October 12, 2011

1. Mysteries

A. Chesterton

I read a detective story called “The Bottomless Well,” by G. K. Chesterton. It was published in 1922 in a volume of stories called The Man Who Knew Too Much. But I didn’t find it in that volume, I found it in a volume called The Delights of Detection, an anthology of detective stories edited by Jacques Barzun.

I enjoyed “The Bottomless Well.” It starts slowly, but then becomes engrossing. You learn something about the British Empire in the early 1900’s. I view Agatha Christie’s detective fiction as purely a game, but Chesterton seems to use fiction as a vehicle for his ideas on politics, religion, etc. Chesterton’s prose isn’t as simple and straightforward as Christie’s, so Chesterton may not be suitable for reading aloud or for young readers. Chesterton was slightly older than Christie, and his prose is more ornate, more 19th-century, than Christie’s.

The story takes a dim view of the British Empire. Chesterton was a “Little Englander,” that is, he thought that England should “stay home,” and avoid foreign entanglements. There’s a strong anti-Semitic element in the story: Chesterton blames the Jews for pushing England to defend their own far-flung business interests. One of his characters says,

It’s bad enough that a gang of infernal Jews should plant us here, where there’s no earthly English interest to serve, and all hell beating up against us, simply because Nosey Zimmern has lent money to half the Cabinet. It’s bad enough that an old pawnbroker from Baghdad should make us fight his battles....

Earlier the same character said that “the Zimmernes” wanted to extend British authority “as far as the canal... though everybody knows adding provinces doesn’t always pay much nowadays.” The tacit assumption is that “the Zimmernes” have invested in “the canal,” and want England to defend it.

This anti-Semitic element was probably so well-known in Chesterton, and in that whole generation, that Barzun scarcely noticed it when choosing stories for his anthology. In an earlier issue, we discussed anti-Semitism in D. H. Lawrence. Wikipedia notes an anti-Semitic element in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

Chesterton also expresses his religious views (he was a steadfast Christian). He suggests that God has influenced the action of the story, in accordance with justice. Speaking of a revolving bookcase, he says “[Boyle] barely touched the thing, and it went round as easily as the world goes round. Yes, very much as the world goes round, for the hand that turned it was not his. God, who turns the wheel of all the stars, touched that wheel and brought it full circle, that His dreadful justice might return.”

The story suggests that Chesterton was not blind to the occult dimension. At the first hint of trouble, one of the characters suspects foul play; the character is described as “a person of a curious and almost transcendental sensibility to atmospheres, and he already felt the presence of something more than an accident.”1

B. Dorothy Sayers

After the Chesterton story, I read another story from the Barzun anthology, “The Professor’s Manuscript” by Dorothy Sayers. It has a scholarly setting, like several Sayers works. Unlike Agatha Christie, who was home-schooled, Sayers was university-educated. Sayers’ father was a rector, and that was also an influence on her work. One of her best-known novels, The Nine Tailors, describes an old church in detail.

Like Christie, Sayers is considered a representative of “the golden age of detective fiction.” Many Sayers novels feature a detective named Lord Peter Wimsey. In addition to fiction, Sayers wrote plays, poetry, essays, etc.; she was especially proud of her Dante translation (she also translated The Song of Roland). She was a friend of C. S. Lewis, and like Lewis, she wrote books about Christianity. Sayers also wrote a series of plays about the life of Jesus; the series is called The Man Born to be King. Lewis said that he read the series every Easter. Like Christie, Sayers has been accused of anti-Semitism.

C. John D. MacDonald and the Hard-Boiled School

Then I read another story from the same anthology, “The Homesick Buick” by John D. MacDonald. No churches or academies here, not even the faintest trace of culture. MacDonald practiced the “hard-boiled” style of crime fiction that was popularized by Dashiell Hammett in the 1930’s and Raymond Chandler in the 1940’s. MacDonald came a generation after Hammett and Chandler, and began writing novels in the 1950’s.

