Friday, September 28, 2007

What are your favorite political pot shots in crime fiction?

Here are three selections from crime novels I've read in the past few months or am reading now:

"She kept saying things like `the continuance of this program is a litmus test of our national decency' or, worse still, last week's corker, `without initiatives such as this one, we may as well be Republicans.'"

"Extramarital affairs were bad enough in the Democratic heartland, but porking a conservative was unforgiveable."

"Fooling around might be forgivable. Kinky is a matter of taste. But doing it with a member of the Republican Party was beyond the pale."
Rather characteristic of what pundits like to call the poverty of American political discourse, is it not — the narrowing of discussion to insults flung back and forth between members of two, and only two, irreconcilable political parties? Except that the examples are from Australian novels, and I've substituted Democrat for Labor and Republican for Liberal, switches that are least roughly accurate ideologically.

The novels in questions are, respectively, Dead Set by Kel Robertson, Crook as Rookwood by Chris Nyst, and The Big Ask by Shane Maloney. The latter two ought to make you laugh at loud amid the suspense, and the first shows similar potential. (If you like an occasional laugh with your fictional violence, in other words, try Australian crime fiction. Humor, if not always as bawdy as these examples, abounds.)

And now, the questions for readers:
You've seen what Shane Maloney and Chris Nyst can do. Now, what are your favorite and funniest political wisecracks? If they're from crime fiction, so much the better!

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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26 Comments:

Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

Shane Maloney's a funny guy.

You know, the problem with a question like this is that I can never remember offhand. Three weeks from now something will probably spring to mind, but I've only got space in my head for my own stuff atm.

September 28, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

As well you might, considering that deal you've landed, for which, congratulations.

And this post will still be here in three weeks when you've cleared some mental space. I had to cut it off before I ran out of things to say because the subjects of politics, crime fiction, and national and cultural differences are of great interest. I shall probably revisit the subject in the future.

September 28, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Hmm. Tough question. I'm as politically attuned as anybody, but I can't think of one offhand.

September 28, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

That's an especially interesting reply for precisely the reason you suggest, especially if you read mostly American crime fiction.

I've thought about this only casually, but I don't think much American crime fiction has had overt political content, at least since the 1930s. None of the political crime novelists I can think of off the top of my head is American: Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Leonardo Sciascia, if one wants to consider him a crime novelist. The closest I can think of is probably Walter Mosley, and his concerns are more social -- more real, one might say.

September 28, 2007  
Blogger Barbara said...

Sara Paretsky pretty routinely gets outspokenly political. So does Carl Hiaasen. David Corbett is quite restrained in Blood of Paradise, doing show don't tell, but his afterword on US involvement in El Salvador is smokin' K.J. Wishnia is another writer whose narrator - an Ecuadoran immigrant to New York - doesn't mince words, but might mince the odd Republican.

I've just started Ian Rankin's book set at the G8 summit and will be on the lookout for some good lines.

By the way ... hello Philly! you got lucky, dudes.

September 29, 2007  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Lately I've been reading Christopher Brookmyre and there's a lot of politically charged stuff in them -- usually of the dark comedy type.

Also, a lot of references to what soccer (sorry, football) team people support, as a way of defining character. It's something I see in the Scottish stuff quite a bit, but little equivalent in north American stuff. Denise Minna used it to good effect in her first novel.

September 29, 2007  
Blogger pamos1949 said...

Some of Robert Barnard's novels are riddled with commentary, usually oblique but no less pointed for that, on British society, and in particular the conservative element that votes for the Conservative Party. See 'A Little Local Murder' and 'Murder in Mayfair'. The former is wonderfully funny, but I think you have to be English or have an intimate knowledge of English society to appreciate what his humour is directed at.

September 29, 2007  
Anonymous krimileser said...

I agree with Brookmyre (I think, he was even more a political writer in his earlier books).

Pelecanos "Drama City" is about the the vicious cycle driven by drugs, poverty, education, and weapons and is in my eyes a political statement.

Gary Phillips' Ivan Monk is political, Eleanor Taylor Bland books are social political, and Don Winslows "The Power of the Dog" it not only a brillant and disturbing thriller, but also a book about the US politics on drugs.

September 29, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for the comments, all. I'll break my reply into bite-size chunks to keep things to a manageable length.

I started reading my first Christopher Brookmyre novel, Boiling a Frog, right after I made this post. The tone is something like that of Shane Maloney's Murray Whelan novels -- madcap and farcical, though with a somewhat darker edge. Political? Without a doubt, and funny, too.

The thing I should ask myself now is why, since I like Shane Maloney and, so far, Brookmyre, Carl Hiaasen has never held a great attraction for me. I've flipped through a novel or two of his, and there's always a bit much yuck-yucking there for my taste. Sure, a comic crime novel has to provide laughs, but it also needs to retain a bit of a dangerous edge. When Hiaasen has a woman think, "What an asshole!" as her husband throws her off a ship, the clownishness of the line destroys any illusion of danger, of threat in what is, after all, an attempt to kill another person.

