With his signature wit, the award-winning author of Anno Dracula, Kim Newman, reimagines the lives of Raymond Chandler and Boris Karloff in this daring and horrifying tale.
Hollywood, the late 1930s. Raymond Chandler writes detective stories for pulp magazines and drinks more than he should. Boris Karloff plays monsters in the movies. Together, they investigate mysterious matters in a town run by human and inhuman monsters.
Joh Devlin, an investigator for the DA’s office who scores high on insubordination, enlists the pair to work a case that threatens to expose Hollywood’s most horrific secrets. Together, Chandler and Karloff will find out more than they should about the way this town works. And about each other. And, oh yes, monsters aren’t just for the movies.
Release date: November 2, 2021
Publisher: Titan Books
Print pages: 368
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Listen to a sample
Something More than Night
Real drinkers make good murder suspects.
Amateur souses establish alibis wherever the bender takes them. The pie-eyed sot blundering into the floorshow has a club full of witnesses to testify he was across town from the alley where his former business partner got gunned. The loud, sozzled sister lodges in the memory of the waiter who has to mop up her vomitus on the evening when her husband was defenestrated in another state. Cops give such Saturday night lushes the lightest of grillings before turning the spotlight on the next most likely suspect.
Serious drunks slide through shadows.
Those ferociously intent on poisoning themselves body and soul do so alone. Their step quickens under street lights and slows in the darks between. Coat collars up, hat-brims low. They favour dim holes with short-sighted bartenders who know no names. They leave behind only moist circles.
They could be guilty of anything.
Sometimes – too often – that’s the stripe of drinker I am. Fuzzy on dates and places, unclear about what I’ve done and with or to whom. Not sure whether the night’s monsters were half-way unreal.
Oh, that’s another thing.
There are monsters.
I have seen their faces and I know their names.
* * *
It was late 1931 or early ’32. As I mentioned, dates get fuzzy.
I was in the habit of working conscientiously from nine till one, then drinking at (or for) lunch. A belt or two often turned into a bottle or more. Afternoons seldom found me returning to the twelfth-floor offices of the Dabney Oil Syndicate, above the Bank of Italy on South Olive Street. Secretaries covered for me, if they were so disposed… and didn’t when they’d had enough. They always had enough in the long run.
The firm kept me on – at the rank of Vice-President – because they got a good morning’s work. Paperwork was done, briskly and with precision. The hot thumbtacks behind my eyes didn’t cloud my head for figures. My British accent lent their piratical concern an air of respectability. Not that I’m British – I was born in Chicago. But I am an English public school man. That means something, even at three or four sheets to the wind.
The title of Vice-President was misleading. I was a superior sort of bookkeeper, labouring under the handicap of being reasonably honest in a crooked business. No one in California oil – even in offices with rose-pink Tennessee marble floors – avoids getting their hands dirty as derrick wrenches. My manners convinced investors they weren’t being robbed. Under me, lesser bookkeepers pumped adding machines as if they might pay out tokens. A percentage of our stenographers couldn’t type above three words a minute but were eager to persuade out-of-town clients they’d had a fine old time in Los Angeles.
In most cities, dirty money smells like a newly printed slick magazine, so sharp you can cut your throat with a ten-spot. LA bills are soft, grubby with petroleum. Rolled between fingertips, they feel damp as orchid petals. Touch a lit match to one and it flares like magician’s flash-paper. All that’s left is ash and a stain. And a smell you stop noticing after a while.
In the dying days of the Herbert Hoover Administration, alcohol was illegal in these United States. The dedicated wine-bibber had to seek premises with no visible street address, knuckle-rap on a steel door, remember a foolish password and know a friend of Sam’s. The government-approved stock of earlier and later years was not served. No federal snoopers checked for impurities, calculated alcohol percentages or ensured absence of rat-pellets. In actuarial terms, I was at less risk charging enemy machine guns in the Great War than I was downing paraffin gimlets in times of peace.
