Authors: Evan Guilford-blake
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REGISTERED TRADEMARKâMARCA REGISTRADA
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Dedicated to Lizabeth Scott
For Roxanna, and Raymond Chandler, and with love for all the other writers, directors, actors, and cinematographers who noirized our lives.
Sometime during my twenties I fell in love with
. I saw the classic films of the genre and devoured the works of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain. The fascination remained but, although I wrote in a lot of different genres, I never tried to write a mystery.
That changed in the summer of 2008.
My wife, Roxanna, who had the questionable sense to marry me in 2000 but whose love and support has made so much of my writing possible, didn't know much about noir as a genre. I introduced her to it: We watched
The Maltese Falcon
The Big Sleep
Out of the Past
Pickup on South Street
, and countless lesser-known noir films until we'd all but exhausted the canon. She, like me, fell in love with it: She went out, scoured the web, and found a couple dozen more.
I've been a playwright for about thirty years and so, as a valentine to her (and to the writers, actors, directors, and cinematographers who noir-ized our lives), I wrote
, as a play. (As I write this, it hasn't been produced, but it has received staged readings at two festivals and won two national playwriting contests.)
I like the play, but writing for the stage has certain limitations: As a practical matter, you need to limit your cast size (the play calls for eight actors and a lot of doublingâthe same actor playing two or three roles) and the physical requirements: They can land a helicopter on a Broadway stage or run a car over a cliff in a movie, but small theaters worry about both the space needed and the cost of creating the effects of, say, something like
The Big Sleep
So I decided to adapt the twenty-thousand-word play into a fifty-thousand-word novel so I could “open it up”: let it sprawl, so to speak, across the landscape of a fictional Los Angeles; give the story some color by adding more characters drawn from noir and providing a few details about them (Stoker Thompson, Madge Rapf, and Kathie Moffat, for example); and, most important, give the characters the physical attributes
wanted them to have. (In the book, for example, I've been able to make Dan Scott the behemoth I always envisioned him being; in staging the play, most theaters would have difficulty finding an actor that large.) I was also able to give Greenstreet a greater role in the proceedings; theaters, understandably, are wary of having animals on stage. But most of all, I was able to explore Robert Grahame's psyche, make him more human and less just the “hard-boiled detective” of noir lore.
The first draft of the play took a month to write. The first draft of the novel, eight weeks. Plays tell their stories through dialogue, but novels need “narrative.” Finding ways to create the details of those people and places I saw and to describe them in interesting and (I hope) exciting words was the greatest challenge. It was also a heck of a lot of fun.
One note: The play and the novel are both dedicated to Lizabeth Scott, a wonderful actress deserving of far more recognition, whose performance in the noir classic
Too Late for Tears
informs the characters of Lizabeth Duryea (who is named for her) and Gloria Mitchum in the novel. I sent her a copy of the play; she sent me back a lovely thank-you note. Miss Scott, thank
, from the bottom of my hard-boiled heart.
If you enjoy the exploits of hard-boiled detectives like Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, or the soft-boiled ones like Thursday Next, I think you'll find Robert Grahame and the dilemmas he faces in
an unusual and entertaining combination of the two.
Dutton Guilt Edged Mysteries
Tuesday, June 24th, 1947, 10:00 p.m.
Summer. Ten o'clock at night. I don't know why I was still at the office. Probably because the options were either going homeâto Greenstreet the cat, who was probably doing exactly what I'd do: lying in front of the fan half-listening to the radioâor going to a bar and
in front of a fan half-listening to a jukebox. Either way I'd end up drinking more than the Doc said was good for my stomach. The bar would have more interesting things to look at, but it would also have a lot more smoke to tempt me: I might light up the cigarette I'd been keeping around, just in case, for the last year. Right now, it was where it usually was when I stayed late. In my mouth. Unlit. The pack I kept it in was on my desk.
And, either way, some disc jockey or some other souse would end up playing “Laura.” I was trying to quit. Both.
So I was here. It was hot as Hades in Los Angeles. I was working on creating a cross-draft with the fan next to my desk and the bigger one I'd brought in from the outer office, but the only things that were crossing were the beads of sweat dripping down my face. The radio was playing
again. For the fifth or sixth time that day. I'd tried the classical stationâthat was what I usually listened to at home, at night anywayâbut the reception here was lousy. Probably something to do with the weather: There'd been heat lightning three or four nights running, and the weatherman said we'd have the real thing sometime soon.
I could have shut it off, but I didn't feel like reaching all the way across my desk, and besides, I'd built up a rhythm I didn't want to break: I'd tossed thirty-eight Bicycles in a row into my hat. Nine more and I'd break my record. I was good at it. I should have been; I'd been practicing for a year.
At least it was just Freddie Martin and his orchestra, and I didn't have to hear the name. But the music was bad enough. Freddie was soloing, and it mingled with the heat and the noise of the fans and the flash of a neon sign that splattered through the open window like a pair of headlights with hiccups, and dripped like scalding wax onto my heart, one blue note at a time.