“The Homesick Buick” depicts a small town in Texas. It’s full of action, violence, and wit; the Sayers story pales in comparison. The violence in “The Homesick Buick” is so casual that it’s facetious. MacDonald doesn’t aspire to literature or style; his prose is readable, colloquial, sarcastic. As many Christie novels feature the detective Hercule Poirot, many MacDonald novels feature a detective named Travis McGee. Several MacDonald works were made into movies; for example, The Executioners was made into Cape Fear, and Darker Than Amber was made into a movie of the same name.

MacDonald certainly has fans: Kurt Vonnegut said, “To diggers a thousand years from now... the works of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen.” Stephen King called MacDonald “the great entertainer of our age, and a mesmerizing storyteller.” King said that MacDonald’s The End of the Night “is one of the greatest American novels of the twentieth century. It ranks with Death of a Salesman, it ranks with An American Tragedy.”2 John D. MacDonald should not be confused with the American/Canadian writer Ross Macdonald, who also wrote crime fiction, and also was prominent in the ’50s and ’60s.

Dashiell Hammett served in both World War I and World War II. For several years, he worked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, where he learned detective methods. He was involved with various left-wing causes, and was a member of the American Communist Party. In the early 1950’s, Hammett was imprisoned for not cooperating with a government investigation. Though he lived until 1961, Hammett wrote his last novel in 1934; his later years were marred by health problems. He had a long relationship with the playwright Lillian Hellman; this relationship was portrayed in the 1977 film, Julia. Among Hammett’s best-known novels are The Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest. Among his best-known detectives is the hard-boiled Sam Spade, who was played by Humphrey Bogart.

Raymond Chandler’s detective, Philip Marlowe, was also played by Bogart. Many of Chandler’s works are based in California, as MacDonald’s are often based in Florida. Among Chandler’s best-known works are The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye.

The Hard-Boiled School has considerable vitality, and earned praise from literary people like Barzun, W. H. Auden, and Evelyn Waugh.

D. Rex Stout

Next I read a story from the Barzun anthology called “Murder Is No Joke,” by Rex Stout. It’s a long short story, one might call it a novella; Stout rarely wrote short short stories, he preferred novels and novellas.

Like most of Stout’s fiction, “Murder Is No Joke” features the “detective genius” Nero Wolfe. Stout was inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle; Wikipedia says, “Commentators have noted a coincidence in the names ‘Sherlock Holmes’ and ‘Nero Wolfe’: the same vowels appear in the same order.”

Stout’s writing has a faint trace of culture: Wolfe is interested in words and in orchids. His interest in words helps him to unravel the mystery in “Murder Is No Joke”: he says that a foreigner with a rudimentary knowledge of English wouldn’t use the phrase “gob of fat.” Speaking of fat, Wolfe is known for having gobs of it, and for rarely leaving his large house. His assistant, Archie Goodwin, has a room in Wolfe’s house, and moves around the city on Wolfe’s instructions. While Wolfe keeps a distance from the fair sex, Archie is always noticing attractive women. Another member of Stout’s world is Fritz Brenner, who cooks the gourmet meals of which Wolfe is all-too-fond. Stout introduced these characters in his 1934 novel Fer-de-Lance, and continued writing about them for 40 years.

Stout isn’t as popular today as Christie, in terms of Amazon sales rank, and in terms of the number of re-publications of his work since 2000 (Sayers isn’t very popular today either). When I borrowed Murder on the Orient Express from the library, the library workers said they were Christie junkies, but I never met a Stout junkie.

Stout grew up in the Midwest, travelled widely, and finally settled in New York (he lived on a farm in Brewster). Most of his fiction is set in Manhattan. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, Stout was involved in left-wing causes, and helped found a radical magazine, The New Masses. Later, though, he drifted right-ward, became critical of Communism, and supported the American effort in Vietnam.

E. Donald Westlake

A crime writer from more recent times is Donald Westlake. Bill Kristol is a big Westlake fan, and published an obituary in The Weekly Standard when Westlake died in 2008.3 Kristol is especially fond of Westlake’s comic novels, which feature a criminal named Dortmunder. “You can get a sense of the Dortmunder novels’ worldview,” Kristol writes, “from the wonderful and good-natured fatalism of some of the titles: Nobody’s Perfect, Why Me?, Don’t Ask, What’s the Worst That Could Happen?, Bad News, and What’s So Funny?” Kristol suggested Westlake for a Nobel Prize, calling him “smart, clever and witty.” Westlake’s wild humor reminds one of P. G. Wodehouse. As Cervantes turned the chivalric romance into comedy, so Westlake and others turned the crime story into comedy. If you want a taste of Westlake, read the short story “Too Many Crooks,” in a volume called Thieves’ Dozen.

