Saturday, November 10, 2018

Guest Blogger--Tim Hallinan: Noises in the Attic


Who among us does not know Tim Hallinan?  He’s among MIE’s distinguished alumni and founders, and an all around, multi-award honored writer of three drop-dead (in all senses of the idiom) series.  He’s posted some great blogs for us in recent weeks and as this week marks the release of his latest Junior Bender novel, “Nighttown,” we’re pleased to have his inside take on one of the hottest new books out there.  But don’t take my word on that, here’s what Marilyn Stasio had to say about “Nighttown” in her most recent The New York Times column:

“Some people welcome the night: hotel managers, nightclub pianists, “Saturday Night Live” interns. Also burglars like Junior Bender, the personable protagonist of Timothy Hallinan’s comic mysteries….Hallinan is exceedingly funny when describing colorful crooks like Louie the Lost, a getaway driver with no sense of direction, and Stinky Tetweil, a grossly fat fence who surrounds himself with exquisite objets d’art. Hallinan’s eclectic narrative also extends to insights about 19th-century spirit photography (“It would be kitsch if it weren’t so callous”) and a Native American legend about human shadows. This one’s good for what ails you.”

One of the great things about writing novels is that they're roomy. Unlike more concentrated forms, such as short stories or (God forbid) haiku, a novel gives a writer the opportunity to have some fun, to ransack through what is undoubtedly an untidy frame of reference and, you know, get things off his or her chest.

You want to write a hilarious exchange between a couple of oysters? An intricate pun on the word bivalve that you've been saving since you thought of it five minutes too late 20 years ago, going down the stairs from seafood dinner at which it would have killed? Well, use it. You've got 90-100,000 words to get through, and if you can't fit an oyster joke in somewhere, you should probably be writing advertising copy.

This is an aspect of novel-writing that has special appeal for people like me. Someone once said of Victor Hugo that his knowledge was “as wide as all the seas and half an inch deep.” I'm not claiming the width, but I have no hesitation about the depth. I've been reading incessantly ever since second grade, and most of what I've read has trailed along with me. If, like Francois Villon, you've been asking yourself, Where are the snows of yesteryear? well, I've got them right here. Somewhere. Filed, like everything else, under “miscellaneous” in a vast mental attic. And you know what? When you've got all that stuff tucked away, it wants to get out.

My mental attic

 So, for me, one of the joys of writing a novel is that I get to trot out my forgotten pets, all the little factoids, punch lines, passing interests, and, um, obsessions that have been tucked away in the dark for so long. Since I know almost nothing about a book before I begin to write it, the gates are wide open. As I work I'm constantly aware that there's a part of me- a little bent-backed, balding guy in gray coveralls-who's ransacking the overstuffed attic of my consciousness. Once in a while he pulls something out and holds it up to the light, and when he does I almost always pay attention.
He was running himself ragged during the time I was writing the new Junior Bender mystery, Nighttown. Rarely have I worked with more cooperative material, a story that, largely uncritically, accepted pretty much everything the little guy held up. Some of them are things I've worried about for years.

For example.

Are you aware that God's first line in the King James Bible is “Let there be light?” Well, okay, so you're aware of it, but you might not have thought much about this primal, deck-stacking bias in favor of light – not the nice, restful rhythm of alternating periods of light and dark, but an absolute and exclusive preference for light in all its glaring, squint-provoking conspicuousness.

God's first line was the beginning of this book for me. Junior, as a burglar, likes darkness, a taste I share and refined over a decade of sleeping much of the day and inhabiting largely the world of night. (I was in a band at the time, and it was a natural rhythm.) This book gave me an opportunity to get in a word for nighttime, which I think is long overdue. As Junior says in the book:

It's not that light is useless. I'm as fond of a sunny day as anyone who isn't prone to melanoma, but I can't help thinking that giving the sun the night off is one of creation's better ideas. It rests the eyes, it allows plants a chance to take a break from making sugar. It clears the landscape for a lot of very interesting animal life. Most love is made at night, at least by people older than, say, seventeen. Many of the world's most fragrant flowers bloom at night. In place of the monochrome blue of the daytime sky, night offers us the moon's waxing and waning face, set against the infinite jewelry of the stars.

If it seems to you that I've given this a lot of thought, you're right. Nighttime, in a manner of speaking, is my zip code. It's an undiscriminating neighborhood, one I share with disk jockeys, cops, ambulance drivers, insomniacs, air traffic controllers, French bakers, peeping toms, recovering drunks, speed freaks, the terrified, the bereaved, the guilt-ridden, and those with the medical condition photophobia. Sure, it's a mixed batch, but night also evens the odds for the blind and extends a hand of mercy to the odd-looking, the ones who draw stares in the glare of noon. It softens the edges of even our ugliest cities.

