Wednesday, March 2, 2022

In Praise of Used Bookshops

This is a re-post that was originally part of the 2014 book release blog tour, hosted by Sirens of Suspense (RIP). 

Thank you, Sirens of Suspense, for the opportunity to drop by on my February blog tour for The Kept Girl, a novel of 1929 starring the young Raymond Chandler, his devoted secretary and the real-life cop who is a likely model for Philip Marlowe.


With this guest post, I'd like to send a little virtual love note out to the used bookshops of the worldthe long, narrow ones with high shelves and dust and cats and grumpy clerks and little stashes of rarities that some poorly-behaved customer has tucked away behind the automotive repair guides with the vague intent of purchasing when their monthly check arrives.


There aren't very many used bookshops left these days, and I think we should all strive to patronize the ones that are still hanging on. The internet has democratized the book collection hobby, making it all too (relatively) cheap and easy to amass every Dell map back mystery, or those sly Edward Gorey Anchor Books paperbacks, or whatever special patch of print history it is that makes your pulse race. 


But the downside of the internet is that, while it's very good at delivering the things one already knows they're interested in, it tends to run thin in true surprises.


And it's those true surprises, jaw droppers and head shakers, in which the best bookshops have ever traded, and that make them such valuable spaces in our shared cultural life. 


Take, for example, the one rare little document that gave off the sparks that burned and flared into my debut novel, The Kept Girl. 

I didn't even find it myself. My '90s zine pal Lynn Peril of Mystery Date fame–that's her on the cover of the RE/Search book Zines! Vol. One–was roaming the aisles of Kayo Books in San Francisco's Tenderloin, a paperback collectors' store specializing in pulp exploitation and oddities, when she noticed a slim pamphlet tucked up on a shelf. Even before picking it up, she could see it was too thin to be a mass market title, and the wrong size for a cheap recipe book. There was no writing on the spine, there wasn't even a spine. It was something unique, a one-off. Curious, she picked it up.


As it happened, Lynn had found the self-published
 j'accuse of a fired Los Angeles cop, tossed off the force in 1931 because he couldn't help notice that the Mayor and Police Chief were up to their navels in rum running, drugs and the flesh trade, and because he couldn't seem to shut up about it. 


Los Angeles crime lore isn't really Lynn's beat, but for $5, Chief Steckel Unmasked (originally priced at 25¢, with the penciled notation "Read and pass on") was too interesting to leave behind. She bought it, took it home, and some time later asked me if I'd like to see it. Would I! 


Chief Steckel Unmasked is one incredibly peeved ex-cop's and Police Commission investigator's cry into the darkness of a sun-drenched city gone foul to its roots. He names names, calculates illegal profits, gives the addresses of whole streets packed with houses of ill fame, and ultimately calls on the righteous population of Los Angeles to rise up and reclaim their community from the elected gangsters that control it.


Reading it, I felt a weird twinge. Los Angeles crime lore is my beat, but I'd never heard of this guy. Yet he seemed to know where all the bodies were buried, and to be completely fearless. I turned to the historic Los Angeles Times archives, where a rich history revealed itself.


Thomas H. James was a the foster son of a wealthy leader of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. He went into police work to help his fellow man, and campaigned for Mayor Porter, impressed by promises of reform. Porter won, and installed Tom James as his personal police commission investigator. 


Disillusioned at the state of the city, and to by Porter's true colors, James started preaching reform. They bounced him down to beat cop at a busy downtown intersection. He didn't stop. They sent him into the deep San Fernando Valley, where the chicken ranchers were. He kept squawking. They fired him, and he wrote and published this little book, sued to get his job back, and within a decade saw the recall of crooked Mayor Frank Shaw. (The reform of the LAPD would take a little longer.) 


Aspects of Tom James' life and character reminded me strongly of Raymond Chandler's white knight detective Philip Marlowe. After leaving City Hall under a cloud, uniformed James preached reform two blocks east of Chandler's oil company offices, and was the talk of the town in 1929. Later, James was enmeshed in a notorious shooting that Chandler would fictionalize in the transitional Black Mask story "Spanish Blood." Could Chandler, who drew on real crimes for his plots and real buildings for his scenes, have looked to a real reformer when creating his detective hero?


That idea was the spark that would burn and flare, as more research was packed around it, until I saw a way to tell Tom James' fascinating story, and the young Chandler's, and that of the sad and deluded people who fell victim to a strange cult of angel worshippers called The Great Eleven, all in one neat little mystery. 


