Stomatopoda (or the editor as killer crustacean)

I translated Ingrid Astier’s essay which honors Aurélien Masson, the editor at Gallimard’s la Série Noire imprint. While the translation was intended to appear in the proceeds from NOIRCON 2016, space and printing costs excluded it. Masson received the David Goodis Award at the conference.

“Beware in this treacherous word: To be.” — Paul Valéry.

When I think of Aurélien Masson, the first word that comes to mind is stomatopoda.

I grant you that it’s not a common word and I’ll wager it means nothing to you. Thus, the role of the writer: introductions.

Between you and the unknown, words, beings, the distant.

stomatopodaSo, I am going to bridge that gap. The stomatopoda or the mantis shrimp is a shellfish. It is thin and tough – like Aurélien Masson, who proves that strength and sensitivity mesh with the crime novel. It has a thick shell and it is true that to approach Aurélien Masson is something you earn. The crustacean is reclusive; it likes to live hidden, just out of sight. I remember when Aurélien mentioned ‘the cellar,’ the very first home for Série Noire at Gallimard. “Collections are conceived in places; they’re not hydroponic plants,” he said in his signature style that is simultaneously biting and playful. And he’s right: places and the spirit of the series function in unison. Today, Série Noire is under one roof. But for Aurélien, “the cellar is in the head.” Image from Ingrid Astier

Like the stomatopoda, Aurélien Masson draws from the depths of shadow. He makes the night his hunting ground. Like this shellfish, he is cryptic: in black dressed, blended in lines such that he can’t be made out there. And I imagine this somber silhouette bent over universes that, over the course of pages, give the sun a polishing.

Black on black. Camouflage. Truth can tremble and that is the end of the clarity.

Nevertheless, no animal distinguishes so many colors. One reads: “Each eye of the stomatopoda possesses at least a dozen photopigments [compared to three in the human eye and four in birds”]. Aurélien Masson has publishing in the blood. He knows the nuances of noir inside out. A collection is for him a family with a thousand faces, not mere clones.

From carbon to coal, including anthracite on up to jet-black, his vision can tell everything apart. A walker of abysses, he knows the flip-side of the world without judging it. The first time I met him I thought it was a teenager arriving in a provocative T-shirt, a smooth-talker, and this rock and roll side of him that could be nothing more than a cover. Hands riveted to the manuscript, he spoke.

Then he was incomparably old like the granite rocks of Mount Rushmore.

A publisher is not a reader; he sees not the line but the horizon. We fought over Quai des enfers. quai-des-enfersThis was my first novel. When I refused to throw more light on my character, the killer, Aurélien had replied with these gems: “I’m okay with grey areas but not black holes.”

After this brilliant insight, there was nothing left to do but work.

For Angle mort [second novel], we went even farther.41csjmrtm5l-_sx301_bo1204203200_

Because that is the road.

The stomatopoda enjoys three-hundred-sixty-degree of vision and I often thought that Aurélien Masson did too, though a slower version of it. He reads in writers the invisible strata of the palimpsest. Again, I think of our shellfish, which can “triangulate an object, know exactly its distance and depth.” With this vision, born of desire and audacity. Aurélien Masson likes growing with his writers.

He’s not complacent. He doesn’t like to sugarcoat. And I believe him when I hear his dry speech, without the honey and without the frills. But he does that, always, for the good of the text. For a surge to take place. A darling in the draft is often scratched out.

It is necessary to feel chosen to have been taken into the captivating legs of this predator. And do not forget that stomatopoda’s legs are “furnished with sharp spurs to impale the soft body of its prey.” Aurélien Masson abhors softness. He is a textual obsessive. He wants to feel some heat, some bone under the tooth.

cjjwbdduaaevvob-jpg_mediumHe always considered the crime novel a world with solid foundations. The crime novel is no mere mirror where the writer is reflected – and drowns herself.