Well, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I'll get over it
, I told myself for the umpteenth time. Right. It was almost a year. Next Thursday.
I was thinking in clichÃ©s. I always do when business is slow.
I needed a distraction.
There was a little light spilling from the hallway through the frosted-glass outer door, just enough so I could see the silhouette walking toward itâa slim, languid silhouette that swayed with every step, and not the kind of sway you get from having taken a wee drop more than you should. I was a private eyeâit says so on my door: “Robert Grahame, Private Investigator”âand I'd been one for sixteen years, if you counted the year I'd spent in the Marines, most of that recovering from a couple of pieces of lead in my belly courtesy of a Jap rifleman at Midway two weeks after I'd shipped out. If I'd learned anything, it was that slim silhouettes that swayed that way could only mean one thing: trouble.
The silhouette stopped at my door and knocked. I turned the radio off. She knocked again, a little more urgently. I called, “It's open.”
The door opened, and the girl swayed through it. She could have been twenty, or twenty-five, or even thirty: I kept the lights off in the outer office after Gloria went homeâsaved me a dime, and it stayed cooler that wayâbut it was kind of hard to see the details. One thing was clear as the Pacific on a summer day: Framed by the faint white hall light, she looked like an angel about to descend.
I'd had it with angels.
She stopped and stood there. Trouble herself.
“Mr. Gray-hame?” she said, a little anxiously, a lot throaty.
“That's me. Only it's pronounced âGraham.' Like the cracker.”
“I see. May I come in?”
I put down the Bicycles. A new record would have to wait. “Looks to me like you're in already.”
“I meant into your office.”
“.Â .Â . Sure.” I rubbed my face. I have a heavy five o'clock shadow and, being that it was ten, it was five hours darker than usual. Well, nobody expects a private eye to look like a guy out of a Jane Austen novel, least of all after working hours. I straightened my tie and dropped the cigarette into the crystal ashtray with the swan standing in it. It was a gift from an ex-client; I'd photographed his wife
in flagrante delicto
. And pretty
, too. The photos had saved him a couple grand in legal fees, and a lot more in alimony.
The girl closed the outside door and walked through the outer office. It's really the waiting room: I don't have that many clients that I need four chairs and a love seat, but all the furniture makes those I do have think I'm busy, and it look nice. And Gloria liked it. She said she could sit at her desk and imagine she was somewhere posh.
The girl kept coming. She moved like the Tilt-A-Whirl at Santa Monica Pier: every way at once. I smelled her before I saw her face. She was wearing Shalimar, and a generous amount of it, too. The light gradually revealed her face. She was a kidâtwenty-five tops. Probably not even that. And she was gorgeous: perfect burnt-caramel skin; eyes that were peculiarly almond-shaped, almost feline, deep blue with gold-tinged irises; a mouth that quivered like the bow on a silk peignoir when the girl wearing it was slipping between the sheets. Her hair fell like black satin straight down the back of the one thing that made everything else look odd: her fully buttoned, ankle-length black wool coat. She wore matching black satin gloves.
“Thank you,” she said. She spoke with the slightest tint of an accent. I couldn't place it. Her voice was dark, husky. And smooth. Altogether, she looked like melted petrified wood remolded into a walking, talking, five-and-half-foot-tall pussy willow that never got cold in the dark and would want expensive scotch with her water.
“You're here late.” She stood between the side chairs, directly in front of my desk. The Shalimar floated across it.
“So are you. My office hours end at six.”
“Yes, they're on the door. But your light was on.”
I pointed. “Can't see the hat in the dark.”
“I see.” She glanced slowly around the office. There wasn't much to look at: The walls were wood-paneled, serviceable but neither fancy nor showy. My license to practice was up there, in a mock walnut frame. So were a handful of framed newspaper photos of me with minor film-world celebrities who'd been clients, most of them before the war. I hadn't much cared for the celebritiesâthey were too fond of being recognizedâbut the pictures were good for business. There were some in the waiting room, too.
The one other decoration was a wall calendar. It had a picture of Paris above the tear-off monthly pages. The girl gazed at it a little longer than people usually gaze at calendar pictures. Even of Paris. She furrowed her brow. “Paris,” I said.
“It's a city in Europe. France.”
“Oh. I've never been there.”
“Neither have I,” I told her. But Paris had always sparked my imagination. When I enlisted, I'd hoped to fight in Europe and be in Paris for the liberation. I'd missed that, but I still wanted to go there one day. I even had a red beret in my closet waiting for that day to come.
I waited while the girl's eyes finished their expedition and landed, safe and sound, back on me. “What can I do for you, MissÂ .Â .Â . Miss what?”
She reached into her oversize purse. “Do you min' if I smoke?” she asked. She took out a package of gold-tipped Sobranie Black Russians and dropped it.