As the puzzle pieces came together, I leaned in and tucked them in tighter. It felt kind of magical, as if the story was meant to be told just this way. And it's a book that might never have happened had my friend not spied that odd little pamphlet on the shelf and passed it on. 


So let's hear it for those wonderful used bookshops, where surprises lie in wait until the right person comes along and notices them. Long may they trade!

Sunday, January 30, 2022

The Case of the Spectral Headache

On the occasion of the announcement that the archives of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union of Southern California are no longer stored in an old Craftsman mansion in Koreatown, but are now in the care of the Willard House Museum & WCTU Archives in Evanston, Illinois, I'm republishing this post that was part of the 2014 book release blog tour, hosted by Drey's Library. 

While I'm pleased that this material will be properly organized, protected from the elements and accessible to scholars, it's always sad when a local archive leaves Southern California. 

Something my husband Richard Schave and enjoy as a side effect of our work researching Los Angeles lore is to help steer historic documents into institutional archives, including a previously unknown rendering of the National Register Bradbury Building. Maybe we would asked the nice WCTU folks about their plans, had our one visit to view the material in 2012 not resulted in a rather nasty supernatural experience. We held off returning for four years, only to be told they were packing up most of the collection for the move east.  

Read on for The Case of the Spectral Headache...

The Kept Girl is based on a real Los Angeles cult murder investigation of the late 1920s, and most of the characters in the novel are based on actual people. In order to portray them accurately, a lot of research had to be done before I could start writing. 

One of my three detectives is LAPD officer Tom James, who was the foster son of Allie Wheeler, a prominent member of the local branch of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), a lobby group that sought to ban alcohol consumption in America.  Tom lived in his foster mother's home, and they were politically active together. 

I knew a bit about the WCTU's work on a national level, but not much about the local organization. So I was delighted to discover that the WCTU still maintains a presence in Los Angeles, with offices in a charming old Craftsman house in the very neighborhood where much of my novel is set. Better still, one of their members maintains an archive, and would be happy to let interested researchers come in and consult it.

An appointment was made for a small group of Los Angeles history fiends to visit the WCTU headquarters, where we spent a fascinating afternoon in good company, learning about the organization's history and looking through old books, photographs and memorabilia, including a marvelous creepy automaton figure that promotes sobriety at the County Fair. 

Here is video of another WCTU automaton figure, similar to the one in Los Angeles.

I even found a photo of Allie Wheeler as a young woman. All in all, a most successful day in the archives!

Or so I thought, until that evening, when I decided to unwind with a small glass of wine. A few sips from the glass and it hit me—a headache like I have never felt before in my life. Located behind my left eye, it felt as if an angry child was trying to dig that eye out of my head with a grapefruit spoon. 

Left eye shut against the light, sweating, I managed to do an internet search for my symptoms and determined it was almost certainly a cluster headache, an extremely rare form of migraine, and that nothing much could be done except wait it out. 

I am not a migraine sufferer, but here I was, having hours before opened the Pandora's Box of the WCTU archives and thoughtlessly celebrated with a snoot full, struck down with the very worst sort of migraine, the one colloquially called a "suicide headache."

I huddled on the couch for hours, with an ice pack clutched to my neck. It was terrible. Then, after midnight, merciful sleep.

I felt physically fine in the morning, but mentally shaken. I told Richard what had happened, and he immediately blamed my experience on an elemental force freed when I had stirred up the spirits of temperance activism. He suspected that this elemental had followed me home, and didn't like me taking a drink.

Maybe he was right. All I knew was, I had a book to write, and didn't dare risk another cluster headache. I stayed sober for many months. There were no more headaches. I wrote a rather funny scene in which a large group of WCTU ladies help my detectives Tom James and Raymond Chandler with their case, while politely ignoring the fact that Chandler is clearly hungover from the night before.  

I don't know what happened that night the cluster headache came upon me, if Allie Wheeler and her friends had anything to do with it or if was just an odd coincidence. But the intensity of the pain drove home to me just how intense were the belief systems of the people I was writing about—not just the temperance activists, but also the cultists who had their headquarters just six blocks away from the archive. 

All of these people are decades dead, but here I was stirring up their passions, fictionalizing their appearances, reviving their relationships, putting words in their mouths. It was serious work, and had to be approached with respect. I left the liquor cabinet doors closed, and took up my pen, determined to do right by these old citizens of my city. I like to think they'd be pleased with the results, and if they're not, I hope they'll make that known in a gentler way than the last message from beyond. 

Southern California WCTU Booth (Frances Willard House Museum and WCTU Archives)