Friday, October 24, 2008

Death Was the Other Woman and a question about alternative histories

This novel slips under the Detectives Beyond Borders wire because I mingled in good fellowship with author Linda L. Richards at Bouchercon 2008 in Baltimore, because its protagonist has an interesting genesis, and because Richards is Canadian, which puts her beyond those borders that this blog likes to cross in its search for subjects.

Richards' inspiration was the opening scene of The Maltese Falcon, where Sam Spade's loyal secretary, Effie Perrine, opens the door to "Miss Wonderly," then sits and clacks away at her typewriter as the visitor spins out her yarn. What, wondered Richards, would someone like Effie do while the boss was off getting drunk or getting bashed in the head? Here's Richards, from an essay she wrote for Crimespree Magazine:
"(Q)uite often, these hard drinking PIs had a secretary. We seldom saw any of them do very much, but they were a solid presence in the stories in which they cropped up; gently esteemed by their bosses and treated with more respect than most of the women who appeared in the same tales.

"As I read – and read and read – I began to look for the female hands that were making the fruitful outcomes possible. You’d never see them straight on, of course. It’s possible even the authors responsible didn’t see these women at work. But the times dictated that these women do their stuff quietly, careful not to bruise the delicate larger egos of their often sodden bosses. I saw it all emerge. And I saw the reasons why.

"It was the Depression. Money was scarce and jobs difficult to come by. If you had a job, yet the job itself was imperfect, you wouldn’t just chuck it and get a new one, as we would in the 21st century. Jobs were precious, something to hold on to. You would do whatever you could – whatever you had to do – to make it work out, even if that meant doing the boss’s job for him when he wasn’t looking."
This gives Richards a perfect set-up for a kind of alternative history, and she follows through nicely. Her Kitty Pangborn is no mere vicarious fantasy of a woman stepping into a man's job. She does no shooting, for example, and she is never drugged, slugged or shot at. But the story is decidedly a mystery, and Kitty does her share of sleuthing, snooping and, above all, thinking and reflecting. The thinking, the reflecting, and her narration of the events that led her to the side of P.I. Dexter J. Theroux lend the story a wistful, coming-of-age air. Readers who liked Fredric Brown's great Fabulous Clipjoint might feel at home here.

Richards handles her other big narrative challenge nicely, too. She portrays the past – 1930s Los Angeles – without turning it into a museum piece. Kitty's back story helps here, too. She is the product of a once wealthy family that lost everything in the Depression. Thus she knows of the era's glitzy nightclubs but has fallen far enough from that world to be awed when she visits them. This gives Richards narrative license to paint word pictures of the scenes we know so well from movies set in the early 1930s. You know them, those vast rooms all in the best silver-and-cream that black-and-white movies could muster, all raised seating platforms and bold, curved modernist edges.

P.S. In another gender-based variation on a hard-boiled theme, Richards has an awkward, countrified young man turn up to look for his wayward sibling – a little brother, that is, rather than Chandler's Little Sister.
Death Was the Other Woman takes a familiar situation – hard-living P.I., loyal secretary – and tells the story from an unfamiliar point of view. What other crime writers have chosen alternate viewpoints for classic stories? What classic crime-fiction situations are ripe for such treatment?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Blogger Gerard Brennan said...

Oh, that's a delicious premise. Very interesting.

RE alternate POVs -- Well there were a few writers who went down the crime-solving cat route, but the less said about them the better.


October 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I had a feeling cat mysteries might come up. A crime-solving cat would probably not qualify for this question, but a novel about a cat who watches a cop or a P.I. solving a case might.

I have never read such a book, but E.F. Englert's A Dog Among Diplomats does something similar with a dog. I was shocked and pleasantly surprised to discover that it is an entertaining and serious novel, and I recommend it.

Just when I thought this word-verification thing may have run its course, I get one that is a real word, spelled correctly, though not in my language: forse. I'll let Marco explain it should he comment on this post.

October 24, 2008  
Blogger Gerard Brennan said...

Yeah, maybe I'm being unfair in writing off the whole animal-POV genre. If I'd read a tonne of them I'd be qualified to judge, but I haven't, so I'm not.

Do you think Dec Burke's A Gonzo Noir would quaify? He uses a number of POVs in it, one of which is his own, as the auhor.

Hmmm, I llok forward to Marco's transation.


October 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Multiple POV is not what I had in mind for this post. I was thinking more Moby Dick narrated by the whale.

Criminy, this animal thing. I have to start thinking about humans again.

The translation of forse is nothing to look forward to. It is an utterly ordinary word. I just threw in the tease to maybe build up my traffic a bit, since McKinty is eating up all the comments in the blogosphere these days.

October 24, 2008  
Blogger Gerard Brennan said...

Man, I feel like I've missed out on a whole sub genre. I keep coming up blank. Closest I've got is the movie Man Friday, which retells Robinson Crusoe through Friday's POV. But that's neither a book nor crime fiction and I haven't even seen it. So I give up.

And yeah, what's with McKinty and his comment gobbling? I shouldn't help, but I think I've commented about five times on that post. Well, no more, I tell you.


