Captain Billy

Wilford “Captain Billy” Fawcett was a one-off, a flamboyant character who fought in World War I, became a newspaper reporter in Minneapolis, then started a magazine, Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang, in 1919. It was intended to be a joke magazine for servicemen around the Twin Cities, but it took off and gained a national readership. Each issue began with a long piece by Captain Billy, called “Drippings from the Fawcett,” in which he talked about his life. The humor he published was bawdy for the time, and he wrote most of the jokes – especially the ones disguised as answers to questions readers sent in. – Sample:

What is Golf? – Ignoramus

Dear Ig: Golf is a game where old men chase little balls around when they are too old to chase anything else.

Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang sold so well that the Captain got rich, started another magazine, True Confessions, got richer and began hanging out with celebrities. In 1921 he acquired some land on Pelican Lake in north central Minnesota and built the Breezy Point Resort. Throughout the 20s, Breezy Point was a hangout for movie stars and millionaires. Guests included Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Tom Mix, Jack Dempsey and an aspiring politician named Harry Truman, who later bragged about his success playing Captain Billy’s slot machines. The Captain built a dance hall on another lake nearby, and was instrumental in turning what was basically a wilderness into a thriving vacation scene.

Fawcett publications expanded to publish pulp magazines, comic books and Mechanix Illustrated, and was a successful company right up until its sale in the 1980s.

You heard a lot about Captain Billy when I was growing up in St. Paul, and I always wanted to include him in a story. Indian Rose, published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 2009, is loosely based on some tales I heard about him, some other local characters, and their involvement in a bank robbery. Download Indian Rose free, and if you like it try Smoke Got In My Eyes, a novel with the same protagonist, detective Martin McDonough.

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Noir

A newspaper columnist who was kind enough to write about a book of mine once asked me what “noir” is. I know it when I see it, I replied, after a long pause. It was the best I could do, and that was just because I’d seen enough black and white movies that fit the bill to know what they look like – rainy, grainy, at least one world-weary guy in a trenchcoat and one wisecracking,  sultry-looking dame with a steely exterior and a soft heart.

As for written noir, that’s a different story (no pun intended). A lot of detective stories are simply cop procedurals minus the cop, but they’re called noir because they’re detective stories.

I was challenged to write a noir story for an anthology several years back, so I invoked the formula as I understood it. The printed page took care of the black and white. I added a detective protagonist, set it in the 1930s and worked certain moral ambiguities into the plot. It was successful enough to be nominated for the Shamus Award, so I kept on writing stories about that detective. They were published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, in a section called The Black Mask – the name of a magazine that published classic noir back in the day.

When I look at those stories now it’s obvious that some were more noir than others. Indian Rose was the most successful in that respect.

Indian Rose is about a murder, two murders actually, but one is no mystery. The victim lived by a code and chose to violate it, so his days were numbered. The tale revolves around the other one. The detective is hired to find out who killed a 16 year old girl, and in the course of doing so loses his professional perspective to the extent that he wants to avenge her death. How he copes with that is the subtext, and it’s also what stamps the story as noir. It was published in the June 2009 issue of Ellery Queen’s.

Click this link for a free download of Indian Rose on my website. Whatever else that story might be, it’s noir, in my opinion. I’d be interested to hear if you agree.

And if you’re interested, check out my new noir novel, Smoke Got In My Eyes.

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