankiewicz film starring the late, great Elizabeth Taylor.

(I will pause here to express my awe-stricken appreciation of Ms. Ciccone’s exceptionally inflated ego, in that she would actually attempt to insert herself into Taylor’s place.  My stunned reaction was precisely reminiscent of my first sight of her in the “Material Girl” video, where she was costumed as the late, great Marilyn Monroe.  I was tempted to ask myself, as I did then, “What’s wrong with this picture?”  Madonna seems terminally undersized when she sets herself up in opposition to those truly great icons of 20th Century film stardom and it’s sad that she can never – quite – become what they were.  It must be so disappointing to her.  The fact that producers and executives are forever lavishing money and venues on her so that she can try again and again seems just another sign of our age’s own cultural impoverishment.  But – and I freely admit it – this attitude just may be me at a cranky 61 years of age, lamenting the “good old days” which usually weren’t.)

But Madonna did get me thinking…

In her wonderful biography of Maria Callas, Adriana Huffington (then Stassinopoulos) wrote that she had been caught by Callas’ magic when she was twelve years old.  She went on to philosophize that, for most creative people, something usually appears on the horizon at this time to interrupt the placidity of childhood, something that grabs you by the throat and yanks you out of babyhood into the world of adult appreciation.  Suddenly your world is no longer bounded by your neighborhood streets.  Instead, your world has become all wonderfully huge and, best, unexplored.  For Ms. Huffington, it was Callas.  For me it was “Cleopatra”.

Of course, the groundwork had already been laid.  I had always loved history, particularly Egyptian and Roman history.  The first movie I can remember seeing was “Land of the Pharaohs,” which starred Joan Collins as Nellifer, whose “treachery stained every stone of the pyramid!” (as the movie posters screamed.) The first adult book I remember reading, at ten years of age, was “The Egyptian” by Mika Waltari.  And then there were all those films like “The Robe”, “Demetrius and the Gladiators”, “Ben Hur” and “Spartacus”, all of which became my own personal fantasy worlds.

Then, when I was twelve years old, “Cleopatra” came into my life and everything abruptly came into focus.

I had not heard much about it, which is strange because the film’s tumultuous production and the adulterous love affair shared by Liz and Dick had been the most reported news events of 1962, generating more articles than even the Cuban Missile Crisis.  I remember that I was sitting in a chair at the La Mirada Shopping Center’s barber shop, waiting for my turn to get a haircut, when I picked up the Life Magazine that featured the cover story, “Cleopatra Barges in at Last.”  For the first time I underwent what could only be called an out-of-body experience. I literally fell headlong into the black-and-white production stills and was aware of nothing else.  The buzzing sounds of the electric shavers and the snips of scissors faded away into nothing. I don’t think I even responded when my name was called – for here was my fantasy world come alive at last.  They were photos of a past-life that I only suspected I had lived – and even the patterns on the costumes seemed thrillingly familiar.

In short, I was hooked.

I literally saw the film again and again and again.  Though many people find it turgid and slow, I became aware of wonderful words for the first time.  Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ script taught me that the beautiful placement and rhythms of speech can be as exciting as any car chase or yellow explosion.  And, more, these famous personages from history became instantly recognizable as more than mere historical placards; instead they were thinking, feeling, and achingly flawed people – just like me.  (In fact, the dysfunctional relationship between Cleopatra and Antony that Mankiewicz depicted was that of my own parents, but we won’t go into that today.)  In other words, I knew these characters; I lived with them.

What I want to say is that Joe Mankiewicz taught me how to write.  At first I slavishly copied him, endless rewriting “Cleopatra” in various teen aged forms.  But like the students of the master painters, who copied even the brushstrokes of their mentors, I gradually became free to develop my own style.  My first two books, “Year of the Hyenas” and “Day of the False King” were my own versions of those sex-and-sandal epics from the 1950s and 60s.  And, having written them (and successfully, too) I felt free to finally do my own work.  I’ve both been inspired by and have now exorcized, “Cleopatra”.  My newest novel “The Stand In” is the first in which my truest voice can be read, and it’s wonderful to know that even at 61 I am capable of growth and change and refinement.

So here’s to Joe Mankiewicz, Elizabeth Taylor, and even Madonna.  Without you I couldn’t have been who I am today.

My question to you readers is – what inspired you?  What opened your world?  What made you want to write and write and write?

Let me know.  And if it was “Cleopatra”, that’s fine too.

 (Have you downloaded my newest book, The Stand In? It’s on Kindle, Nook, and the iPad. Enjoy my five starred mystery for less than a latte and you’ll help support this indie-author so I can continue to inspire.) 

Have You Read…?

6 Jan

It’s a sunny 75 degrees in Palm Springs today and if we were sitting by the pool, we’d be talking about books and writing. No doubt that the subject would turn to one of my favorites. And if you haven’t read it, I would send you home with a copy… But since we can’t do that, read my review below. And why don’t you become my friend on Goodreads and we’ll share books. (The link is on the list to your right.) And don’t forget to add my newest mystery novel, The Stand In to your “To Read” list. I can’t wait to hear what you think.

DECEMBER 6:  A Novel by Martin Cruz Smith

In his various “Gorky Park” novels, Mr. Smith is an expert in writing about = odd-men-out, and his Harry Niles in prewar Japan is perhaps his greatest protagonist.  The son of missionaries, Harry is raised by a Japanese nanny and goes to Japanese schools.  His favorite haunt is the theatrical and geisha district, Asakusa, where he mingles effortlessly with Japan’s raffish bohemians.  But however close he gets to them, he is always “gaijin” to the Japanese, forever picked to be the target in gym class because of his white skin and round eyes, and treated almost like a trained monkey by the geishas and show girls whom he worships.  At home, he actively despises his clueless parents and considers Japanese culture to be superior in every way to the crass, blundering America.  In short, he is the ultimate outsider while living an insider’s privileged life.  Like Rick in “Casablanca”, whose world weary cynicism hides a tender romantic, Harry’s inamorata is Japan herself.  And, having lived in America as well as Japan, having seen America’s prodigious natural resources compared to the barren rocks the Japanese live on, he desperately attempts to save Japan from committing suicide by attacking Pearl Harbor.  Harry is a grifter and a gambler, and the stakes grow ever higher as the hours march inevitably to December 7.  It is Harry’s terrible fate to be understood exclusively by a mad Samurai whose only aim is to separate Harry’s head from his shoulders.  Effortlessly shifting between his youth and present day (December, 1941), Mr. Smith has created nothing less than a fragile portrait of an entire culture as seen through the eyes of the last romantic in a militaristic age, leaving us lost in awe at the creative powers that conceived and wrote it.   The best measure of a successful novel, to me, is that I want to know what happened to Harry after Japan collapses on him.  I wish Mr. Smith would write a sequel because I know that Harry, with all his guile and resourcefulness, would survive even that.

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