The strength of the stomatopoda’s blow is such that it can break the glass of an aquarium. Its strike “delivers the equivalent power of 100 kilograms [220 pounds] in two-thousands of a second on a small surface, equivalent to the acceleration of a bullet from a pistol.”

Aurélien Masson is that bullet against the wind. He was never afraid of blasting prejudices into smithereens. Detective literature for him stems from faith.

Image: Bibliothèque Médicis

And if he carries around a lantern in broad daylight, he does it is to reveal to each his own night.

For, by spending time in one’s subterranean depths, one touches the heart, the human being.

© Ingrid Astier, from Paris, Monday 29 February 2016. Titles at Gallimard

© Translation from French: Gabriel Valjan






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States of Noir: I and II

I translated this essay from the award-winning author Dominque Manotti in honor of Aurélien Masson, director of La Série Noire at Gallimard. Part I appeared in the proceeds of NOIRCON 2016. Masson received the David Goodis Award at the conference in Philadelphia.


My arrival at the crime fiction imprint Série Noire was a story of affinities and of friendship before being a literary choice. I had already published several novels, some in the prestigious Rivages Noir collection, when I had a devastating accident, which had put my life in danger and made writing very difficult for me. A certain kind of joie de vivre in the surge of imagination and the writing had broken in me. It was necessary to recover it, and it wasn’t easy. This is when a friend had me meet Aurélien. commission_image_260_image_frHe’s a publisher who succeeds in convincing you that he chose to work with you, you personally, because he likes what you write. Really. And he goes out of his way to prove it to you. He was always available to read successive drafts, to point out weaknesses in the narrative and writing, betting on the final success, without ever doubting, or rather without ever showing that he doubted. I needed his certainties, at this moment of my life. At the same time, he knows how to be unobtrusive, how to adapt himself to his author’s choices and rhythms. Does such and such a remark not persuade me? Very well, we won’t talk about it anymore. I remain a master of my ship. Thank you, Aurélien. We are going to sail towards new adventures. (Photo credit: Thibault Stipal)


manotti-policierDetective novels (policiers) and crime novels (noir) are literary families, close yet distinct; close, because both have chosen crime as an analytical tool, a scalpel that they use to scrape down to the bone and strip bare individuals and societies. Both have wagered that the truth of a society, of an individual is said by what it does not say, its deviations or its margins. But if the tool is the same, the author’s view of the object is very different. For simplicity’s sake, in the police procedural or thriller, the investigation enables the identification of one or several troublemakers, the bad people and deviants, the different. The struggle between Good and Evil is never far off. At the end of the story, the bad one or bad ones are identified and punished, order and safety are restored; the reader can sleep peacefully. In this sense, the policier is a literature of entertainment.

imagerepository-ashxThe noir novel tells quite a different story, the scalpel of the crime reveals a human nature and a social machine both infinitely complex. The criminal individual is not the barbarian, the monster, the embodied Evil, he is the blood brother of the author, the reader, he speaks about them, he is not outside humanity, he is encapsulated in a set of complex and solid social relationships. He is not an isolated individual, easily ‘expunged’, but one of the cogs in a complex social machinery, one of the instruments used in the maintenance of law and order, one of the relays in the mechanisms of power. All the characters, and the reader with them, are committed ‘in a dubious fight.’ Noir is not Manichean. And, if by any chance, order is restored at the end of a crime novel, the author and the readers are aware that it’s only the temporary recovery of appearances.

This place of crime and of criminals at the heart of the functioning of our society is neither new nor a recent phenomenon. To wit, it’s enough to evoke the role of the Sicilian mafia starting in the 19th century, whom the big property owners used on the island to make complacent the landless farmers, the criminal role of the organizations in the management of the French colonies, or after that, the gangsters in the western conquest in the United States. To better understand, and finally admit, this intimacy, this alarming permeability of society to murder and criminals, it is necessary to remember the impunity of the Nazi officers and their henchmen after the war (only about fifty leaders were tried at the end the war), the collusive silence which protected them and the ease with which they converted back to being peaceful and law-abiding German citizens, or converted into American scientists; and, finally into indispensable elements of the defense of our civilization against the Soviet Union.

