Tuesday, November 25, 2008

What are your favorite literary references in crime fiction?

Among the pleasures of John Lawton's Second Violin are its literary references, cleverer and more elaborate than most such.

One example concerns co-protagonist Frederick Troy's search for murder suspects amid a group of British bluebloods early in the Second World War, one of whom is identified as a descendant of Frederick, fifth earl of Ickenham.

Readers of P.G. Wodehouse will recognize the allusion to Uncle Freddy, bane of poor Pongo Twistleton's existence in "Uncle Freddy Flits By," a figure in several other stories, and just possibly Wodehouse's funniest creation.

Lawton picks up the Wodehouse theme in Troy's interrogation of the next blueblood on the list:

"`The evening [diary] entry is blank.'

"`I stayed on. A rare opportunity for a quiet evening with a good book.
Uncle Fred in the Springtime. Ask me anything you like about the plot.'"
Clever? Yes, but something more as well. The first blueblood is an incarnation of evil, which makes the invocation of Uncle Fred grotesquely humorous, or humorously grotesque. The real topper comes in Troy's interview with the second blueblood, though.

The light, Wodehouse-like tone of his banter with Troy is a deliberate contrast to Troy's previous encounter. The tone is almost enough to persuade the reader that this second figure, one Geoffrey Trench, M.P., is not the devil Lawton has led us to expect – almost, that is, until he lets slip a remark reasonable in its tone, evil in its implication, and goes on to suggest that his poisonous attitude is common among Conservative members of parliament and even prime ministers.

The juxtaposition of light (or low) comedy and dark tragedy is characteristic of Lawton's satirical method, effective in its shock value. In this instance, it might also be a reference to Wodehouse's own complicated war.

Now, tell me about your favorite literary references in crime fiction. Let me know, if you like, how and why these references work.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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23 Comments:

Blogger Linkmeister said...

I have five or six of his books on my kitchen table. I've read Black Out and am mid-way through Old Flames. I'll have to pay closer attention.

November 25, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lawton has a similar instance in Second Violin. He mentions Dickens right around the time he introduces the somewhat Dickensian figure of Station Sergeant George Bonham, "a gentle giant of a man."

November 25, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

This is only tangentially relevant (he mentions the Bible) but I thought you'd like it. Its from Wodehouse's preface to his novel Summer Lightning:

"A certain critic made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained 'all the old Wodehouse characters under different names.' He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have outgeneralled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy."

November 25, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

Well, how about The Bloomsday Dead, since the author's just shown up here to jog my memory? I'm curious, Adrian, if you check back in here, how closely you plotted your 24 hour day to match the segments of Ulysses. Peter's a close reader, so he probably caught more of this than I did.

I actually posted to mention a series of books that got me back into reading mysteries as an adult. These are the mysteries of Amanda Cross, alias Carolyn Heilbrun. She actually had her own Joyce-laced book, The James Joyce Murders, though her source text in this case was Dubliners.

I don't know if they were actually great mysteries, but they were great vehicles for her to talk about the things that mattered to her, in an easily accessible way. Tenure, gender issues and so on. And of course they led me back to her non-fiction works which she wrote under her own name as a professor at Columbia.

The Second Violin sounds right up my alley. I love this kind of thing, which isn't, alas, the same as always getting the allusions. One can but try.

November 25, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I shall forever be indebted to my Aunt Rose for introducing me to P.G. Wodehouse, who is not guilty as charged for two reasons. First, few authors can have created more perfect worlds than Wodehouse did; why should he have strained for novelty? Second, not all his characters are the same. Who duplicates the oldest member or Augustine Mulliner, for example? (The stories featuring young Augustine are themselves wonderful founts of highly entertaining and appropriate biblical quotations.) Even your namesake Adrian Mulliner, though lucky, is not inept and dim, like so many of Wodehouse's young men about town. I think the sameness tends to be restricted to stories that are set exclusively in country houses: the Blandings stories and some of the standalones. But criminy, the man wrote so much for so long that complete novelty in every work would have been surprising, not to mention commercially unwise.

November 25, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seanag, I'll let Adrian answer the "Bloomsday Dead" question, of course, but he did write somewhere recently that he had read "Ulysses" three times, most recently when he knew he was going to write "The Bloomsday Dead." I have never read "Ulysses," so my catches in Adrian's novels are restricted to sly use of the names of obnoxious media pundits.

I believe Carolyn Heilbrun was the first woman to be granted tenure by Columbia University's English department. Some of her Amanda Cross stories are full of bitter comedy about the treatment received and meted out by women in academia. A woman with that sharp a pen had to have made some enemies, and good for her.

The beautiful thing about the Wodehouse allusions is that the novel works perfectly well if a reader didn't get them. The "earl of Ickenham" reference is in a short biographical summary and works as a simple biographical datum. And even a reader who knows no Wodehouse would recognize Uncle Fred in the Springtime as a title whose tone was comically at odds with the mood of the investigation. Besides, I probably missed more allusions than I got. One character is mentioned several times as carrying books by J.B. Priestley, whom I now see wrote at least one book with a title that seems especially relevant to Second Violin but to whom I recognize no allusions beyond his name. Doesn't mean they're not there, though.

November 26, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

Yes, I think that it's even better if it works with and without the allusion. I wonder if all of Lawton's works are so laden. I will have to look tomorrow and see what of his we have at the store. He sounds really interesting.