I read a thorough and thoughtful critique of Hiaasen some years ago that concluded that his novels reflect little understanding of how environmental politics really works and how change in environmental policies is effected. The article may have been in The New Republic, and I don't thinks its author was any of the plagiarists and tale-spinners who have ruined the magazine's reputation. Hiaasen fans might find the piece worthwhile.

September 29, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Barbara, if the Phillies got lucky, it was by playing in the same division as the Mets these past few weeks.

John, an interesting observation about rooting interest in soccer/football defining character. There probably hasn't been anything like that in the U.S. since the Yankees/Dodgers divide before the Dodgers left Brooklyn. But I did see a recent example in, I think, Michael Walters' The Shadow Walker. The narrator meets some high-achieving type from Manchester, assumes such a high-flyer would root for Manchester United, and is surprised when the fellow turns out to be a Manchester City fan -- unless I'm confused, and the narrator turned out to be the Man City fan. In any case, the fundamental City/United opposition is present.

So much crime fiction, so many countries, so many generalizations to draw, so little time. Pamos, I'd like to read some Robert Barnard to see if I can get any of that oblique criticism. I can make a reasonable guess at his targets from the title A Little Local Murder. Is that book temperamentally related to some of the social criticism and comedy and Colin Watson's Flaxborough novels?

Krimileser, I'm going to have to kick myself in the butt and finally read Pelecanos. It sounds as if he might be political in something like the way Walter Mosley is -- by writing about grim, everyday social reality.

It's interesting, too, that it's conservatives who bear the brunt of comedy, satire and pot shots in my examples and all of yours as well, at least in the ones where you named the targets. I wonder if political crime writers tend to lean left, and political thriller writers right.

Thanks to everybody for a wealth of suggestions that makes my to-read list even larger.

September 29, 2007  
Anonymous KarenC said...

Peter - we have such similar taste it's becoming scarey :) I don't like Hiaasen at all - I think it's something to do with being a fan of slapstick or not (or maybe that's too simplistic), the the couple I've read left me thinking - yeah well.

Brookmyre on the other hand has me being careful where I read them - coffee coming out your nose you're laughing so hard is just not ladylike no matter how you try to spin it. He does have some political elements in some of his books - some of it is just a rant about society - some of them are just - well lunatic is the only word I can come up with - so I'd advise pressing on with all of them.

I still have a very soft spot for Maloney's observations about unreconstructed Whitlamites - but then I'm biased - I could actually "hear" them talking about the good old days as he wrote it :)

September 30, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

"Unreconstructed Whitlamites" sounds funny even if one does not know who Whitlam was. And it's my experience of Shane Maloney that context makes the meaning clear.

There are slapstick bits in Maloney, too -- the roof falling in on Murray Whelan's house, for example -- but they usually serve some additional purpose, such as underlining Whelan's struggle while his ex-wife rolls in cash. That is decidedly not the case with the Hiaasen example I cited, from Skinny Dip.

I suspect I'll have more to say about Christopher Brookmyre once I've read more than the twenty-six pages I have so far.

September 30, 2007  
Anonymous KarenC said...

We'll have to compare notes once you've finished. Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks is sitting here on Mt TBR getting very pushy about wanting to be read :)

September 30, 2007  
Blogger pamos1949 said...

Barnard's A Little Local Murder is indeed akin to Watson's Flaxborough novels, as are some of his other works. I'm inclined to think that Barnard is the funnier and deadlier of the two.

September 30, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

I seem to remember the Oz dentists I worked with in the 1970s making the joke.

What do you call an Aussie politician who campaigns for a republic?
Your Excellency!

The guy [Hayden I think] became Governor General.

September 30, 2007  
Anonymous Michael Walters said...

Thanks for spotting the throwaway football - sorry, soccer - joke in 'The Shadow Walker', Peter. And, yes, you did get it the right way round. Fans of Manchester City like to compensate for their club's relative lack of success and prestige by implying that their support is in some way more authentic than that of United fans. Fans of Everton ('The People's Club') do the same in Liverpool. It's a tremendously tribal business, and even more so in Scotland where the rivalry between Glasgow Rangers and Glasgow Celtic also historically has a strong sectarian dimension. Which is perhaps why (if I recall correctly), Christopher Brookmyre supports the defiantly unsuccessful St Mirren.

Back on topic, by coincidence I'm currently reading Shane Maloney's highly entertaining 'Nice Try'. The best political line so far comes after Murray Whelan is accused of having 'an attack of conscience'. He says: 'That crack was a low blow, an assault on my integrity. No worse allegation can be levelled against a paid functionary of the Australian Labor Party than the insinuation of morality'.