Thus, if the noir authors delve into history, the past, it is not for the pleasure reconstituting it, but to find facts that have resonance with the present. With a subjectivity claimed, they dive into the past to reconstitute the present, to give depth to their narratives of the present age; they are historians of the present. And reading crime novels helps us understand the particularly dark present in which we live. In these last days, the archetypal criminals are jihadists of the Islamic State. Our politicians rage against them, depicting them as monsters, their dogged persistence in claiming that they represent absolute Evil, that they are outside humanity –what they intend to be a purely symbolic measure, the withdrawal of nationality. It is counterproductive and stupid, a waste of time whose only function is to give them a clear conscience. It would be more effective to remedy immediately the multiple and structural failures within our police and intelligence agencies. The jihadists belong to humanity; we cannot do anything about it. If we want to fight them effectively, it would be better to find a way to understand how, in a universe in the process of globalization, so many of these western jihadists or Baathists are saturated with western culture and appropriate it partially to turn it against the West and build their ‘heroic narrative’. And to understand that the network of wars and powers in which they are locked in the Middle East on fire are like the Nazis who had built an orchestrated narrative that used very widely for itself the European culture of which they were children, and had created a culture for themselves through networks complicated with influences, with alliances, and power. These mechanisms are not new. And, in this story, we are not any more the representatives of absolute Good than they are representatives of absolute Evil. We are, and they are also, this Middle East on fire, captive to multiple networks, more or less ancient and mastered by wars, massacres, and alliances. If there are no ‘monsters’, let us not forget what St. Paul said, either: “There is not a righteous man, not even one” on this earth. St. Paul, the first author of the noir novel?

© Dominque Manotti Titles at Gallimard.

© Translation from French: Gabriel Valjan











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The Skeleton Code

The surgeon is to what as a satirist is to words? The answer is scalpel. The surgeon uses it to cut out disease and the satirist uses words to mock a social ill. Authors Alla Campanella and Ken Massey ridicule secrets and the extremes to which people hid them in their book, The Skeleton Code: A Satirical Guide to Secret Keeping (Morgan James Books, 2017, 205 pages).

41wwwgtkxdl-_sx321_bo1204203200_The subtitle gives the reader some expectations. Few contemporary writers work the genre of satire and when they do, they used parable or vivid imagery for the social issue they wish to address and correct. Think of Orwell and totalitarianism in Animal Farm or Cervantes and idealism in Don Quixote. The touchstone for most readers might be Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. I have given these examples because satire has range, whether it is imaginative, as in Orwell and Cervantes, or abrasive wit, as in Swift. Wit is neither humor nor Snark; it is intellect and associated with a rapier.

The Skeleton Code is not as abrasive as Swift. I’m not sure who the intended audience is for this book. The concept is unique. The writing is intelligent, informed with literary and pop culture allusions. Most of the chapters offer summaries. Some of those secrets and behaviors are cringe- worthy, depressing, but unfortunately realistic. Use the scalpel to excess, the blade becomes dull, and the patient bleeds too much from trauma and has a harder time healing. The book spent a lot of time on the types of secrets and their costs. The best chapter was The Cure and I suspect that readers will find it the most rewarding. The Skeleton Code is best read either in small doses for the humor, or when you need moral cheerleader and a road map, which you get from The Cure chapter.

Purchase links: Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

I received this book free from Pro Book Marketing. I was not required to write a review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


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Excerpt from Man of Honor

There was another smile, the scrape of tines, and a pause.

“I also know that your father left you and your mother.”

Though he squirmed in his chair, Alessandro tried to not feel humiliated by that truth. He had learned from his father that men were either wolves or sheep, and this man was a predator sizing him up. Was he, Alessandro Monotti, a threat to this man? The man’s knife and fork remained intent on his meal. Alessandro shivered at an unexpected breeze. Wolves hunt in packs, but few know that wolves are cannibals, that they find other dogs delicious, and that they eat their prey alive. The alpha male always ate first.

