Monday, December 27, 2010

Murder for Christmas

Christmas this year wasn’t about ukuleles. My raging UAS will have to wait for January for treatment. No new sopranos under the tree this year.

Instead, Christmas this year was about Dell Shannon. I refer to the writer, of course. Not Del Shannon, the performer (Who does play a uke, by the way!). No, this year, the focus was on Dell Shannon and her detective series about Luis Mendoza. I got 5 Dell Shannon novels. They were used, dirty, with torn covers and aged, yellow paper. Beautiful.

Dell Shannon doesn’t actually exist. It’s a pseudonym for Elizabeth Linington, a prolific writer who was the first female author in the Police Procedural genre. I haven’t read her explanation, but I think the heavily male dominated police procedural genre is the reason for the Dell Shannon nom de plume. A male name probably opened doors and brought readers. We are talking 1960 when the first Luis Mendoza novel appeared.

I remember Dell Shannon from used paperback covers in my youth, although I never read her. Somehow, her books never caught my youthful literary attention. Not enough explosions, I guess. I stumbled across her recently in a thrift store when I needed something to read and only had about fifty cents to spend. Once I read the first one, I was hooked. Apparently, at 47 years old, I don’t need as many explosions.

The novels were like a wild time machine. A crazy turning-back-of-the-clock. This was the 60’s from the 60’s. This wasn’t the reminiscing of a new millennium writer, or some recreation like the movie The Sting for 1936. This was the real deal. Luis Mendoza drove a Facel-Vega in the first novel: Have you ever even heard of a Facel-Vega? I never have. But then, I’ve never eaten a 15 cent hamburger, either.

These detectives thought nothing of having a hard alcoholic drink at lunch – Detective Mendoza prefers rye. (I actually got a little airline bottle of rye so I could taste it.) Imagine if a cop today had a bourbon with lunch?

No one in 1960 ever heard of the term “politically correct.” The men were expected to show personal restraint, and be responsible. What happened to personal responsibility?

No cell phones, no computers, no text messaging, no Wi-Fi, no “no smoking” restaurants. If you were out and about and needed to contact someone, you either had to drive over there or find a pay phone. If you wanted to play solitaire, you actually had to have a deck of cards.

It was a fascinating glimpse into a world that no longer existed. I was hooked. The interesting thing is, Dell Shannon books were hard to find. Really hard! I mean, there were enough James Patterson novels to brick over Alex Cross’s house, and you could hardly blink without tripping over a Mary Higgins Clark novel. Man, if Mary Higgins Clark and James Patterson ever co-wrote a novel, that would be all she wrote! I looked in thrift stores and Half Price Books locations all over Dallas. Not much! What gives? Oh, the miracle of The Internet had copies of her novels, but somehow that was cheating. I wanted to find them the old-fashioned way: On the shelf!

I actually did some research on how long modern books would last – Maybe the majority of paper used in the early 1960’s just broke down and became dust after a few years? I was amazed at how few books from the 1960s were still in circulation. It used to be that if you wrote a book it was a sort of immortality. But the truth is far different: Dell Shannon was pulling a vanishing act. And it’s a real shame: This is a real glimpse into the world I was born into. This is what the world looked like that formed and shaped me. I guess you could say the world of Luis Mendoza is the world that eventually made me a ukulele player.

No, Luis Mendoza never played the uke, at least not based on the novels I have read so far. And no mention of ukes has been made so far. But I do wonder what the ukulele was like in 1962. I can’t really offer any strong research, but my guess was the uke was sadly beginning a decline. Lots of people still played the uke, but I think it was becoming a road to the guitar rather than a road to…well, more ukulele. There was no Mighty Uke, no resurgence. Every kid got one, and most grew out of it. Everyone had an uncle who made people sing along while he played and made everyone slightly uncomfortable. The uke was still mainstream, but it was Dad’s version of mainstream, and on its way to being a punchline. I’ll have to check with Fred Fallin or Jim Beloff for the history – This is just my guess.

I’m happier playing the ukulele today, and reading novels about the 1960s, then the other way around. But what a cool Christmas present!

(Thank you for reading Uke Plucks! My goal is to continually provide something interesting and of value to uke fans, uke players and uke group organizers. Please see our official website, for more information, and DO sign up even if you are out of the area. That way you can see first hand what Dallas Ukulele Headquarters is doing. Also, DO click on the FOLLOW BLOG button at the top of the page. This helps me to know who is reading and what topics to cover. Plus, it's a little stroke to my ego every time someone adds me. And finally, DO leave a comment. Did you like this post? Not like it? What would you like to see me cover? Again, everything helps! And remember: Without "U", it's just Kulele!)


  1. I bought my first quality ukulele, a Martin Concert model, in 1961, having previously only been exposed to an early 1950s Sears cheapo soprano uke, and was startled at the difference after asking to hold and play the Concert model at Art's Music Store in Montgomery, Ala., where I lived for a couple of years before moving to Philadelphia. That put me back into ukuleles in a major fashion, and over the years, I acquired several models, makes, sizes, etc. and still enjoy the ukulele. Thanx for your post above.

  2. Joe,

    Thanks for your comments -- I myself have a 60's era Kamaka that I love. I am glad to hear that for you the 60's were a nurturing decade for your ukulele experience. My guesses about the ukulele experience in the 60's are exactly that -- Guesses. I'm thrilled to be completely off the mark in your case-Mark

  3. My 1928-1930 era Gretch banjo uke is pretty special too. When I got it a couple years back the original skin cover was in place, but starting to crack. Over time, including some playing time (Mark will remember one of the testimonial dinners for Ebby), it needed a new head. I put on a skin head to keep the uke outfitting the same as when it was assembled