It's also an interesting book in respect of your recent comments about Fred Vargas breaking the unwritten rules of crime fiction. I'm 122 pages into 'Nice Try' and so far it isn't a crime novel, in that no crime has yet been committed. Still funny, though.

September 30, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Karen, I was unable to find A Tale Etched ... in time for the discussion on Oz Mystery readers. Happily, I have a colleague who reads Irish and Scottish crime fiction and was lent me a copy of Boiling a Frog. Some of Brookmyre's titles promise sheer farce and slapstick, but there seems to be more to his writing than that.

Thanks, Pamos. I can well believe that Barnard might be deadlier than Watson. Watson's is a gentle sort of humor, though I enjoy his books tremendously. One senses he had great affection for his settings. I will certainly look for the Barnard titles, possible as soon as tomorrow.

Michael, I was once caught in a subway car full of Glasgow fans (I forget of which club) who were, for some reason, in Philadelphia to see Manchester United and Barcelona play an exhibition match (A highly enjoyable game, full of spectacular play on both sides.) A friend more knowledgeable about football than I told me about the sometimes rough rivalry between Rangers and Celtic.

I also saw Rangers play River Plate in New Jersey in another exhibition match.

The only rule about crime fiction seems to be that it touch somehow, at some point, on a crime. In fact, I don't know if Shane Maloney calls what he does "crime fiction." It's pleasant to see him making jokes at the expense of Labor. The losing of one's youthful idealism can easily become a tedious, solipsistic subject. It is much to Maloney's credit that he keeps it funny. He is living proof that disillusionment and high spirits can co-exist and thrive.

September 30, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Uriah, if you enjoyed that line, I suspect you would enjoy Shane Maloney. I know he's available in England. I bought my first two of his novels at Murder One.

September 30, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks Peter I have two oz books on my tbr mountain.

Garry Disher's Ned Kelly winner Chain of Evidence and Peter Temple's Bad Debts.
Luckily the evenings are drawing in and with the Rugby World Cup rapidly ending for Northern hemisphere teams there will be more time for reading.

September 30, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Though I commiserate with you because the Northern Hemisphere teams have all gone south, I rejoice to think that you have much fine reading ahead in Australian crime fiction

You should weigh in on my " National characteristics in crime fiction" post, by the way. Discussion there has turned to the effect of tea on English teeth. You have seen far more teeth from far more intimate vantage points that most humans see in a lifetime. Your opinion, therefore, would carry correspondingly greater weight.

October 01, 2007  
Anonymous Hamish said...

Brookmyre is a very clever and funny writer but his political edge may have been blunted by the unfortunate coincidence of A Big Boy Did It and Ran Away coming out just before September 11. In its satirical way, the book unfortunately makes light of terrorist bombings and attacks. I think I'm right in saying US publication was delayed.

October 01, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for the comment, Hamish. It will be interesting to read his more recent work. The satire is certainly unrestrained in Boiling a Frog, and I'm sure I'll offer some examples in this space over the next few days.

October 01, 2007  
Blogger pamos1949 said...

It just occurs to me that readers of Ruth Rendell and P.D.James would be hard to put read their novels without suspecting, correctly, that Rendell supports the Labour Party (though she may not have been too happy with it in recent years) and James the Conservatives. The affiliation is implicit in James' works, more overt in Rendell's. In the latter's Wexford novels, it is also pretty obvious that Wexford is to the left, Inspector Burden to the right. But, of course, just to make it quite clear, Rendell and James were elevated to the House of Lords by their respective parties.

October 01, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I ought to read P.D. James with that in mind simply because I'm not sure there are many Conservative crime writers around. I don't remember a political presence in the one novel of Rendell's that I've read, though that could mean simply that I'm not in tune with British politics or else obtuse in general.

October 02, 2007  
Blogger pamos1949 said...

I am quite sure there is nothing obtuse about you. In both cases, it is largely implicit. In Rendell, it comes out more directly in her Wexford novels than in her non-Wexford psychological studies, in exchanges between Wexford and his subordinate, Burden. Put overly simply but briefly, Rendell and James come down on opposite sides re the basic question of the aetiology of crime: do its causes lie in the individual or with society? James, I think, is more decidedly of the opinion it is the individual. Rendell, looking at both her Wexford and her non-Wexford novels, is more divided but gives more weight to societal causes than does James. Looking ahead to the following post, James is much more in the tradition that saw in the crime novel a process of restoring order to a shattered world.

October 05, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I thank you for relieving me of the burden of obtuseness.

I can well understand that a contrast such as the one you propose between Rendell and James would emerge only gradually. I'll keep it in mind the next time I read a book by either author.

Not surprisingly, I now wonder about the two writers' backgrounds and upbringings: Was Rendell's more working-class than James'? etc. In other words, I wonder to what extend an author's world view as epressed in her fiction is an expression of the individual, or of the society in which she was raised.

October 05, 2007  

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