Wednesday, July 12, 2017

THE GREAT PRETENDER: THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY

Nazis, black magic and secret history collide in Craig McDonald's "The Great Pretender," which spans the decades-long, uneasy friendship between Hector Lassiter and Orson Welles, from the run-up to Welles’ infamous War of the World’s “Panic Broadcast of 1938” to the set of the noir classic "The Third Man" and ruins of post-war Vienna.

The novel finds the actor and author in a race for a lost holy relic promising its possessor infinite power but a ghastly death if lost. 

Hector and Orson's competitors in their quest for the "Spear of Destiny" or "Holy Lance" include German occultists, members of the Third Reich, a sensuous Creole Voodoo priestess and a strangely obsessed J. Edgar Hoover. 

—Jacket copy for THE GREAT PRETENDER, The Fourth Novel in the Hector Lassiter series.


Readers of the Hector Lassiter series who kept up with various interviews I gave over the years may have rightly been taken by surprise by the announcement and release of THE GREAT PRETENDER in Autumn 2014.

When Betimes Books determined to publish the entire Hector Lassiter cycle, and in something like chronological order, it spurred me to write two additional novels I’d originally contemplated, and even taken cracks at here or there, but hadn’t quite pulled together when the original eight novels were completed between roughly 2006 and 2010.

THE GREAT PRETENDER and DEATH IN THE FACE, featuring respectively, Orson Welles and Ian Fleming, were key to telling Hector’s larger arc as writer and man over the course of the series of novels. They were also the last of the Lassiter novels I wrote in what became a finite, 10-novel cycle. Both were written after a hiatus of a few years of writing about Mr. Lassiter.

The supernatural plays a significant role in THE GREAT PRETENDER: I’d long planned to write something involving Hector and voodoo, maybe set largely in the 1940s and spread over perhaps the French Quarter and Harlem.

But I just couldn’t quite find the hook to hang it all on, until, when preparing the novels for a brisk, Betimes’ publication, I decided Orson Welles required a “Print the Legend”-style treatment that would bring the auteur front-and-center after memorable, extended cameos in HEAD GAMES and TOROS & TORSOS.


PRINT THE LEGEND is my magnum opus on recurring Lassiter “character” Ernest Hemingway; I felt Orson needed a similar deep-dive narrative to fully illustrate his cautionary example, again, ala Hemingway and later, Ian Fleming, for an aging Mr. Lassiter.

It was at that point that I dusted off some go-nowhere drafts of my Lassiter voodoo novel and began to reimagine the tale through a Wellesian prism.

Orson was a very dedicated, and high-end "amateur" magician, as I’d already touched upon in T&T. 

He was also a bit of an occultist and a key figure in early-20th Century race relations and its intersection with art, most notably in his all-Black production of Macbeth (popularly referred to as “Voodoo Macbeth” in the day). 


Also, as earlier touched upon in TOROS & TORSOS, Welles had dared to pursue an interracial love affair with torch singer Billie Holiday around the time he was shaping CITIZEN KANE.

With Welles firmly in place as Hector’s main foil, and the plot beginning to take shape as it zig-zagged around and through Welles’ heyday successes to his quick-arriving eclipse as a bankable director, more of the plot began to suggest itself. 

The novel’s late-1930s setting and use of the Panic Broadcast—an event widely regarded as having been fueled by European war flames that would soon reach America—suggested a Nazi subplot that would transition the series into the next Lassiter book, the World War II-centric ROLL THE CREDITS.


At first glance, Nazis and the occult might not seem like much of a thing outside of a couple of Indiana Jones films.

But George Lucas certainly didn’t invent Nazi fervor for the occult. 

Decades before Indiana Jones stole Doc Savage’s act and chased after the Ark of the Covenant, The Thule Society, a loosely described “"German study group" that cherished all things “Aryan” also  embraced “esoteric studies” and “lost” relics collection.


The Thule Society also required recruits to sign an oath assuring, “"The signer hereby swears to the best of his knowledge and belief that no Jewish or coloured blood flows in either his or in his wife's veins, and that among their ancestors are no members of the coloured races."

Not so surprisingly, the Thule Society became a foundational organization for the eventual Nazi party. 

While Adolph Hitler might not have been much of an occultist himself, several of his key henchman emphatically did embrace the supernatural.

Orson Welles. 

Nazis. 

The occult. 

These are the spooky engines propelling THE GREAT PRETENDER.

You can read the first chapter here.

(Mr. Welles will also be a strong presence in the forthcoming, HEAD GAMES: THE GRAPHIC NOVEL, coming Oct. 21 from First Second Books.)






ONE TRUE SENTENCE: Paperback/eBook

FOREVER'S JUST PRETEND: Paperback/eBook

TOROS & TORSOS: Paperback/eBook

THE GREAT PRETENDER: Paperback/eBook

ROLL THE CREDITS: Paperback/eBook

THE RUNNING KIND: Paperback/eBook

HEAD GAMES: Paperback/eBook


PRINT THE LEGEND: Paperback/eBook/audio

DEATH IN THE FACE: Paperback/eBook

THREE CHORDS & THE TRUTH: Paperback/eBook

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

TOROS & TORSOS: THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY

2017 marks the 10th anniversary of Hector Lassiter's debut in HEAD GAMES, an Edgar & Anthony awards nominated novel and now available for pre-order as a graphic novel from First Second Books.