“Relax, I know many things about you; it is my business to know things. I know, for example, that you like to test boundaries. I also know that you have a vicious temper.”

“Vicious?” The inflection in his voice betrayed him. How did he know?

“School records – I had a look at your file. You like getting into fights.” He wiped the edge of his knife against the tines. “I admire that.”

“You admire that I get into fights?”

“It shows that you have a mind of your own, though one should learn to balance thought and feeling. This moving around, the life of a military brat – how do you feel about that?”

The man was on the hunt. He had a scent in the air. Alessandro said nothing. He waited. The man cut and ate, cut and ate another piece of stuzzichini.

“What does she have to say about that, about her husband leaving her alone to support a son?”

“That’s between them, sir.”

“Is it? You don’t think that you deserve even a modicum of respect?”

The man’s eyes examined him the way a teacher did with a slow student. More than just the correct answer was in the balance.

“I’m just a kid, sir. I haven’t had a chance to earn respect.”

“Then decency then, and honor,” the man said. “Men are supposed to have honor. You’re a young man.” He paused to drink some wine. “Your father left you to take care of your mother. Where is the honor in that? Furthermore, he disrupts his son’s education and has him enroll in another school far away from his friends. That’s no life.”

Their eyes met. The man reached for his glass of white wine again. The glass sweated in his hand. Alessandro had intended a smart reply, but the words came out wrong.

“I’ll make friends.”

“Which is why I thought that we should get to know each other. You need at least one friend. I’d like to be that friend. You’re a long way from the Arno, Alessandro Monotti. In case you haven’t noticed, this isn’t Florence, this isn’t your Santa Maria Novella.”

“I’m impressed that you knew my neighborhood. What is it that you want in your friendship with me?”

“You’re straight to the point – another trait I admire about you.” The fork and knife came to rest on the rim of the plate. “It’s not so much what I want, but what I can offer you. I’d like for you to know that you have a home here and that I’m your friend.”

“You’re recruiting me then?”

“And I thought I was being subtle,” the man said.

Excerpt with permission from Winter Goose Publishing, 2016.





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Excerpt from Corporate Citizen (Roma Series Book 5)

CC-front“Is this Mr. DiBello?” said a woman’s voice through the long-distance connection.

“This is he,” Gennaro answered.

Bianca raised her eyes at hearing him speaking in English. She had just come into the room with their afternoon drinks. She was even more concerned that the call had come to Gennaro’s cell phone and not the house phone. They were apartment sitting for their friend Claudio Ferrero, La Stampa’s top investigative journalist, who was on assignment. This call also threatened their afternoon ritual of talks out on the balcony where they enjoyed the sights below of San Salvario, the neighborhood near Turin’s city center. Gennaro was motioning for her to come over and eavesdrop.

“What can I do for you?” he asked the caller.

“Not for me, Mr. DiBello. I’m calling on behalf of your friend, Diego Clemente. He asked me to dial your number for him. It’s not easy dialing Italy from a hospital phone.”

“Hospital?” Gennaro said, alarmed. His eyes flashed his concern to Bianca.

“I’m a nurse at MGH and he’s my patient. MGH is Mass General–”

“Hospital in Boston,” Gennaro stammered. “I know that. Scusi – I mean I’m sorry for interrupting you, but is Diego alright?”

“He took a fall at home and broke his hip,” the woman seemed to sigh, “slip rugs are dangerous, you know. He can tell you the rest himself. There isn’t much time.”

“Wait, please. Much time?” Gennaro asked, confused. “I don’t understand.”

“He’s due for surgery and I’ve started his IV. I’d say that you have about ten minutes before happy hour.”

Gennaro said, not understanding to Bianca. “IV…and ‘happy hour.’”

Bianca bared her forearm and explained in Italian: “Medication; probably anesthesia.”