“Yeah, I do,” I said. “I'm trying to quit. Doc says it's bad for my stomach.” The conventional wisdomâand every other commercial on the radioâsaid smoking was good for you. At least, it was relaxing. Even a lot of doctors said so. Mine didn't, and since he seemed to know his stuff and kept me pretty healthy, I followed his advice. Except when it came to bourbon. “Makes it harder for me when I'm around people who do it.”
“I see.” The girl picked up the cigarettes, dropped them back into the purse, looked at me as though she'd just figured out something, and walked to the window. The view from the back was as impressive as the one from the front. Maybe more. In spite of the coat. Anyway, it certainly inspired my curiosity. “It's a nice view,” she said.
I blurted, “Huh?” Then I realized she was talking about the view from the window. “Oh. Yeah.” Suddenly, I really wanted that cigarette, but I told myself
. I could hold out. I stuck it back in the package and put the package back in the desk drawer. Maybe not out of mind but at least out of sight. “It ain't Times Square,” I said, “but they don't charge Times Square rent, either.”
She turned to me. “Times Square?”
“It's in New York.”
“Oh. I've never been there, either.”
“Yeah, I figured. Everybody who has knows Times Square. New Yorkers think it's the center of the known universe.”
The girl laughed. “I thought
was the sun.” She looked out the window again.
I'd been to New York once, for a PI convention. I liked the Statue of Liberty and Radio City Music Hall and feeding the squirrels in Central Park. The rest of it was too tall. And New Yorkers were like the Germans. They believed there was a race of supermen, and they were it. Angelinos weren't exactly shy, but at least they wore their self-importance instead of constantly talking about it.
“You can see the Evening Star,” the girl said. “Very clearly.”
“Now it's my turn to be confused. The Evening Star?”
“Venus. It's particularly lovely this time of year.”
She laughed again. She had a small, delighted, and delightful laugh, the kind you especially like hearing when you wake up in the morning and look over at the other pillow. It had the ring of silver tapping crystal: clear, with lots of vibration. “I'm not surprise',” she said. “It's one hundre' seventy-two thousan', five hundre' thirty-eight million miles away.”
Well. You learn something every day. “Give or take,” I said.
She walked back to the desk and stood there, not exactly staring but not just looking at me, either. “I'm something of an amateur cosmotologist, Mr.Â .Â .Â . âGraham'?” She raised her eyebrows in search of confirmation. I gave it to her with a nod. “I'm sure you can see the
Star from there, too.”
I not exactly stared back. “Couldn't say. I'm rarely here before ten. I like to sleep in.”
“I see,” she said, directly into my eyes.
“You âsee' a lot, don't you.”
“Yes. I do.” Her very wet lips, covered with very red lipstick, shone.
clientsâdon't make me uncomfortable. Even this one. Maybe she was a mix of sugar and spice and lace and brass, but she was just a client. A
client. Here on business. People who come to a private eye's office always have business; a lot of it is unsavory, but that goes with the territory.
So I didn't get uneasy. I'd learned from Sam Spade during the year I'd spent working for him in San Francisco: If anything about being a PI makes you nervous, take up pumping gas and wiping windshields. You get to go home at five o'clock, put your feet up, and have the wife cook you a nice dinner. Then you kiss her and the kids and go to bed and sleep the same easy sleep they do, and you wake up with a smile and somebody who loves you giving you a kiss and a cup of hot coffee. I usually woke up with a scowl and Greenstreet's tail swishing in my face. I think he probably loves me anyway.
I looked, just as directly, at her. “You got good vision.”
“Anything wrong with yours?”
“Not as I know. I've got the twenty-twenty I need for
She cocked her head without looking away. It was a neat trick. “
job?” she said.
“Looking out for trouble. I can always see it when it's standing in front of me.”
She nodded slowly and turned her face toward the window. The neon blinked into the night. “Oh,” she said. “Am I trouble?”
“With a capital T; that rhymes with D and that stands for dame.”
“And dames areâalwaysâtrouble.” She turned back to me, looking troubled herself.
Maybe it was a just good act. I didn't feel sorry for her, butâmaybeâI was being a little too hard. She looked contrite, too, however contrite looks. “Not always,” I said. “I guess I've known one or two that were okay.”
“Your mother?” she asked.
“Yeah. But my mother died when I was nineteen.” She nodded. “And so y' don't have to ask, the other one's my ex-Â .Â .Â .
retary.Â .Â .Â .
moved to Chicago. A year ago, next Thursday.”
“Oh.” The girl thought a moment, then said, “And your secretary now?”
“Gloria? She's new.” I chuckled and leaned back in my chair. Gloria was maybe
good. “She shows up on time every day with a smile on her face and knows exactly how much sugar I like in my coffee. Makes me think she's lookin' for something other than her salary.”
“Maybe she is. Every girl wants aÂ .Â .Â .” She wrinkled her brow and searched the ceiling for the word. “Hobby?” she said finally.
I snickered to myself. I'd never thought of myself as being some girl's
, though I suppose there had been one or two who thought of
one, for sure, anyway
. “I'd make a lousy
by, if that's what you mean,” I said. “I like my cat way too much.”