To mark the anniversary, we're taking occasional looks back at the ten novels in the Hector Lassiter series; revisiting old essays, interviews and the like... This time, high-concept crime fiction—murder inspired by surrealist art—happens in real life, in our time...


Art imitates life; death imitates art?

A time back, I put together a post regarding the second novel in the Hector Lassiter series, Toros & Torsos, (now available from Betimes Books) and the fact it spins on the premise that surrealist art and aesthetic theory might have informed or inspired several bloody, unsolved crimes of the 20th Century — most notably the murder of Elizabeth Short, the so-called “Black Dahlia,” as she was dubbed by panting L.A. journalists, circa January 1947.
Statue based on Dali
illustration.

The correspondences between Elizabeth Short’s mutilation murder and photographs and paintings by Man Ray and Salvador Dali were first put forth by Steve Hodel in his 2003 nonfiction study Black Dahlia Avenger, a New York Times notable book and Edgar® Award finalist. (To be fair, James Ellroy had made a particular painting an element of his 1987 novel based on the Dahlia murder.)

Hodel’s theories were greatly expanded upon by Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss in their excellent 2006 release, Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder.
ELIZABETH SHORT

Using the Nelson, Bayliss and Hodel works as a springboard, I extrapolated outward to construct a multi-decade saga that encompasses not only the Dahlia murder and the all-too-real post-war Hollywood surrealist art circle (which included such diverse personalities as John Huston, Fanny Brice and Vincent Price), but also the Spanish Civil War in which the surrealists played a pivotal propaganda role.

Further research in that area uncovered allegations of jaw-dropping reports of Spanish torture chambers designed and constructed to surrealist aesthetics — tantamount to a crazy cross between Escher and Abu Ghraib.

I mixed in some female torsos that began turning up in the vicinity of Ernest Hemingway’s Cuban home in the 1950s…actual mutilation murders touched on by Hemingway in the published version of his posthumous novel, Islands in the Stream.
The hardcover first edition
of TOROS & TORSOS.
Illustration by
Diego Rivera

It takes a strong stomach and a cold eye to confront the evidence put forward in the Hodel and Nelson/Bayliss books — particularly in Exquisite Corpse. But once key surrealist works are compared to Elizabeth Short’s autopsy photos (reproduced in graphic detail in the Nelson/Bayliss books) it’s difficult to shake the notion surrealist imagery was very much on the mind of Betty Short’s twisted, never-apprehended killer.
Man Ray's "Minotaur," meant to evoke the head of a bull.
The upper portion of "The Black Dahlia's" severed body
mimicked this position when found in January 1947.

Life imitating art…art imitating death, and for some twisted type, it seems, it wasn’t truly art until somebody died.

Well, that was then. I posited my killer surrealists operating in the period between 1935-1959—again, it was fiction grounded in apparent fact. Many critics of Toros the first time around thought the concept...fanciful.

A while back, Woody Haut, author of the excellent crime fiction studies Pulp Culture and Neon Noir, among others, very kindly reviewed Toros & Torsos. In passing, he noted, “And don't think surrealist murders are simply the stuff of urban legend. In the part of the world where I'm currently living, near Perpignan, there were a handful of such murders a few years back, the corpses of which supposedly replicated paintings by Dali.”

I followed up on that intriguing aside of Mr. Haut’s. I found an article from The Guardian regarding those Dali-esque crimes… As the author of Toros & Torsos, reading the article was frankly chilling.

As indicated earlier, occasionally, as a novelist you find yourself the subject of these sometimes cutting remarks about the plots of your novels turning on an “outrageous” or “absurd” premise, or you get the left-handed compliment that your novel works despite its “far-out concept” that surrealist art might inspire serial murder.

Yeah, well… Maybe you can’t make this stuff up.

From the March 9, 2000 edition of the Guardian: “Police are wondering if they are not dealing with a serial killer inspired by the tortured visions of Salvador Felipe Jacinto Dali i Domenech, born May 11 1904, died January 23 1989. ‘It's a theory they've tested and are continuing to test,’ says Mohamed Iaouadan, a lawyer. ‘I've seen the files, believe me. They've commissioned analytical reports from art experts on the significance of Dali paintings.’”

As the lawyer quoted in the article goes on to say, “I'm not sure what I think. Maybe it's madness, this Dali stuff. But killers are inspired by films, aren’t they? Why not by decapitations, eviscerations and dismemberments in the painting of the man who made this town famous?”

For more on the contemporary “Dali” case, you can check out the full (and very graphic) account of the crimes in the Guardian here.