Westlake also wrote “noir thrillers,” which feature a criminal named Parker. While the Dortmunder series was published under his own name, the Parker series was published under the pseudonym Richard Stark. One of Westlake’s best-known novels is a Parker novel called The Hunter, which has been made into a movie three times. Westlake won an Edgar Award for God Save the Mark. Westlake was influenced by Hammett: “When I was 14 or 15,” Westlake tells us, “I’d read The Thin Man (my first Hammett), and it was an astonishing read, I believe the single most important learning experience of my career.”4

Westlake sometimes collaborated with another well-known crime writer, Lawrence Block. Both Westlake and Block received the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Both Westlake and Block began their careers in the late 1950’s, writing “paperback porn” or “soft porn,” with titles like All the Girls Were Willing and Man Hungry.

Westlake spent much of his life in New York City, and many of his novels are set there.

I recently read Westlake’s The Hot Rock, the first novel in the Dortmunder series. It doesn’t have much humor; perhaps Westlake hadn’t yet found his calling as a writer of “crime comedy.” Dortmunder and his “partners in crime” are presented with a series of challenges, a series of heavily-guarded buildings that they’re trying to penetrate. The reader’s curiosity is aroused: how are they going to penetrate all those defenses?

The Hot Rock has no thoughts/ideas; it didn’t prompt me to mark a single passage, or jot down a single note. It’s written purely to entertain the reader, and enrich the writer. It’s not literature, let alone good literature. But it passes The Ruskin Test — the author seems to have enjoyed writing it, and this enjoyment communicates itself to the reader. I enjoyed it, and I look forward to reading more Westlake. (After spending my life reading “good books,” I recently discovered “entertainment books.”6)

The Hot Rock takes place in New York City, and taught me New York geography; before I read it, I hadn’t even heard of Columbus Circle, New York’s navel. The Hot Rock depicts New York life 40 years ago; since cell phones hadn’t developed yet, the crooks are always looking for a pay phone, or stationing someone at a pay phone to receive calls.

In a recent issue, I praised Agatha Christie’s work for having dignity, courtesy, taste. Westlake’s work lacks this dignity; for example, at the start of the novel, we read, “Dortmunder blew his nose.... There wasn’t anything for him to do with the Kleenex, so he just held it balled up in his fist.... The Kleenex was cold and gooey against his palm.” Can you imagine Christie writing that?

But Westlake is as concise as Christie; there are no wasted words in The Hot Rock. Every page holds your interest, every page is a pleasure.

The Hot Rock portrays criminals in a positive light, and portrays a life of crime as exciting and profitable. This raises the question, At what point in the history of crime fiction did the criminal, instead of the detective, become the hero? Do novels and movies that glorify crime inspire young people to become criminals? (The Hot Rock was made into a movie in 1972, two years after the novel was published; the movie was moderately well-received.)

F. Other Contemporary Writers

Tony Hillerman wrote mysteries about the American Southwest. Hillerman won an Edgar Award for Dance Hall of the Dead (1973), an Anthony Award for Skinwalkers (1986), and a Nero Award for Coyote Waits (1990). According to Wikipedia, “Hillerman’s writing is noted for the cultural details he provides about his subjects: Hopi, Zuni, European-American, federal agents, and especially Navajo Tribal Police. His works in nonfiction and in fiction reflect his appreciation of the natural wonders of the American Southwest and his appreciation of its people, particularly the Navajo.”

If you’d like to try a more contemporary crime writer, consider Louise Penny, a Canadian who won the Agatha Award four years in a row (2007-2010).5 Consider also Harlan Coben, a popular author of mysteries and thrillers. Coben attended Amherst College, where one of his fraternity mates was Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code and other bestsellers. Brown’s father was a math teacher at Phillips Exeter Academy, and he liked to create puzzles and “treasure hunts” for his children. Brown’s fiction was influenced by these childhood games. Another popular fiction writer who attended Amherst is Scott Turow, a lawyer who often writes about legal matters.

