Saturday, December 15, 2007

Warrantless surveillance? Pfui!

I’ve always enjoyed Nero Wolfe’s jousts with Inspector Cramer, in which the grouchy, orchid-loving Wolfe invariably gets the better of the splenetic New York cop. I also knew that Wolfe’s creator, Rex Stout, was active politically. I never put the two together, however, until the following, from “Death of a Demon”:

“`Nuts.’ Cramer stood up. … `I’m taking Goodwin. They’ll take his statement at the District Attorney’s Office, a complete report of the conversation. I’ll have a man here at two o’clock to take yours. If I took you down you’d only – '

“`I shall sign no statement. I am not obliged to. If you send a man he won’t be admitted. If you have questions, ask them.’”
Rivalry between fictional private detectives and police goes back at least to Edgar Allan Poe, in “The Purloined Letter,” and no one has done it better than Stout. Here, though, he does not merely show the private detective getting the better of the exasperated police officer, he flings a direct challenge at unwarranted exercise of police power.

A bit of research turned up Controversial Politics, Conservative Genre: Rex Stout's Archie-Wolfe Duo and Detective Fiction's Conventional Form , submitted by one Ammie Sorensen Cannon last year as a master’s thesis in English at Brigham Young University.

“Stout attempted to present radical messages via the content of his detective fiction with subtlety,” Sorensen wrote. “As a literary traditionalist, he resisted using his fiction as a platform for an often extreme political agenda. Where political messages are apparent in his work, Stout employs various techniques to mute potentially offensive messages.”

Maybe there’s more to the Wolfe-Cramer clashes than enjoyable embodiment of a detective-story tradition.

What other crime writers resort to the devious stratagem of entertainment to make a political point?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Blogger Linkmeister said...

"Radical messages?" You sure she was at BYU, not studying under John Yoo at Berkeley?

If Wikipedia is to be believed, he was subpoenaed by the HUAC in the McCarthy era and ignored the subpoena. I know from McAleer's biography that he didn't like J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI (see Wikipedia again), and the Church committee found that his publication of The Doorbell Rang caused the FBI to put him on its equivalent of Nixon's enemies list.

He was also on the original board of the ACLU.

Hmm. By conservative standards, I suppose that does make him "radical."

December 16, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Hah! I figured it would take you about 30 seconds to respond to this comment. And yes, I, too, took special notice of the university to which the thesis was submitted.

I did find some interesting material about The Doorbell Rang, as well as some references to Stout's having been criticized for anti-Communist stances he took in some of his work. What lessons are to be learned from this? For one, that a good biography of Rex Stout would make interesting reading.

I did find it telling that positions say, against censorship and abuse of FBI power, would be called radical. I like to imagine that they are radical in the etymological sense of the word -- they get at the root of what the U.S. is supposed to be about. In any case, the thesis seems better written than much academic writing I've read about crime fiction, and, at least to judge from its abstract, considers some of Stout's creditable positions against Nazism and racism.

December 16, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Peter,I would have participated in this discussion but I might have let slip some clues to my Quirky Quiz. Oops perhaps I just have?

December 16, 2007  
Blogger Barbara said...

This is a fascinating issue. Crime fiction does have a framework that would seem to be anything but radical - laws are enforced, order is restored, and in many cases the heroes of the tale the very officials of the state who enforce the interests of the state. How can you be radical when the whole message is "take it easy; everything is under control."

But somehow, crime fiction does challenge the system (at least some of it does) by having unexpected people (say, wealthy developers, politicians, religious figures with dodgy finances, crooked cops) be the ones who are subjected to the laws that in real life are far more likely to be enforced against people lower on the socio-economic food chain. And it also can turn the tables by giving us criminals who have heroic attributes - or who are uncomfortably just like us, which makes us question our categories. And, of course, in restoring order, we might also come to understand why there's disorder in the first place, and that there may be social injustices that are less thoroughly unpacked in an 8-column inch news story than in fiction. It may exactly that tension between the orderly framework and the disordering of our expectations that makes crime fiction such a powerful popular form.