ONE TRUE SENTENCE: Paperback/eBook

FOREVER'S JUST PRETEND: Paperback/eBook

TOROS & TORSOS: Paperback/eBook

THE GREAT PRETENDER: Paperback/eBook

ROLL THE CREDITS: Paperback/eBook

THE RUNNING KIND: Paperback/eBook

HEAD GAMES: Paperback/eBook

PRINT THE LEGEND: Paperback/eBook/audio

DEATH IN THE FACE: Paperback/eBook

THREE CHORDS & THE TRUTH: Paperback/eBook

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

FOREVER'S JUST PRETEND: THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY

2017 marks the 10th anniversary of Hector Lassiter's debut in HEAD GAMES, an Edgar & Anthony awards nominated novel and now available for pre-order as a graphic novel from First Second Books.

To mark the anniversary, we're taking occasional looks back at the ten novels in the Hector Lassiter series; revisiting old essays, interviews and the like...


***


Forever’s Just Pretend (published by Betimes Books ) breaks the Hector Lassiter series mold in at least two striking ways.

This time out, there are no substantial cameos by historical figures.

There is the return, however, of a particular “heroine.” No woman makes back-to-back appearances of significant stint in the Hector Lassiter series except this one particular female novelist.

Brinke Devlin: What’s her true story and why two consecutive books?

Some of that I’m prepared to share.

Few years back, I was in New York City chatting with the person who casts voices and selects readers for Recorded Books’ unabridged audio treatments, including the Lassiter novels.

We’d finished touring the Recorded Books studios and settled in to discuss Hector Lassiter and how he and all those real, now-gone people who populate the Lassiter series of historical literary thrillers might best be transitioned to audio.

Tom Stechschulte was already a virtual lock to be Hector. When I mentioned there would be shifts in point of view from book to book in the latter going—some presented in third-person, others narrated by Hector—it raised the issue of whether a second reader might be in order. Say, an actress.


“If Hector was to have a recurring love interest,” she said, “well, then…”

I assured the Recorded Books studio director that was not the case, that each novel would likely have a different female character playing against Hector.

That was true up to a point. But across the various novels in the series, there are two women in Hector’s life who endure for more than a single book, or even two.

There was this one formidable woman, in particular, whom I’d already committed to paper.

So far as original publication sequence goes, One True Sentence, the prequel to Forever’s Just Pretend, was the fourth novel about Hector Lassiter, but in this cycle of novels that was never envisioned to take the direct or wholly chronological route that ninety-nine percent of other mystery series hew to, it seemed right that around book four there should be several change ups.

While previous Lassiter novels sprawled across continents and decades, One True Sentence spans a single week in Paris, circa February 1924. 

It introduces the woman in Hector Lassiter’s crowded life, the fetching and bewitching mystery writer Brinke Devlin.

Despite the various personal creative challenges I set for myself as its creator, there’s one element that’s remained consistent across the Lassiter series. Hector is, from book to book, confronted by formidable women who leave sometimes dark but lasting marks on his psyche and soul. Simply put, women rule this man’s life.

After entangling Hector with three lovers ranging the spectrum from light to very dark, it seemed appropriate in the middle range of Hector’s saga to present the woman who truly made Hector into Hector. The time seemed ripe, in other words, to reveal Hector’s first and perhaps greatest love.

My central aim in One True Sentence was to depict the romantic figure in Hector’s storied saga. I aimed to portray the woman who most profoundly shaped Hector Lassiter as lover, writer and the shades-of-gray heroic figure readers had come to know in the previous three novels.

Brinke was already name-checked in Print the Legend, but she’d always been lurking in the background. I always knew she was there, waiting to reveal herself. Hell, I’d fully written her story before my debut, Head Games, even saw print.

It is Brinke who at base “creates” the Hector Lassiter his readers come to know. Brinke is a darkly creative woman who pushes Hector from the path of a struggling, often-blocked would-be literary writer to the pulp-frenzied, dark-end-of-the-street crime fiction novelist Hector is fated to be.
AN EARLY COVER CONCEPT
FOR FOREVER IS JUST PRETEND

Years before Hector is tagged with his designation as an author who lives what he writes and then commits his turbulent life to the page, slightly older and much worldlier Brinke was already pioneering the scary art of living one’s life to feed one’s noir fiction.

From conception, Brinke was formulated to be très formidable.

I put at least as much effort into shaping Brinke and her back-story as I did Hector’s. Though I never envisioned writing a series about her, I approached the task with the notion I actually intended Brinke to stand as her own series character.

If, as the saying goes, the boy is father to the man, then equally true I think, is the fact a bewitching, dark muse arriving at the right wrong moment in that man’s life makes him the author he’s fated to be.




ONE TRUE SENTENCE: Paperback/eBook

FOREVER'S JUST PRETEND: Paperback/eBook

TOROS & TORSOS: Paperback/eBook

THE GREAT PRETENDER: Paperback/eBook

ROLL THE CREDITS: Paperback/eBook

THE RUNNING KIND: Paperback/eBook

HEAD GAMES: Paperback/eBook

PRINT THE LEGEND: Paperback/eBook/audio

DEATH IN THE FACE: Paperback/eBook

THREE CHORDS & THE TRUTH: Paperback/eBook