Friday, May 11, 2018

Bunker Hill Blues – And the Howard Hamm Sazerac

Paul D. Marks is the author of the Shamus Award-Winning mystery-thriller White Heat. Publishers Weekly calls White Heat a “taut crime yarn.” His story Ghosts of Bunker Hill (EQMM Dec. 2016) was voted #1 in the 2016 Ellery Queen Readers Poll. Howling at the Moon (EQMM Nov. 2014) was short-listed for both the 2015 Anthony and Macavity Awards. Midwest Review calls his novella Vortex “…a nonstop staccato action noir,” (Drinks with Reads: February, 2016: ). Marks’ story Windward, from the Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea anthology, has been selected for the 2018 Best American Mystery Stories (fall 2018), edited by Louise Penny & Otto Penzler.

White Heat is being reissued by Down & Out Book on May 21, 2018 and is available for pre-order now on Amazon and D&O’s website. Its sequel, Broken Windows, will be released in fall, 2018.

Howard Hamm didn’t believe in ghosts. At least that’s what he’d been telling himself ever since he watched Poltergeist as a kid. On the other hand, if there are no such thing as ghosts or vampires or werewolves, his kid self would ask, why do we have words for them? He was still asking.

That’s how my story Bunker Hill Blues (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Sept./Oct. 2017) opens. It’s the second story to appear in the Howard Hamm series. The first was Ghosts of Bunker Hill (Ellery Queen Dec. 2016). 

Bunker Hill was L.A.’s first wealthy residential neighborhood, right near downtown. It was filled with glorious Victorian mansions, as well as offices, storefronts, hotels, etc. After World War I the swells moved west and the neighborhood got run down and became housing for poor people. It wasn’t shiny enough for the Powers That Be, who wanted to build up and refurbish downtown. Out with the old, the poor, the lonely, in with the new, the young, the hip. The wealthy.

So, in the late 1950s and ’60s, the Powers decided to get rid of the “blight” and modernize downtown. To that end, they began a massive redevelopment of the area, including leveling or flattening some of the hills, changing street configurations, removing and demolishing houses and other buildings. So by the late 1960s/early ’70s it was all torn down and redeveloped and progress was achieved. 

By the time Raymond Chandler, who had lived there a couple of different times in his life, was writing about it he was already calling it “shabby town”. In The High Window (1942), he said:

Bunker Hill is old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town. Once, very long ago, it was the choice residential district of the city, and there are still standing a few of the jigsaw Gothic mansions with wide porches and walls covered with round-end shingles and full corner bay windows with spindle turrets. They are all rooming houses now, their parquetry floors are scratched and worn through the once glossy finish and the wide sweeping staircases are dark with time and with cheap varnish laid on over generations of dirt. In the tall rooms haggard landladies bicker with shifty tenants. On the wide cool front porches, reaching their cracked shoes into the sun, and staring at nothing, sit the old men with faces like lost battles.
 Raymond Chandler, The High Window

Several of the grand Victorian mansions were moved to Carroll Avenue in the Angelino Heights neighborhood of L.A. near Echo Park (and Echo Park Lake), not all that far from downtown. 

Through a series of circumstances in Ghosts of Bunker Hill, P.I. Howard Hamm finds himself living in one of these houses, while still maintaining his high-tech, high-rise apartment on the “new” Bunker Hill…maybe even in the exact spot his current house once lived. In that story, Howard “inherits” one of these old Victorians when his friend, the house’s owner, is murdered on the front porch and it falls into his hands.  He hadn’t planned on living there. 

In Bunker Hill Blues, a woman shows up on Howard’s doorstep – she had lived in his house as a child, when the house was still on Bunker Hill. She asks if she can tour her old home. Her visit leads to the uncovering of long-buried family secrets and murder. And it solves the mystery of the two sets of initials carved on the floor in the corner of Howard’s home office, her former playroom. These events call for a drink:

An aura of emptiness filled the house after Bowen left. Howard poured single malt into a lead crystal snifter. Sat in the Victorian parlor chair in the study, sipped slowly. The liquid burned his throat, but soon the liquor crawled its way through his body, warming him from the inside out. He could still smell Bowen’s perfume wafting through the house. Did cops wear perfume on the job?
He finished the glass, poured another. Leaned his head back against the chair. The room seemed to spin.
―Paul D. Marks, Bunker Hill Blues

John Fante, one of my favorite writers, best known for Ask the Dust, also lived in and wrote about Bunker Hill:

The old folk from Indiana and Iowa and Illinois, from Boston and Kansas City and Des Moines, they sold their homes and their stores, and they came here by train and by automobile to the land of sunshine, to die in the sun, with just enough money to live until the sun killed them, tore themselves out by the roots in their last days, deserted the smug prosperity of Kansas City and Chicago and Peoria to find a place in the sun. And when they got here they found that other and greater thieves had already taken possession, that even the sun belonged to the others; Smith and Jones and Parker, druggist, banker, baker, dust of Chicago and Cincinnati and Cleveland on their shoes, doomed to die in the sun, a few dollars in the bank, enough to subscribe to the Los Angeles Times, enough to keep alive the illusion that this was paradise, that their little papier-mâché homes were castles.―John Fante, Ask the Dust

In the context of my Bunker Hill/Howard Hamm stories the word ghosts has multiple meanings: ghosts of the past, ghosts of who we were and what we might be and in the case of Bunker Hill Blues the ghosts of the children that once lived in Howard’s house a long time ago. 

