Stories Behind the Story: The Case of the Great Sled Race

There’s actually quite a few things in this story, numero ocho in the Jigsaw Jones series, that I particularly like. I’m pleased by the way I used  John Reynolds Gardiner’s wonderful book, Stone Fox, to loosely parallel Jigsaw’s journey. Ms. Gleason is reading it aloud in class throughout the book.

I’m also happy with the emphasis Ms. Gleason puts on “the Five W Questions,” who, what, when, where, and why. As she explains to the class:

“Mr. Gardiner is a terrific writer. But we’ve got a lot of other work to do.” She walked over to the blackboard. Ms. Gleason said, “As you know, we should always be thinking while we’re reading. That’s how we understand what’s happening in the story. Today I’d like to talk about a few strategies that will help us think about what we’re reading.”

Later Jigsaw has this revelation:

I suddenly realized it was like solving a mystery. Reading was like detective work. Figure out the W questions . . . and you’ll catch the crook.

But today I’d like to focus on a different aspect of the book. My confession: I lifted the setup from the opening of Raymond Chandler’s great book, Farewell, My Lovely. Remember, folks, it’s not stealing . . . it’s an homage! Seriously, I don’t think any of my readers notice this, it’s just something I do for the fun of it, and as a sly little tribute to a favorite author.

Like tens of thousands of writers before me, I owe a huge debt to Raymond Chandler, who defined the voice of the hard-boiled detective for generations to come. In fact, when I first began this blog one of my earliest posts was an appreciation of Chandler.

In Farewell, detective Philip Marlowe meets up with big, bruising Moose Malloy outside a sleazy dance club. Moose is fresh out of prison, a tough guy searching for his lost love, little Velma. As always, you can’t read two paragraphs without coming across a great, startling sentence. Chandler gets a lot of credit for his tone, his out-sized similes, and funny one-liners. Such as: “Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.”

But to me, it was Chandler’s attention to detail, his concrete objective eye — like a great Imagist poet — that sets him apart as not only a memorable American stylist, but as a great writer, period. One quick example:

His skin was pale and he needed a shave. He would always need a shave. He had curly black hair and heavy eyebrows that almost met over his thick nose. His ears were small and neat for a man of that size and his eyes had a shine close to tears that gray eyes often seem to have. He stood like a statue, and after a long time he smiled.

You can learn a lot by giving Chandler a close reading. A shine close to tears that gray eyes often seem to have, indeed.

A few other quick lines, just to set the scene:

It wasn’t any of my business. So I pushed them open and looked in. A hand I could have sat in came out of the dimness and took hold of my shoulder and squashed it to a pulp.

Later:

He let go of my shoulder. The bone didn’t seem to be broken, but the arm was numb.

“It’s that kind of a place,” I said, rubbing my shoulder. “What did you expect?”

“Don’t say that, pal,” the big man purred softly, like four tigers after dinner. “Velma used to work here. Little Velma.”

So here’s how I handled the opening for Jigsaw, when he first meets up with Bigs Maloney (a name that intentionally echoes Moose Malloy):

Illustration by John Speirs, my apologies for the scan, it appears to be broken.

I was dragging my sled into the park when I spotted Bigs Maloney. Bigs was the roughest, toughest kid in second grade — but not taller than a grizzly bear and not wider than a soda machine. He was headed my way.

Bigs stared straight ahead, mumbling to himself. He stopped in front of me. “Velma,” he said. “I want my Velma back. You have to help me find her, Jigsaw.”

Bigs put his giant paw on my shoulder.

And squeezed.

“Lay off the shoulder, will you?” I pleaded. “I might need that arm someday.”

Bigs let go of my arm. He stared off into the distance. “I just want my Velma back,” he said. “You have to help me.”

It takes a return to Jigsaw’s basement office, and some tough questioning from Mila, to sort out the facts and propel the story forward:

Five minutes later, Mila was throwing questions at Bigs Maloney. “Who is this Velma you’re talking about?” Mila asked.

Bigs made a face, like he was disappointed in us. “Velma is a what, not a who,” he said.

“What kind of what?” Mila asked.

“A sled kind of what — that’s who!” Bigs shot back. “My Velocity Machine 2000. The fastest sled in town.”

Finally I understood. Vel-ocity . . . Ma-chine. Vel-ma.

“Oh,” I said. “Velma is the name of your sled!”

Bigs sneered. “And I’m gonna clobber the crumb who stole her.

Mila gave me a worried look.

“Listen, Bigs,” I said. “I don’t think clobbering anybody is such a great idea. We’ll help you find your sled. You know our rates. We get a dollar a day.”

For an added treat, check out this trailer for the 1975 film starring Robert Mitchum. His voiceover in the beginning is classic. I’d forgotten about the Joe DiMaggio reference, and now I feel better, since Hemingway did something similar in The Old Man and the Sea. We’re all standing on the shoulders of giants. I loved this movie back when I was in high school. As I recall, it was in the early days of HBO, when they’d play the same few movies over and over and over again.

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2 comments

  1. Bill says:

    Stone Fox was one of my favorite books to teach in 3rd grade but it always made me cry at the end. Good choice.

  2. jimmy says:

    I was turned on to that book by Frank Hodge, of Hodge-Podge Books in downtown Albany. Frank was my neighbor and I wandered into his store one day — I didn’t realize that I had stumbled into a minor legend. Frank LOVED (and still loves, presumably) “Stone Fox.”

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