The voice on the phone said, “I’ll hand over the phone to him so you two can talk.”

“Thank you, Nurse.”

“You’re welcome.” Gennaro heard the phone shuffle and heavy breathing. The connection improved. Gennaro and Bianca heard the pull of the curtain. “Diego?”

Another moment passed, and more ruffling sounds. Gennaro and Bianca huddled closer around the phone as Clemente spoke, “Slip rug, col cazzo.” Clemente had learned some Italian, but only the choice words. “That’s some hell of a story, from Mason Street to MGH and now a hip-replacement. Jesus, I can feel the drug working its way up my arm already.”

“You’re making no sense, Diego.”

“Gennaro, please listen to me, since I don’t know how fast Nurse Ratched’s cocktail will work.”

“Less than ten minutes. I’m listening.”

“Thanks. My head feels light. Damn.”

“Wait — where’s your wife? You shouldn’t be alone in a hospital.”

“My wife passed away. Look, Virgil showed me the apartment, the dead girl, and it’s a real mess, a real setup, and my life is going to hell. To hell, you understand, Gennaro, in a boat, hole in the bottom, and toothpicks for oars.” The voice was Diego irritated, in hyper mode.

“Slow down, Diego. I’m sorry about your wife. Why didn’t you tell me?”

A deep, relaxed sigh. “I didn’t want to trouble you. What could you’ve done? Send me a Mass card? You’ve been through it yourself.”

Gennaro’e eyes turned downward. He remembered Lucia. “But still, Diego. I’m your friend. Friends do something, and I don’t mean send you the latest self-help manual on grief.”

Bianca swatted his arm, “No time for sarcasm,” she said.

“I couldn’t help myself, he told her in Italian.

“Hello? Help me then.” Diego

“First, I need to understand what you’re telling me,” Gennaro said. “Who is Virgil?”

“I wish I knew, Gennaro. I wish I knew. I think Virgil is one of Farese’s people.”

“Farese?” The name, as it came out of Gennaro’s mouth, made Bianca’s eyes widen.

U.S. Attorney Michael Farese was a chameleon of a character, changing colors when he worked for the Department of Justice, when he handled diplomatic requests for the State Department, and when he worked for the CIA, as they thought he might have been after their last run-in with him during their investigation of the Camorra in Naples.

“Diego? Concentrate. Why do you think Farese?”

“That doesn’t matter. She’s dead and he’s dead.”

“Who? Who is she? Who is he?” Gennaro asked. His voice almost cracked.

“Norma Jean. She had such nice lingerie, too, and that son of a bitch was in such a nice bed.” Clemente’s voice was almost singing as he was speaking. The wonders of pharmacology.

Gennaro rubbed his eyebrows. He was frustrated. “Diego, stay with me. Who is Norma Jean? Who was in the bed?”

“Marilyn Monroe was a sad girl.” Diego giggled.

“He’s giggling,” Gennaro said to Bianca.

“Oh, it’s a party line!” Diego almost shouted. “Who else is there?”

“Bianca,” Gennaro announced. “She is staying with me.”

“You naughty boy,” Diego said. “Put her on, please.”

“Here,” Gennaro handed his cell phone to Bianca. “Talk to him. I think the medication has gotten into his brain.”

Bianca seized the phone. “Clemente, this is Bianca,” she said, hoping that using the man’s last name would snap some momentary sense into the man’s head. “Forget about Marilyn Monroe. Who is dead?”“Marilyn, of course. Somebody murdered her,” Diego answered.

“Marilyn, of course. Somebody murdered her,” Diego answered.“That’s right, but who is in the bed?”

“That’s right, but who is in the bed?”

“James Guild, former special agent, FBI, scourge of my loins.”Bianca put her hand over the receiver and repeated, “Guild is dead.”

Bianca put her hand over the receiver and repeated, “Guild is dead.”

“Porca puttana.” Gennaro stepped in closer to the receiver. “What happened, Diego?”

