Author’s Commentary 1: The Clean Plate Club Murder Mystery


One of the anticipatory pleasures of summer vacation is lining up your reading.  Generally, I like to consider different categories fitting different moods and times of day.  You can always tote work with you on vacation, but let’s be honest here, this is generally for show only and you just won’t get to it.  The next category is the intellectual book, typically a nonfiction affair on politics, history, the Bible or whatever, but mostly these books are just great props for the afternoon nap.  There are the classics –perhaps you are willing to hang tough through the complexity of a William Faulkner novel.  One summer I did plow my way through Absalom, Absalom! and I’ve to tell you it was a (satisfying) bitch.  But what would a summer be without a great crime novel?  This is the type of book that you can stay up late with, madly trying to get to the finish line to unravel the family dysfunction and find out if the troubled hero actually did marry his long lost sister by mistake, setting off a chain of seemingly incomprehensible and grisly murders.  Soon it is one or two in the morning, you are sitting on the porch with an occasional warm breeze, the bugs are lightly tapping at the screen, and as the lights go off in adjacent cabins you find yourself sitting in a small cone of light with absolute darkness around you.  Perfect.

I was introduced to the crime novel by my friend Kitty, who showed up on a ski vacation with a novel by Ross McDonald featuring the detective Lew Archer.   This was shortly after we had seen the 1974 movie Chinatown, and we agreed that we had just seen the perfect movie.  The movie builds to the pivotal scene of Faye Dunaway alternatively gasping,  “She’s my sister (slap), she’s my daughter (slap), she’s my sister AND my daughter !! – finally revealing the unspeakable key to a series of murders.    Now what a discovery – a whole series of novels trafficking in the same basic plot lines of lurid family secrets and hidden identities.  I subsequently learned that far from a trashy novel, the Lew Archer series were well respected detective, considered the successor to Philip Marlow and Sam Spade, created by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, respectively. 

Lew was the archetypical loner detective working in the sterile and artificial environment of the newly rich in Southern California.  Kitty and I devoured the books and became so engrossed that we both a carried a book in our ski parkas and would whip them out on the chairlift and madly turn the pages with cold and trembling fingers. His novels were peppered with acerbic quips of weary insight, like:

“There are certain families whose members should all live in different towns – different states if possible – and write each other letters once a year – And forget to mail them.”

“When there’s trouble in a family, it tends to show up in the weakest member.  And all the other members of the family know that.  They make allowances for the one in trouble – because they know they’re implicated themselves.”

It’s been almost 40 years since I read a Lew Archer novel, and I decided it was time for a refresher.  There were still a bunch of them in the library and I chose the “Blue Hammer.”  The title sounded familiar to me and I vaguely remembered some great line about a blue hammer.  The novel didn’t disappoint.  The opening wedge into the family troubles was a missing painting, questionably painted by a locally renowned artist Richard Chantry who had disappeared and was assumed dead.  Lew’s investigation turns up bodies and suspects, including the unsolved murder of Chantry’s half brother some 30 years ago.  And there it is at the end – one brother killed another and assumed his identity, the real fathers of the brothers finally emerged, and if you followed the confusing lineage, you realized that one brother’s grandson was dating his own daughter.  Along the way you get:

“I could smell them though.  They stank of curdled hopes and poisonous fears and rancid innocence and unwashed armpits.” 

“I lay awake and watched her face emerging in the slow dawn.  After a while I could see the steady blue pulse in her temple, the beating of the silent hammer that meant that she was alive.  I hoped that the blue hammer would never stop.”

For some years now the top item on my Christmas list has been a plot line.  I would love to write a crime novel, but never felt I had enough oomph to write more than the opening paragraph.  But I’m willing to give it a try.

The missing words in the following poem are anagrams (i.e. share the same letters like stop, post, spot) and the number of asterisks indicates the number of letters.  One of the missing words will rhyme with either the previous or following lines.  Your job is to solve the missing words based on the above rules and the context of the poem.  Scroll down for answers.

 Beneath ***** that look perfect and immaculately coiffed,

Often lies an decaying underbelly that has turned rancid and soft.

Jealousies, scars and dark secrets lurk midst these entrails,

And it is the job of the Lew Archer to pierce these well-tended *****.

He will rout out all ***** and bring them into the truth of bright light

And rescue shattered lost souls from a long sickening night.









lives, veils, evils 

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