Drinking wasn’t done in gay public places either – but in cellars, vacant lots and back-rooms. My preferred afternoon avenues to oblivion were second- or third-run movie theatres. Not the two-thousand-seater picture palaces on Broadway, with Versailles mirrors and plaster sphinxes, but concrete boxes called the Rex or the Lux – or perhaps the Styx. You were ushered to a row of bolted-together dentists’ chairs and charged fifteen times the price of admission for a bottle in a brown paper bag with ‘peanuts’ written on it.
Smoke ghosts swirled in the projector beam, gold-digger legs dancing and cowboy guns puffing. Auditoria rattled with the tinny sounds movies made when they first started to talk. Characters set off firecrackers, tap-danced, honked car-horns and breathed husky songs. I did not patronise such places as a devotee of the cinematic arts. Or as an admirer of Miss Janet Gaynor or Strongheart the Wonder Dog.
I was only here for the peanuts.
That afternoon, the picture was Frankenstein.
Little of the original remained. My third form at Dulwich College scorned Mrs Shelley’s novel as insufficiently terrifying fudge. Her Monster was as given to quoting Milton out of context and at length as our tedious house master. Schoolboy sophisticates with a yen for the horrors preferred the much-confiscated ghost stories of M.R. James. In a rare instance of American literary pride, I argued for Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow. Now, that’s a frightening book.
My eye was occasionally drawn to the screen.
After murky doings in a graveyard, Frankenstein settled into drawing-room guff staged and played to the standard of a 1910 touring production of Mrs Tanqueray’s Past. A soppy blonde and her second-string swain drew hoots from the back row.
A dwarf with a tiny cane scuttled around a laboratory. A brain in a jar was stolen. The wrong brain. This abnormal cerebellum was sewn into the skull of the bandaged giant. The subject was hoisted up to the eaves in a crackle of electric arcs while cabinets of machinery fizzed and flashed.
I was disturbed by Henry Frankenstein, maker of the Monster. His haggard cheeks reminded me of the haunted mask that floated in my shaving mirror. A fellow drinker, I figured. The actor’s accent gave him away as another English public school man.
‘It’s alive, it’s alive, it’s moving… it’s al-i-eve!’
The picture abandoned the drawing room for a stone-clad ruin, a cathedral filled with purposeless contraptions. I felt lightning strikes in my temples, my spine, my teeth.
I was on my second peanut bag when the Monster appeared.
Movies were getting clever with monsters. Before the Vitaphone, Lon Chaney would tear off a mask and stick his face – all eyes and teeth – into the camera. The orchestra (and the audience) provided the mute heroine’s scream. At such moments, my friend Warren Lloyd and I would sit at opposite sides of the theatre and laugh out loud. Audiences can be infected with forced, inappropriate hilarity. The experiment was usually a roaring success. Two or three times, I got popped in the eye or kicked into the foyer. I lacked Warren’s talent for defusing the wrath of those who resented being drafted as sociology specimens on their evenings out.
Lon Chaney had died, talkies were all the rage and Hollywood had a vacancy for a bogey man.
In the opening credits, the actor playing Frankenstein’s Monster was billed as ‘?’. Question Mark. Had Mr Carl Laemmle of Universal Pictures scouted the freak shows of the world for a stitched-together face? Plenty of broken mugs were around. Broken minds too.
The audience at the Styx was sparse. Not a few had peanut bags. Some even munched peanuts. The film fostered apprehension. We were grownups, no longer scared of ghosties and goblins. A good percentage of us had been through the War. We lived in a country where cops could knock you down or lock you up for having a hip-flask. But I could feel the fear. I was a part of it. A frisson can be delicious, like the thrill of turning a page to find out what horrors lurk in The King in Yellow. Years on, the anticipation of fright wasn’t a tingle but a knife to the throat. We grew sick as impatience blended with dread.
The actors not playing monsters were shrill. Was the film running fast? The fug of drink usually slows time. Rat-tat-tat tommy guns in a gangster picture sound like the parp-parp-parp of a flatulent frog. Here, the doctor, the girl, the swain and even the dwarf hurried through their lines as if they wanted the curtain rung down before sunset, afraid to walk home in the dark.