“Hell if I know. Virgil gave me the tour of hell. I got nice slippers, though. He had a needle in his arm.”“Virgil had a needle in his arm?” Bianca asked.

“Virgil had a needle in his arm?” Bianca asked.Clemente became belligerent. “I just told you Guild had a needle in his arm. He was in that expensive bed. I saw it. No gun, too. Norma was out in the living room. He was in her bedroom. Nice bed, and what a nice view, and did I tell you what a beautiful kitchen she had?”

Clemente became belligerent. “I just told you Guild had a needle in his arm. He was in that expensive bed. I saw it. No gun, too. Norma was out in the living room. He was in her bedroom. Nice bed, and what a nice view, and did I tell you what a beautiful kitchen she had?”Gennaro asked, “I couldn’t hear that last part. What did he say?”

Gennaro asked, “I couldn’t hear that last part. What did he say?”“Nice kitchen,” she said in English “He’s getting delirious.”

“Nice kitchen,” she said in English “He’s getting delirious.”“I’m not delirious,” Clemente yelled. “I’m serious! Oh, that rhymes.”

“I’m not delirious,” Clemente yelled. “I’m serious! Oh, that rhymes.”

“Please focus, Clemente,” Bianca said.

“I saw it. I saw the computer. My life, your life…it all goes to shit.”Bianca, trying a soothing voice, said, “You saw a computer. What did you see, Clemente?”

Bianca, trying a soothing voice, said, “You saw a computer. What did you see, Clemente?”

“Black, black background,” Diego’s voice was now sputtering.

In a coaxing tone and hoping for more details, Bianca asked, “What else did you see?”

“Big, big.” More sputtering. Bianca closed her eyes.“Big red R!” Diego said triumphantly.

Bianca and Gennaro understood what they had heard: black background and red R.

She said softly, “Fuck me.”

“Lingerie?” Clemente asked. Bianca handed the phone back to Gennaro. She put her hands to her temples, rubbed them. She thought of Boston, the Sargent case, Nasonia Pharmaceutical, and the body count.

“Diego, this is Gennaro again. We’re coming to Boston.”

“That would be nice. Somebody should feed the floor people. I feel sleepy now,” Clemente said, mewing. Gennaro stared at his phone before he put it to his ear again.

“Get some sleep, Diego. We’ll be there as soon as we can.”

Gennaro heard more purring and then the cacophonous drop of the receiver on the floor on the other end. He ended the call on his cell phone.

“Did he say anything else?” Bianca asked.

“He said someone should feed floor people. I think he has cats.”

“How do you know he has cats?” she asked.

Blame it on hanging around Silvio.” Bianca didn’t question the logic. Silvio was a translator, Farese’s interpreter, their friend, member of the team, and lately, animal whisperer.

“We should go to Boston,” Gennaro said.

“He saw the red R.”

“I know. You should call Dante.”

“Do I really have to?” she asked.

“Yes, and you have to tell him.”

“Which part? Clemente and Guild, or that Clemente saw the red R.”

“Doesn’t matter. Tell him everything,” Gennaro said. “It adds up to the same.”

Red R meant Rendition.

Excerpt published with permission from Winter Goose Publishing

Available 5 October 2016

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Excerpt from Two Warriors

He had the AC on. He waited for his chance to claim his spot on the highway. He had the radio on. Retro song. He heard the Spanish word colitas in the lyrics. He thought of the language he hadn’t spoken in years. The lilt of her Spanish lived inside his head. Music opened a door that he didn’t want to enter right now. Papà was gone. She was gone. His eyes burned. He had to change the station.

The drive, this embryonic sac of life inside a mechanical beast, would last only so long. He’d have to open the door and take on reality soon. For now, though, for now he’d enjoy the reverie, something on the radio.