Two of the most popular crime novelists writing today are Michael Connelly and Lee Child. Connelly was inspired to become a novelist after seeing a film version of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. Connelly spent fifteen years as a journalist before becoming a full-time novelist. Many of his novels feature a detective named Harry Bosch, and are set in Los Angeles, where Connelly worked as a journalist. In 1994, his reputation grew when President Clinton was seen carrying a copy of Connelly’s novel The Concrete Blonde.

“Lee Child” is the pen name of British novelist Jim Grant. He chose the pen name “Child” so his books would be shelved between Chandler and Christie (Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie). His novels are set in the U.S. and feature a protagonist named Jack Reacher. Steve Hamilton is also a popular mystery novelist, known for books like The Lock Artist and A Cold Day in Paradise; many of Hamilton’s novels feature a detective named Alex McKnight. C. J. Box is a popular mystery writer from Wyoming; many of his books are set in the West. Vince Flynn, who died of cancer at 47, was a popular writer of thrillers; Flynn wrote about the CIA, Muslim terrorists, etc. Keigo Higashino is a popular Japanese mystery writer; many of his novels have been made into movies.

Alex Berenson, born 1973, is a Yale graduate and former journalist who has written several bestselling novels. “His first novel, The Faithful Spy, was released in April 2006 and won an Edgar Award for best first novel by an American author.”

Joseph Wambaugh became popular in the 1970s for crime fiction, and also for “true crime” books. Many of Wambaugh’s books are set in Los Angeles, where he worked as a policeman for fourteen years. Three of his best-known “true crime” books are The Onion Field, The Fire Lover, and The Blooding. In 1980, Wambaugh’s novel The Black Marble was made into a movie, and Wambaugh received an Edgar Award for the screenplay. Wambaugh wrote not only about crime, but also about various aspects of California society.

Of course, not all contemporary novelists write about crime. Richard Russo has become popular for novels about upstate New York; Russo won a Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls, which was made into a TV mini-series. Russo’s novel Nobody’s Fool was made into a popular movie.

2. P. G. Wodehouse

Like the mystery genre, the comic works of Wodehouse are a game, a diversion, with no purpose beyond entertainment. But Wodehouse has more literary talent, more genius, than the mystery writers. His style has more grace and wit, his metaphors more poetry. There are many mystery writers, but only one Wodehouse. Will his popularity endure in an un-literary age?

Wodehouse is best known for his Jeeves series, a series of stories and novels about a valet named Jeeves and his boss, Bertie Wooster. The Jeeves series started in 1915 (with one short story), and continued with The Inimitable Jeeves (1923), Carry On, Jeeves (1925), etc., and finally concluded with Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, which was published in 1974, when Wodehouse was 93.

Wodehouse also wrote a series of works about “Blandings Castle” and its dim-witted proprietor, Lord Emsworth. One of Lord Emsworth’s chief goals is growing prize pumpkins, raising prize pigs, etc. One morning, he’s concerned because his pig, Empress of Blandings, has stopped eating, and the vet confesses himself baffled.

The effect of the veterinary surgeon’s announcement on Lord Emsworth was overwhelming. As a rule, the wear and tear of our complex modern life left this vague and amiable peer unscathed. So long as he had sunshine, regular meals, and complete freedom from the society of his younger son Frederick, he was placidly happy. But there were chinks in his armor, and one of these had been pierced this morning. Dazed by the news he had received, he stood at the window of the great library of Blandings Castle, looking out with unseeing eyes.7

Wodehouse has considerable culture. For example, he alludes to Scottish history when he describes Angus McAllister, Lord Emsworth’s Scotch gardener; when McAllister is angry with Emsworth, Wodehouse says he has “the look of a man who has not forgotten Bannockburn, a man conscious of belonging to the country of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce.”8 Wodehouse’s cultural references are natural, unforced, tongue-in-cheek.