After the spectacle of electric vivification came earnest talk of infinity and promethean ambition… and finally the entrance of the Monster.
A door opened. Did it creak? It ought to have.
Bulky shoulders in a workman’s jacket. Big boots. That flat head.
No one breathed.
At that time, I was – in Hollywood terms – a civilian. I knew stars by name but had no idea what a director did. I had heard of Mary W. Shelley, but not James Whale. He was the madman who directed Frankenstein, the real maker of monsters. Whale didn’t have Question Mark pop up like Lon Chaney-in-a-box or clutch like the Cat who clawed the Canary. Whale opened the door and had the Monster walk into the room backwards. The first we saw was the rear of his misshapen head, terminals on his neck, black hair lank.
I wanted to raise the wrapped bottle, but my hands didn’t work. The world was out of focus, pictures wavering on dust motes, but the screen was clear and fifty yards across.
Question Mark turned to the audience.
Those eyes – heavy lids, inkblot irises, clear agony. That twist of a mouth. The black cheek sore, like potato blight. A gaunt martyr’s face. A Monster, all right – assembled on a slab at Universal Pictures, shocked to life by stage lightning. But also… another English public school man.
The audience did not laugh. A small boy shrieked.
Cuts brought the Monster’s face closer, made it bigger. A looming moon of hurt.
The horror was that I knew that face.
I knew what those eyes had seen.
‘Billy,’ I exclaimed involuntarily, ‘Billy Pratt!’
Atelephone call at 2.30 a.m. is never good news.
At the first ring, Taki’s claws hooked through my pants, pricking the meat of my thighs. Our cat, mistress of the house, arched her back, fur rising like porcupine spines. I shooed her off my lap and picked up the phone.
‘Raymond Chandler, speaking,’ I said.
‘R.T.,’ came that insidious whisper, ‘it’s Billy.’
I knew who it was even before he gave his name. In this hemisphere, only Billy uses my initials. And, of course, his voice is famous.
At the muffled sound of him, Taki relaxed.
Cats love Billy. As do women. And small children he hasn’t drowned.
William Pratt is now known as Boris Karloff.
Nine or so years previously, he gave me a shock in Frankenstein. Not like the shock he gave everyone else. My terror was more intimate – a shock of familiarity, of remembering…
Nearly thirty years before Frankenstein, in a cricket pavilion in England, Billy became my secret brother. So he remains, decades on at the far edge of the United States. The story that explains our association is one – as the fusty, careless Conan Doyle would have it – ‘for which the world is not yet prepared’. Translated into language people might actually use, coughing up that yarn would be a one-way ticket to the booby-hatch.
Radio comedians who do ‘Boris Karloff’ pretend he has a lisp. But no little bird flutters in Billy’s upper register. His susurrus never slurs to mush, just hints that it might. As the Mummy, he deftly sidestepped elephant trap phrases like ‘the scroll of Thoth’. His real imitable tic is a slight elongation of the vowels, like the mid-word pause a vicar takes to suppress a nasty notion about a parishioner in the third pew.
An English public school voice, ostensibly mild rather than monstrous – yet with something sinister in it. His eye-gleam is simultaneously a twinkle of charm and a glint of malice.
Billy plays monsters because he understands them.
Monsters can sport an old school tie. Many do.
A ghost in blue pyjamas appeared at the door of my study.
‘Raymio,’ she whispered in reproach – more chilling than a call from the talking screen’s reigning Demon King.
Taki padded over to the ghost and licked her lacquered toes.
‘R.T.? Are you still there?’
‘I’m sorry, Billy,’ I said. ‘It’s Cissy.’
‘Ah, your sweet white-haired mother. Give the old dear my best wishes.’
‘It’s Billy Pratt,’ I said.
The ghost vanished, pulling shut my study door.