Howard might not have believed in ghosts, but they were everywhere if you knew where to look for them: There are more things in heaven and earth, and all that jazz. Not creatures in white sheets like Casper, not malevolent apparitions like in Poltergeist. But ghosts of the past, ghosts of who we were and who we thought we wanted to be. Ghosts of our lost dreams. In some ways those ghosts are always gaining on us, aren’t they?Bunker Hill Blues

I like writing the Howard Hamm stories for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is my love for L.A. and its history. I feel very lucky that I could explore Bunker Hill with a friend before it was totally razed. We did our own little archaeological expedition of several of the houses and I even "borrowed" the top of a newel post from the long and winding interior stairway in one of those houses. A true relic of L.A.’s past, it’s a prized possession.

And Bunker Hill is where the famous Angels Flight funicular railway is. As a kid, I got to ride the original Angels Flight, before it was moved down the road, which was a thrill then and still is in memory. 

I stood at the bottom of the hill, staring up at Angels Flight, the famous little funicular railway in the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles, that brought people from Hill Street up to Olive. I desperately wanted to ride those rails up to the top. But now the two twin orange and black cars were permanently moored in the middle, suspended in mid-air, ghosts from another time.―Paul D. Marks, Ghosts of Bunker Hill

Howard tends to drink single malt Scotch. But I thought I’d jazz it up a little so he can drink his own version of a Sazerac, thus the:

Howard Hamm Sazerac

The Howard Hamm Sazerac is a variation on the standard Sazerac, which is made with cognac or rye whiskey. Since Howard likes single malt Scotch, the HH is made with that instead of either of the other two.

Old-Fashioned Glass
Mixing glass

  • 1 sugar cube
  • Water
  • 1 1/2 ounces single malt Scotch (such as Glenlivet or Lagavulin)
  • 2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
  • Ice
  • 1 teaspoon or barspoon of absinthe
  • Lemon peel or slices

Chill the Old-Fashioned glass by rinsing it in water and placing it in the freezer for 10 to 15 minutes.
Place a sugar cube in the mixing glass and add enough water to moisten. Mash sugar cube with the barspoon until dissolved.
Add Scotch, bitters and ice to the mixing glass and stir. Set aside.
Remove Old-Fashioned glass from the freezer and add one teaspoon of absinthe. Roll the absinthe around and bathe the inside of the glass. Pour out the excess absinthe.
Strain the contents of the mixing glass into the Old-Fashioned glass
Rub the rim of the glass with the lemon peel and garnish with a slice of lemon.

Sit in your favorite Victorian parlor chair, sip and enjoy!

Both stories, Bunker Hill Blues and Ghosts of Bunker Hill can be found for free on my website: 

Look for Howard Hamm to return in Fade Out on Bunker Hill (unless the title changes) in a future issue of Ellery Queen. If you like the movie Sunset Boulevard I think you’ll enjoy Howard in this tale.

And thanks for stopping by. Now go out and make your own Howard Hamm Sazerac.

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  1. What great history you've rolled into the stories. I also love the many meanings of "ghost."

  2. Thanks, Kerry. I love the history so it just comes out in the things I write. And, also the various meanings of ghost -- it just works on so many levels.

  3. The one and only time I tried Scotch, something aged and expensive, I couldn't get to the sink fast enough to spit it out, but I bet for those who can manage the taste, this would be fine. As for your ghosts, ah, the stories they could tell. I know. You have written several great stories about the Tarnished Lady - L.A.

  4. Thanks, Gayle. L.A. is definitely a Tarnished Lady, but a fascinating one. And I'm actually more of a gin person, but Howard Hamm is a Scotch kind of guy.

  5. I enjoyed Ghosts of Bunker Hill and now must read II. I lived in LA post-razing the hill but once toured the house on Carroll Avenue and Heritage Square.

  6. Thanks, Maggie. Glad you liked Ghosts of Bunker Hill. Hope you'll like The Sequel. And there's another on the way. Unfortunately, at least in my opinion, the old Bunker Hill is no longer there. But we can visit it in tons of old movies. But Carrol and Heritage Square are pretty cool.

  7. Paul, thank you for great post. I love this story!