It's interesting to chase down the reference to Stout in the Church Committee report. It says, "In addition to providing information useful to superiors, the Bureau assembled information on its own critics and on political figures it believed might influence public attitudes or congressional support. FBI Director Hoover had massive amounts of information at his fingertips. As indicated above, he could have the Bureau's files checked on anyone of interest to him. He personally received political information and "personal tidbits" from the special agents in charge of FBI field offices ...This information, both from the files and Hoover's personal sources, was available to discredit critics.

....The Bureau also maintained a "not to contact list' of "those individuals known to be hostile to the Bureau." Director Hoover specifically ordered that "each name" on the list "should be the subject of memo." 91

Stout was one of those names - in a footnote the report says "the list included 332 names, including mystery writer Rex Stout, whose novel 'The Doorbell Rang' had 'presented a highly distorted and most unfavorable picture of the Bureau.'

Historian Henry Steele Commager is also mentioned a the subject of such a memo.

The other truly creepy thing about reading the Church Committee report is that, if you changed the names and substituted "terrorism" for "communism" it would quite thoroughly describe the present moment.

December 16, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Uriah, you may, in fact, have confirmed a clue that my sharp powers of deduction had already picked up.

December 16, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

The suggestion that Rex Stout concealed radical views in a conservative genre was fascinating, too. Some European crime writing, especially French, of the last few decades has been strongly political with no efforts at concealment: Jean-Patrick Manchette, Jean-Claude Izzo and, though I have not read his work, the unspellable Didier Daeninckx.

I wonder if the occasional bringing down of powerful victims in crime fiction is more fantasy or fairy tale than political commentary. At any rate, that part of your comment plays nicely into a passage from the same Nero Wolfe story that sparked my posting. Cramer bursts in on the gathering of suspects in Wolfe's office, stops, and looks around. Archie muses that didn't envy Cramer because the suspects had money, lawyers and connections.

The suggestion that a determined police officer could be discomfited in the presence of rich and powerful people is a strong political comment on Rex Stout's part, I'd say.

I found references to Stout and the FBI. With respect to communism and terrorism, you saw how I titled this post. But of course, I also found references to Stout's having taken flak because he was staunchly anti-Communist and also hawkish on Vietnam. If he had critics on the right and the left, he was probably doing something right.

December 16, 2007  
Blogger gs said...

=a good biography of Rex Stout would make interesting reading.=

John McAleer's biography of Stout could be a little more in-depth and hard-hitting, but it's still interesting:

Stout was also a life-long opponent of racism, and Wolfe takes on the subject in Too Many Cooks and A Right to Die.

December 17, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for the note. One of the other comments mentioned the McAleer biography but offered no critical assessment.

I also found references to Stout's opposition to racism, but I don't think they cited titles. Thanks for that pointer, too.

December 17, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What other writers make political points in the detective fiction genre?

Quite a few; you might even call it a trend.

Matt Rees: A Grave In Gaza, The Collaborator of Bethlehem, The Samaritan's Secret. These all are about living in a land where everyone is suspected of something bad.

Sara Paretsky: Many mysteries whose motive turns out to be some kind of economic exploitation run amok.

Of course, the recent trilogy from Steig Larsson falls into this category. So does the work of a generation ago from Larsson's literary godparents, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.

"All politics is local," said Tip O'Neill. These writers all know that, don't they? A major aspect of all their writing is the precise use of real places and real conditions to frame their stories.

Thanks for an interesting blog.

September 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Though Matt Rees likes to say that he sets his novels up the way he does precisely to get away from politics, and to tell real, human stories about the territories. And that's probably a pretty good example of Tip O'Neill's dictum.

And it's probably of interest that Ken Bruen wrote:

“John Arden, the acclaimed playwright, activist, author, recently domiciled in Galway. On the publication of The Devil, he met me after a signing, not a literary critic on the horizon, said,

`Crime novels are the new social conscience.'”

Thanks for the kind words.

September 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In re Matt Rees and politics, here's another old blog post you might like.

September 05, 2010  

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