My wife closes doors on any part of me that disappoints or frightens her. She locks her own doors too. We share much, but not everything. She keeps the secret of her true age as djinni conceal the names that give sorcerers power over them. I do not expose her, too much, to the drinking – now it’s legal, I am mostly dry – or the secretaries. Or the monsters.
Cissy sleeps through most nights. I do not.
We change addresses often, as if dodging bailiffs… or, as it would have been in the pulp magazines that butter my crusts, on the run from a remorseless, methodical killer who would eventually poke a gun-barrel through the door-crack of any hideout. Cissy and I hole up in rented apartments and small houses, moving out of the city and then back to its fringes. Monrovia, Arcadia, Pacific Palisades. No-places, mostly – a fair drive from anywhere people have heard of. The air heavy with sea salt, oil stink, desert wind and scents of flora nurtured with stolen water. Mimosa, manzanita, grevillea, yarrow, hummingbird sage.
I was eventually cashiered from Dabney Oil for bringing the profession of rapine and banditry into disrepute through spotty attendance, persistent drunkenness and misconduct with female office staff (secretaries). After that, I spent a long decade honing a new craft, equally inimical to polite company and far less remunerative.
I write mysteries. Not novels, not books – mysteries.
In outline, I have a non-mystery set to go. English Summer, subtitled A Gothic Romance. It has just one murder in it. P. Marlowe, Esq. wouldn’t get out of bed for just one murder. After I shove Marlowe over a waterfall, I’ll write about manners and morals rather than mugs and murders. Manners and morals are fit subjects for novels. Cissy, not a devoted Black Mask reader, says my stories are romances at bottom. My questing knights wear hats rather than helms and brandish automatics rather than lances.
‘Is it her?’ I asked Billy.
Cissy says all the she-cats in my stories – the blondes in need of rescue, the dark ladies with guns in handbags – are portraits of our Taki’s moods. One reason I stay unfashionably married despite proximity to America’s divorce resorts is that my wife is my most perceptive, imaginative critic. Alexander Woollcott wouldn’t look half so good in blue pyjamas – and, besides, I doubt he’s a natural redhead.
I don’t disabuse Cissy about my belles dames sans merci.
My wife doesn’t need to know about Ariadne.
Billy didn’t breathe the name either… but I usually heard from him when her great wings beat and palms bent in the backwash.
‘It’s not her,’ he said. ‘Though she’s in it, I’m sure.’
In horror movies, Frankenstein’s Monster had a Bride and Dracula a daughter – ghosts of Ariadne, who retired from acting before those scripts were written. In her brief screen career, she might have been one of the spectre concubines in Dracula, the pale blonde with dark sisters.
Her face never changes – a girl’s, with ancient eyes. Green eyes, threaded with red.
She hadn’t followed us from Dulwich drizzle to Hollywood sunshine. If anything, we were drawn in her wake. After knocking about the world, Billy and I both ended up where dreams were made. The fountains of terror and wonder.
At the other end of the line, I heard rain and the crash of waves.
‘Where are you?’
‘Malibu Pier,’ said Billy. ‘You know the one.’
‘I ought to. It’s where I killed that bloody chauffeur.’
‘Ah, so you do know who did it? Is that a confession?’
‘Yes, I with my typewriter, I killed the chauffeur. Strictly, he killed himself – wedged the pedal and aimed the big black Buick at the ocean.’
‘Did you also take off the unfortunate’s face – and the greater part of his noggin – with a shotgun?’
‘No,’ I winced. ‘I have some standards. I don’t write your sort of story.’
‘Someone does,’ he said. ‘Someone imagines your sort of story and my sort of story mixed together. Mystery and horror.’
‘You didn’t call in the middle of the night to discuss which pulp to sneak off the stands – Dime Detective or Terror Tales?’
‘No, I’m with the police. You know the police. They aren’t overly fond of you.’
‘I shouldn’t wonder.’
‘Ah, but they love me. Murder children on the silver screen and everyone loves Uncle Boris. Sneer at coppers in a mucky book and you’ve enemies for life.’