So there. Take that, Book of Genesis.

But, of course, you can't just choose a personal preference and make kissy-face with it for 350 pages, and expect to hold your readers' attention, unless you're Ayn Rand. (And if you are, it'll be 700 pages.) One must push the boundaries from time to time. Since I was committed to darkness in various forms as a theme of this book, and since it couldn't be a prolonged fantasy on the theme “Hello darkness, my old friend,” I had to come up with someplace that was too dark even for Junior. And out of that quest came Horton House, a creaking 120-year-old mansion that hums with malice and is scheduled for demolition three or four days after the book begins. But, of course, before the place could be demolished, I had to write it, and where would I find a template for that?

Viola! -- a mansion

Tucked away in my mental attic was the goose-bumped memory of having read Benighted, a largely forgotten novel by a now-largely forgotten (but great) writer named J. B. Priestley. The book, his second, was published in 1927 and went largely unnoticed until his next one, The Good Companions, became a global sensation, topping virtually every best-seller chart in the world. In the Priestley rage, Benighted was dusted off by its publishers and, within months, was adapted as a film called “The Old Dark House,” which essentially gave rise to a whole genre, including, ultimately, quite a bit of Horton House in a book called Nighttown.    
And in a spooky house, what could be more fitting than a spooky picture? Before I even got the question out, the guy in the attic yawned and said, “Spirit photography.”

Spirit photography was a heartless 19th-century hoax that came out of the rise to prominence of Spiritualism, a belief system that said that our dead remained with us, sort of invisible fish in the aquarium of life, and that through the rigorous practice of Spiritualism and the intercession of mediums, we could exchange hello-how-are-you and other small talk with them. (The first mediums were the Fox sisters, two young women from Hydesville, a now-vanished town in upstate New York. They called the spirits to the table around which they and the customer-sorry, the seeker-were gathered, and the seeker's questions were answered by a volley of noises from beneath the table, which the Fox sisters “interpreted.” Decades later the sisters confessed that they had double-jointed toes that they could “pop,”which they employed as a sort of spiritual percussion section.)

Spiritualism arose in both the Unites States and England and earned a respectable following but spread like wildfire after the mass bereavements of World War I and the Spanish flu, which killed tens of millions. The time was ripe for a belief system that blunted the edge of loss, and that belief was heightened by spirit photography, which took advantage of widespread ignorance about the mechanics of the camera and was essentially a carefully composed double exposure. For example:

The bereaved is in the foreground, the grumpy-looking and oddly posed departed is behind him
The pictures look stagy and obvious to us now, but back then they inspired belief and awe.

One of the final links in the chain that ultimately formed the story of Nighttown is that the person who was probably most responsible for the spread of Spiritualism, its global spokesperson, to use a modern term, was Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the most relentlessly logical detective in the history of crime fiction. Conan Doyle's connection to Spiritualism was the last tidbit to emerge from the attic; after this, the characters took over as they always do, surprising me with the way they react to all these things and to each other.

So: darkness, an old house, spiritualism, a bunch of somewhat odd characters, and the most famous of all literary sleuths: All of this gave me permission to write about the night: Outside, it was definitely nighttown. The world felt abandoned and thick with sleep, and the gleam of my headlights shifted the colors in front of me toward the yellowish area of the spectrum, the colors I associate with bruising and decay. The clouds had cleared but the moon was mostly a memory, an icy curl as thin as an eyelash, far, far to the West as it lowered itself toward the Pacific. The stars are never much in Los Angeles, but with the moon on its way out they stippled the sky in an orderly, domesticated fashion as though they weren't all lethal, perpetual atomic meltdowns burning their way toward us across billions of miles. They disappeared deferentially near the horizon, where the city lights absorbed their glow.

It was a treat for me to write it. Hope you like the book.

Tim—in for Jeff


  1. Great blog, Tim. Many thanks. Can't wait for my next Junior fix.

    1. Thanks so much, Stan -- I can only hope you like it.

  2. I did, I did like it. Still do, in fact. And a very nice blog, as well. Gee, golly, Batman, you oughta be a writer! Best wishes with the new book, though I know they're not needed. At this point, you're on a roll, and may you keep on rolling for MANY years (and books) to come.

  3. I can use all the best wishes you can generate. There are far too many new books out there. It it too much to ask that I should have the only book released some week? I guess so.

  4. From Annamaria: Tim, I’ve been in love with Junior since you gave him a love for Hans Memling on page one of Crashed. To say nothing of that crack on page two about the Balinese Girl Scouts. I warn any stragglers who haven’t piled onto the bandwagon not to read the Junior Bender series on public transportation. People began to look askance, I guess to wonder about my sanity, I giggled so much. But I know for certain that Junior is good, nay evcellent for my mental health. So thank you for the new dose!!!