October 24, 2008  
Blogger Dana King said...

I can't think of an example, either, which makes Linda's premise that much more delicious. Tons of people have come up with "original" premises that are going to "breathe new life" in the genre. (Doesn't matter which genre we're talking about.) Heres is not only well thought out, but makes perfect sense.

Another addition to the post-Bouchercon purchase list. The cost of going to Bouchercon is like herpes; it just keeps coming back.

October 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gerard, Man Friday is exactly the sort of thing I had in mind. Since I can think of no crime fiction examples beyond Death Was the Other Woman either, I'm happy to open the comments to non-crime fiction and non-books.

To be fair to McKinty, he commented several times on my largest comment string, so I don't feel bad that I've just commented yet one more time on his.

October 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, you zeroed in on part of what attracted me to this book. Its premise made perfect sense, which is why I quoted extensively from Richards' discussion of it.

At the time of Boucheron, I had just return from Ireland, where I had bought and otherwise acquired lots and lots of books. Just as I starting on those came Bouchercon, so I have no shortage of reading right now, and no desire of medication to alleviate the situation.

October 24, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

What if Bond had had to write reports about his missions? And what if he'd just thrown his scrambled and shoddy notebook onto Moneypenny's desk and asked her to "make sense of that?"

I can't remember which collection it was, but there were several first-person Holmes stories which appeared late in the canon.

October 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Good examples, both. What would Moneypenny's narrations be like?

In a similar vein, I think P.G. Wodehouse may have given Jeeves the narrator's role in a few stories.

October 24, 2008  
Anonymous marco said...

Sorry,Peter,but I had an extended weekend of activism,manifestations and meeting with friends.

You left poor Gerard waiting for the translation.In case he still reads this post, forse=maybe,perhaps.

Re:animal pov-I bought from an used books stall a copy of Glennskill, which has a sheep (Miss Maple) as the detective.
I have yet to read it (and is nowhere near the top of my tbr pile).

On the matter of alternate viewpoints for classic stories:

It's quite common in SpecFi -maybe b/c a lot of sci-fi/spec-fi aims at subverting or at least questioning the status quo...famous examples are Grendel,by John Gardner and Wicked (Oz as seen by the Witch) by Gregory Maguire...a while ago Seanag mentioned Til we have faces by C.S.Lewis,a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche from the point of view of the "ugly" sister.
One of my favorites is A study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman,which I won't spoil-it's available online on his site.
I could probably name a lot more.
Outside sf,the mention of Man Friday reminded me of the novel Foe by J.M.Coetzee.
I'm sure I've also read some examples in the field of crime fiction,but they don't stand out as readily.

I'll follow the advice of my V-word and exixt

October 26, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I knew alternate points of view were common in other genres, but I could think of no crime-fiction examples other than Linda Richards'. I still can't.

I admire any author who takes on such a task. The enterprise the risk of turning into a hyper-clever in-joke. I was impressed that Death Was the Other Woman avoided this.

October 26, 2008  
Blogger Linda L. Richards said...

Oh my goodness, Peter! Thank you for such an in-depth and caring look at Death Was the Other Woman. I've been away from my computer for most of the last week or I would have commented sooner.

Interestingly, one of the authors I ran into while out on the road was Leonie Swann, author of Glenskill (published in North America as Three Bags Full. And if Swann's book and my book come from "alternate viewpoints" it's because neither of us thought of it in that way. There's no inside joke with Leonie's sheep or my put upon secretary: it was the only place from which either of us could tell these stories.

For me, there was never a nudge, nudge, wink, wink. I wasn't trying to be clever or find a new place from where I could spin on an old tale. As I wrote the book, it seemed to me I was merely stating the obvious. The between-the-wars PIs were so damaged. And they were drunks. There was simply no logical way they could be ingesting all that good Prohibition booze in the quantities stated and still be getting through their cases as calmly as it appeared to happen.

But the secretary? Hell: it's the Depression. And a girl needs to keep her job. A girl needs to eat. Times are tough, and she's just doing what needs to be done. Writing the book, I wasn't creating a new wrinkle or finding a new spin, I was just writing the stuff Hammett had left out, in a way. The stuff that seemed obivous to me, but that he perhaps had never seen.

October 28, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Linkmeister asked: "What if Bond had had to write reports about his missions? And what if he'd just thrown his scrambled and shoddy notebook onto Moneypenny's desk and asked her to "make sense of that?""

Actually, there is a series that does something like that.

October 28, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, anonymous. Among other things, The Moneypenny Diaries could be an entree into the Bond stories for people like me, who haven't read much Bond.

October 28, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

My pleasure, Linda. I know from your site that you've been on the road and that you held your own on stage with some tough competition.

The lack of nudge-wink is probably what makes good alternative-viewpoint stories work (though I suppose an author could have some good satirical fun with such stories, too. But that would be different from what you do.) The author sees questions and wants to answer them or sees stories that need telling. I suspect that many great discoverers have modestly said, "But it was obvious!" Well, yes, but no one had told those stories before.

I wrote in a comment that I was impressed that you had avoided hyper-clever in-jokes. Or maybe I just missed them.

October 28, 2008  

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