I had a spasm. Did I have an alibi?
Even sober, I make a good murder suspect.
Taki side-eyed me as if she knew I was guilty. She’d rat me out in a second, for all that she was loved, fed and made obeisance to. The feline would land a new sugar daddy as easily as a showgirl gaffs her next monied scion.
‘Have you been arrested?’ I asked.
‘Good Lord no. The bracelets slapped on an Uppinghamian! It would never do. I am, sad to say, merely called on to identify the corpse.’
‘The fellow without a face?’
‘Indeed. And not wearing a chauffeur’s uniform.’
‘The dead man went off the pier in a car?’
‘A big black sedan. Does that sound familiar?’
It did and Billy knew it would. The Big Sleep, my first book-length mystery, features a similar incident. That corpse is Owen Taylor, chauffeur to the Sternwood family. P. Marlowe expresses only minor interest in a below-stairs fatality he has not been hired to investigate. Therefore, little thought is given to the question of whether Taylor ended his own life or was murdered. The loose end flaps.
If Chandler, R.T. had known so many readers, professional and amateur, would find the flunky’s demise so fascinating a subject, he’d have clipped a coroner’s report to the typescript. The world should have moved on but we were back to poor inconsistent Owen Taylor, who only appeared in The Big Sleep as a corpse. Someone invented only to be killed off. Mystery readers demand regular homicides, relevant or not, explicable or otherwise.
‘Could this be the work of one of your demented fans, R.T.?’
A few years earlier, Billy and I tangled with ‘Prospero Prince’, a wealthy bibliophile whose hobby was recreating highlights of the tales of Edgar Allan Poe – pulling a party girl’s teeth, bisecting a tennis pro with an Inquisition torture device, stuffing a gossip columnist up a chimney. Prince had to be tricked into a final homage – ‘A Cask of Amontillado’, played in the wine cellar of the Spanish mission he’d decorated as the House of Usher. We walled him up and walked away. He’s almost certainly run out of air by now. The crimes were kept out of the papers, but at least two movies – one starring Billy – were inspired by whispers that went around about them.
‘Not likely,’ I said. ‘Prince had the dough to get a giant pendulum razor custom-made to Poe’s specifications. My demented fans can’t afford big black Buicks. They ride the Red Cars. Or steal bicycles.’
‘You have readers among the police. It was they who thought of you.’
‘I’m happy to autograph flyleaves in office hours.’
‘I shall relay the offer. It might give them cheer after a gruelling night shift. Fishing an automobile from the vasty deep is tricky. The operation involves a motor-tug, a diver with a foul disposition and chains and pulleys and braces.’
‘Why are you in Malibu? It’s a long way from Coldwater Canyon.’
‘The police insisted I attend. In the glove compartment of the car they found a waterlogged motion picture script. The Man They Could Not Hang. I played in that for Columbia a year or so ago. It is, in point of fact, my copy of the script of The Man They Could Not Hang.’
‘How can they tell?’
‘I mark my sides. In this script, Dr Savaard’s lines are underscored by my distinctive flourish. Dr Savaard was the role I played. They couldn’t hang him. He was brought back from the dead. By electric shock.’
‘You speak in films? I’ve only heard you grunt.’
‘Grrr… arrrh,’ said the Monster.
It was always like that between us. English public school men joshing, Old Uppinghamian and Old Alleynian. Even when it was no joshing matter. Especiallywhen it was no joshing matter.
‘How did the Faceless Man come by your copy of a script?’
‘I rather think I gave it to him. There’s a dedication on the title page. I wrote that. But he wrote the script itself. I think it’s Joh, R.T. Joh Devlin.’
Now I understood why he’d called.
‘I’ll be right over, Billy.’
‘We’ll still be here. The police are having a devil of a time finding a coroner at this hour.’
‘The police generally have problems finding people.’
‘Perhaps they should hire Philip Marrow.’
‘I said that.’
‘Sure you did, Bela. Sure you did.’
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