The news reported an earthquake in México City. Thousands were missing, feared dead. He heard it in the reporter’s voice. Farrugia deplored this morbid fascination with natural disasters. He heard 8.1 on the Richter scale and the geologist’s analysis. He was thinking concrete and dust. He was thinking Guadalajara cartel, pesos and dollars, cocaine and guns. Those things never slept or died. He turned to another station.

A Ramazzotti tune hurled him back in time. The singer, popular with southern boys such as himself, came from a working-class neighborhood. Ramazzotti had Rome and he, Isidore Farrugia, had San Luca of the Sticks. Different places, but they both shared the same nihilism. He turned the dial again.

He settled into some American music. The synth sounds of Duran Duran recalled parties off the base. Girls with glossed lips and guys with outrageous hair. The synthesizer made its appearance again, rolling in this time with Sting’s breathy ditty about a possessive lover, or was it his homage to Orwell? Never mind. He listened to it anyway.

Madonna made him think of music videos. Video Music, the music channel, was the trend for kids now. He’d see them huddled around a television set, eating up Berlusconi’s programing. Dallas and Dynasty—shows RAI stopped televising after three episodes because of their alleged corruptive power. And he hadn’t forgotten how odd, how cool it was, to have commercials interrupt movies. So fashionable, so chic and cool, so very American. So not RAI.

The sea came into view on his right. Blue raced parallel to the car. The Strait of Messina threatened ahead. He thought of the earthquake he had heard about earlier on the radio. Messina was known for seismic activity. “It could have happened here,” he said to himself.

Soon, he’d see the two rock formations. Homer had sung of Scylla, who ate men and dolphins alike. Scylla had been born a nymph. Glaucus, a fisherman, had fallen in love with her, but had made a terrible mistake; he complained about his unrequited love to Circe. The witch’s brew transformed the attractive girl into a hideous monster with six heads. She raged against the sea from her home in the cliff.

Across from her, there was Charybdis. She was the dutiful and loving daughter of Poseidon. She rode the tides like a California surfer for her father in his war against Zeus. Women always paid the price for men. Zeus exiled her to a cave, to live under a fig tree. Three times a day she’d drink in the sea, ships and sailors with it. Farrugia could hear his old chum Corrado now.

There’s an abundant poetic metaphor for you, Isidò. The Strait of Messina is nothing more than a blue vein between Italy and Sicily. Things are not what they seem, though, because neither blood nor veins are blue. No, they are not. Any kid in elementary biology could tell you that, but we forget what we’ve learned in school. It’s all an illusion. Blood is blood and blood is always red, even when it is starving for breath. Farrugia admitted it; he preferred poetry to science.

Excerpt with permission from Winter Goose Publishing, 2016.


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Hammett on Hammett: The Case of the Mystery Editor

Maxwell Perkins coached and encouraged F. Scott Fitzgerald. Gordon Lish often slashed more than half of Raymond Carver’s stories. Thanks to letters, journals, and literary scholars, readers can see the trajectories of manuscripts from draft to printed page. Not just in prose, but also in poetry. What about the author who self-edits his or her own work?

Readers are not inclined to think of editing as a crime scene, but there are fingerprints everywhere, at least with current software technology. Track Changes, for instance, leaves a digital fingerprint for every keystroke. It’s all there: Who did What, When and Where, although the Whys are not readily apparent unless the editor uses Comments. But what kind of editing are we talking about – copy, proofing, continuity, or line editing?

dash apartmentLet’s look at The Maltese Falcon and do some sleuthing. Whether it was Sam Spade or the Continental Op, Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) changed crime fiction. He wrote a slew of short stories, five novels, and screenplays until he ran afoul of Senator Joe McCarthy and paid dearly for his idealism. He also edited his own work.

Image source

Richard Layman and Otto Penzler stated that there are over 2,000 variants between the Black Mask and LoA versions of The Maltese Falcon. Penzler reprinted the serialized novel, as it appeared in print in The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2012).

In Notes on the Text, the LoA editors claimed that Hammett kept most of his original language (not true, as we will soon see) and Knopf simply had corrected typographical errors. LoA lists those errors, but they fall significantly short of 2,000.