3. Vivekananda

An interesting article in the New York Times about Vivekananda, the Indian guru. It’s by Ann Louise Bardach, who’s writing a biography of him. The article calls Vivekananda “the first missionary from the East to the West.” It says he made an “electrifying appearance” at the 1893 Parliament of Religions, which was part of the Chicago World’s Fair; at the time, he was only 30 years old.

But different gurus (such as Soyen Shaku) brought Zen to the West at the same Parliament of Religions, so I’m not sure Vivekananda deserves the title “first missionary from the East.” Perhaps we should call him “the first Hindu missionary.” At any rate, Vivekananda not only played an important role in bringing Hinduism to the West, he also played an important role in India’s Hindu revival.

Many leading intellectuals were impressed with Vivekananda, such as Tolstoy. “It is doubtful,” Tolstoy said, “if in this age man has ever risen above this selfless, spiritual meditation.” Tolstoy was also interested in another Indian guru, Ramakrishna, who had been Vivekananda’s mentor; Ramakrishna died in 1886.

William James was also impressed with Vivekananda, and brought him to Harvard in 1896. After hearing him speak, Harvard’s professors promptly offered him the chairmanship of Eastern philosophy, which he declined.

Salinger was also impressed with Vivekananda, and in his last published work, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” Salinger says, “I would easily give 10 years of my life, possibly more, if I could have shaken his hand.”

Vivekananda died at 39.

4. Movies

I saw the movie Sophie’s Choice. I don’t recommend it. It was made in 1982, and stars Meryl Streep as Sophie, a Polish woman living in Brooklyn who is haunted by her memories of the Holocaust. Her “choice” was between letting her daughter die and letting her son die; of course, she doesn’t want to choose either option, but the Nazi officer insists. The movie is based on a novel by William Styron; the novel was released three years before the movie. Styron seems to have a taste for the perverse and morbid, a taste that’s typical of his generation. Sophie lives with her half-crazy boyfriend in a rambling Brooklyn house. One of their neighbors is a young, ambitious writer from the South, probably based on Styron himself; the movie has some literary references.

I also saw the acclaimed 1974 movie, Chinatown, starring a young Jack Nicholson as Private Investigator Jake Gittes. The movie is set in Los Angeles in the 1930’s. Gittes discovers that wealthy men are buying up land outside the city, and diverting water from the city to irrigate their land. Robert Towne’s original screenplay won an Academy Award; according to Wikipedia, the screenplay “has become legendary among critics and filmmakers, often celebrated as one of the best ever written.” I thought it was a good movie, but I wasn’t swept away by it; it seems mechanical, contrived; it doesn’t touch the viewer. “Why is it called Chinatown?” The title is misleading, the movie has little to do with Chinatown (early in Gittes’ career, he worked as a policeman in Chinatown, so he mentions it occasionally, and the last scene of the movie takes place in Chinatown).

© L. James Hammond 2011
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1. Elsewhere in The Man Who Knew Too Much, we find this comment about atmosphere: “Do you know, I was half expecting something like that.... It was quite irrational, but it was hanging about in the atmosphere, like thunder in the air.” back
2. Death of a Salesman is actually a play, not a novel. back
3. Kristol is also a big fan of Wodehouse. back
4. Quoted in the Kristol obituary. back
5. Similar awards are given out by the Crime Writers’ Association, a British group. They call their awards “Daggers.” They also chose the “Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time.” Two books that rank high on this list are Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (about Richard III), and John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Click here for another list of top crime novels. back
6. “But can’t a book be both good and entertaining? Why do we have to choose between good and entertaining?” If I read a good book, it stimulates me to read critical essays, and to write essays; in short, it becomes a big project. At the moment, I don’t want such projects, so I’m purposely choosing books that aren’t good, books that don’t stimulate me. And so I’ve discovered the vast field of “entertainment books.”

Update June, 2012: I read Westlake’s Don’t Ask. Not bad, but not very good, either. back

7. From a story called “Pig-Hoo-o-o-o-ey!” which was originally published in a volume called Blandings Castle, and was published more recently in The Most of P. G. Wodehouse. back
8. “The Custody of the Pumpkin,” in Blandings Castle. back