November 26, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

seanag, you should read the blurbs on the hardcovers of his books. Fulsome compliments and comparisons to Le Carré abound.

November 26, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

Thanks, Linkmeister. I know his name, but I hadn't gotten any word of the extra dimension to his writing before.

Peter, I should add here that I was very happy to know that you were already well-acquainted with Heilbrun. Her suicide came as a sad surprise to me, although it was based on her own philosophy of life and not born out of despair. Still, it's hard when our heroes choose this route. It leaves no road map.

November 26, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seanag, I find it interesting that the allusions I recognize are to writers strongly identified with social comedy: Wodehouse and Dickens. This seems of a piece with Lawton's method of infusing his grim subject matter with low-comic touches that are more than just low-comic. The cockney Jew of Second Violin is one of the great and most resonant comic creations in crime fiction.

November 26, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, I'll read more of Lawton's Troy novels, probably in the order in which he wrote them. One of the things I'll look for is evidence to back up the Le Carré comparisons. I've now read just one novel by each writer, I didn't see much similarity between the two books.

November 26, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seanag, I remember one delightful jab from Helbrun/Cross at the state of university education. If I recall correctly, the story refers to Kate Fansler's husband or companion as a scholar of Shakespeare, though since open admissions he never gets to teach that anymore.

November 26, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

P.S. I probably should not have specified that the character was a great and resonant creation in "crime" fiction since Second Violin is only secondarily a crime novel.

November 26, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

Although I was sad to discover today that we really have nothing in in the way of Lawton backlist, which is luckily something I can correct once I can blurb him a bit more, we are indeed well stocked on The Second Violin. And the bonus good news is that although sixth in the series, it comes before the others in time, which you may have mentioned already, Peter, but I didn't catch it if so. So I can start the series there without ambivalence. Looking forward to it!

v word=hydrive Perhaps WV has already read the book?

November 26, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm pretty sure I had mentioned its position in the sequence, maybe in a comment to one of my posts about the book. In any case, here's a Lawton bibliography. He appears to have deviated from chronological order after the first three Troy books, jumping back to 1941 after having set the first three early in the war, in 1956 during a visit by Khrushchev to England, and in 1963, around the Profumo scandal and Kim Philby's defection. I'll probably try to read them in the order they appeared so I can track Lawton's method of telling a story. The first book, for example, gets right at the discovery of a body, whereas Frederick Troy does not enter Second Violin until Page 124.

November 27, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

Thanks for the bibliographical link, Peter. I think you're probably right to go in publishing order and follow his mind at work rather than historical order, though I'm still tempted to read the latest first, just because it sounds appealing.

Have you posted here about Alan Furst at all? I haven't read him yet, but keep meaning to. The reason I mention it is that people seem to have had a certain discomfort about his own non-linear progression throug WWII, while for me the back and forth time sequence would tend to be more of a strength.

November 27, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd say read them in the order you can get them, then see what surprises you find later.

I have not read or psoted about Alan Furst, but John Lawton recommended him when were were talking about wartime crime novels. I think he likes Philip Kerr, too.

November 27, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

I've heard good things about Kerr's German trilogy or quartet or whatever it is. My only exposure to him was his more futuristic A Philosophical Investigation, which features a serial killer named Wittgenstein, who justifies his murders, wait for it, philosophically. I think I wanted to like it a bit more than I actually did. But that doesn't mean I wouldn't like something of Kerr's set in a more historical mode, especially since they've been recommended.

November 27, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think Kerr's Bernie Gunther/Berlin Noir trilogy is up to five books now. I have a one-volume omnibus edition lying around, back from when it was one of those old-fashioned three-book trilogies.

I have flipped through the opening pages of the first novel, which was vey different in tone from Scond Violin, more directly a straightforward, audacious and clever stylistic ode to Raymond Chandler. Maybe I'll read that next.

November 27, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

Oh, I bet publishers just smack their lips at the trend toward 5 book trilogies.

You're talking about Lawton not Kerr when you say flipping through the opening pages, right?

November 27, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The publisher may well have been smacking its corporate lips at this one. Years elapsed between the third and fourth books, and the fifth followed shortly thereafter, so I have to think demand had something to do with bringing the series back.

No, I was talking about Kerr's opening pages, not Lawton's. These contain some pitch-perfect Chandler-style dialogue from the protagonist, Bernie Gunther.

November 27, 2008  
Anonymous Ian Abrams said...

Lawton has other references that are less ambiguous-- on p. 141 in "Second Violin" Troy finds himself at a Monte Carlo chemin-de-fer table with a young Englishman who never gives his name but who is clearly Bond, James Bond.

My favorite Lawton moment, though, is from one of the earlier novels, set in 1941. A minor character half-listens as a Col. Blimp type we've never seen before pontificates over lunch about Allied strategy in Europe-- and manages to predict exactly what will actually happen in 1944 and '45. He forecasts the entire close of the war. Marvelous deadpan moment, one of the many delights of reading Lawton.

And, by the way, am I to assume that the fat man with the pig who shows up in all of the novels is actually Magersfontein Lugg, wandering over from the Campion novels?

February 15, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ian, there is a moment in "Second Violin" as well where Troy makes a wry warning about the inadvisibility of a certain German strategy that turns out, as we know, to be completely accurate.

I've been lax in my reading of Ian Fleming and even more so of Margery Allingham, but I'll keep those references in mind when I read more Lawton. Thanks for the comment.

February 16, 2009  

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