Let us examine the scene.

The Body: The Maltese Falcon.

Time frame: The Maltese Falcon appeared serialized in Black Mask, from September 1929 to January 1930. Knopf published an edition on Valentine’s Day, 1930. Hammett’s first volume from Library of America (LoA), using the Knopf edition, was published in 1934, securing his place in American letters.

Suspect 1: Joseph Shaw, the editor at Black Mask. He claims to have edited and entitled chapters for Maltese for serial publication.

Suspect 2: Harry Block, the editor at Knopf. He sent Hammett requests for changes, particularly to the novel’s sexual content.

Suspect 3: Dashiell Hammett. The author claims to have agreed to Shaw’s copy edits, to Knopf’s proofing for typographical errors and, despite Block’s request to excise scandalous content, kept most of the original language, knowing that he was testing morality.

Charge: Hammett had both copyedited and revised Falcon for Knopf.

Evidence: If you know either the novel or the film version with Humphrey Bogart, you’ll recognize that the passage below is the confrontation scene between Sam Spade and Brigid O’Shaugnessey. What kind of edits do we see here?

Strikethroughs are deletions from original Black Mask for the LoA edition.

Bold text indicates additions found in the definitive Maltese Falcon.

“Listen. This isn’t a damned bit of good. You’ll never understand me, but I’ll try once more, and then we’ll give it up. In my part of the world when your partner’s killed you’re supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens that were in the detective business. Well, when one of your employees, or a partner, or anybody connected with your detective business is killed, it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around, bad for that one agency, and bad for every detective – bad all around. Third, I’m a detective, and expecting me to run any criminal down and then let him go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and then let it go. It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it’s not the natural thing.”

“But –”

(Black Mask Maltese Falcon, Penzler page 215)

“Listen. This isn’t a damned bit of good. You’ll never understand me, but I’ll try once more and then we’ll give it up. Listen. When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere. Third, I’m a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go, It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it’s not the natural thing. The only way I could have let it go was by letting Gutman and Cario and the kid go. That’s–

“You’re not serious,” she said. “You don’t expect me to think that these things you’re saying are sufficient reason for sending me to the–”

(Knopf 1930 edition and Library of America, pages 581-82)

Is deleting a comma, a conjunction, a dash, correcting spelling mistakes copyedits or proofreading marks from Block’s staff? If so, it stands to reason that Shaw’s editors may have rushed Falcon to print and didn’t catch all the typos.

As you can see phrases were rearranged for flow. Deleting “employees, or a partner, or anybody connected with your detective business” eliminates wordiness. The addition of “organization” not only flows better, but it bolsters Spade’s argument for ethical action. Again, inconclusive whether these edits are Block and his staff. I suspect that Hammett was proofreading Block’s galley when he decided to edit it. The result is a revision.

The additional lines in blue were not in Black Mask. The missing word is “gallows.” The revision packs a wallop. I’ll bet that this revision comes from Hammett himself.

This is not the only revision in Falcon. There are more. Hammett added profanity in describing his Miles Archer and he revised scenes with Joe Cairo and Gutman to create a leaner and spicier final version of The Maltese Falcon. Hammett edited Hammett.


Shaw copyedited Hammett, as they went to press.Block copyedited and proofed Shaw’s 5-part manuscript.

Block copyedited and proofed Shaw’s 5-part manuscript.

Hammett copyedited, proofread and revised Block and himself.


Does the evidence support the verdict?

I know that in editing my own work I can’t see missed words and punctuation. I’m too close to the text. I trust my editor to catch the and finesse the lumps out of the carpet. I have another person read for continuity. Did my protagonist enter and leave the room with the same color shoes? With proofreading, I rely on printed copy because it is either on the page or it isn’t. However, fixes from all of my editors will often give me copy in which I might see something new, and I’ll do small revisions to improve characterization and plotting.

What does this example teach you about editing your own work?

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