Saturday, March 21, 2009

Out of the past

I don't know when Linda L. Richards wrote Death Was the Other Woman, which appeared in 2008, and Death Was in the Picture (2009), but the timing of their publication is fortunate, if one can use that word to denote the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Richards' protagonist, Kitty Pangborn, is a woman in reduced circumstances. Wrenched by the Crash of 1929 from the life of ease her family had enjoyed, she goes to work for a private investigator, and she's glad for the job.

"It was the Depression," Richards wrote in an essay for Crimespree Magazine. "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."
It's grimly amusing to think that when Richards wrote that essay, the notion of clinging desperately to a precious job was something out of a horrible past. Perhaps Kitty Pangborn, conceived as a tribute to and more realistic reimagining of crime fiction's hard-working female sidekicks and secretaries of the 1930s, can be a solace to harried workers in the 2000s.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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30 Comments:

Blogger seanag said...

"It's grimly amusing to think that when Richards wrote that essay, the notion of clinging desperately to a precious job was something out of a horrible past. "

Too, too true. Even for those of us who still retain our jobs, there has been a shift back to this older mentality. It boggles the mind, really.

Bright side? Maybe some really good crime novels will come out of this new 'motivation'.

March 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's depressing to see the extent to which workers eagerly slip back into that old mentality.

Donald Westlake did write the "The Ax" a few years ago, though I have not been able to bring myself to read it. Maybe this all will inspire my own meager efforts.

March 22, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

That's intriguing. I didn't know that "The Ax" referred to that kind of ax.

I do think it's a good idea to fight that holding on to a job mentality, in so much as you can. It's funny, but a hopeful thing recently has been two real life friends and one fictional character abruptly saying, "I quit." The real life friends are feeling great about it, by the way. Not to encourage anyone's rash action. But still. At a certain point, it does all just get ridiculous.

March 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yep, pitching in for the team can bleed over into self-debasement real fast.

I would dearly love to--

In fiction, of course.

March 22, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Well, do it fictionally, then. At least it's a start. You could write under a psuedonym, if there would be repercussions. We know Donald Westlake did it all the time.

I just--and I do mean just-- discovered that a story I wrote for an on-line journal has come out. Not that anyone actually bothered to inform me. It doesn't involve detectives, and it's not beyond borders, but there is a death or two, so it's here , if anyone wants to take a look...

March 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I shall read it, looking for hints of frustration and revenge among the deaths.

I have worked some of the frustrations into my current occasional online fictional efforts here. I adopted fictional names for the characters about ten segments in. I hadn't thought about a pseudonym for the author, though. That might be an idea.

Hmm, even now I see throwaway lines that I could make into funny ones without too much effort.

March 22, 2009  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

'It's funny, but a hopeful thing recently has been two real life friends and one fictional character abruptly saying, "I quit." The real life friends are feeling great about it, by the way.'

I thought my daughter [with a first class honours degree] was the only brave but foolhardy employee out there as she quit her soul destroying job a couple of weeks ago.

March 22, 2009  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Alas, I thought The Ax handled the entire economic angle much better than Death Was the Other Woman. It felt tacked on to me in the latter, not really integrated.

March 22, 2009  
Blogger Dorte H said...

For a spoilt Danish citizen a reminder of "the Depression" actually puts things into perspective. From our point of view there is a crisis, but no one here is going to freeze or starve. Still, I feel for people who are unemployed, and some of them may have to give up their houses if it continues for long.

March 22, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Peter,

Yes, I followed the earlier installments of your story but will have to catch up with the latest one or two. I did notice you getting in a few licks on the subject of copyediting, or the lack thereof, along the way.

Uriah,

I don't know if this is the case for your daughter, but in both my friends' cases, it wasn't that they had grown tired of the actual job they'd been hired to do but that they were in one way or another feeling add odds with the powers that be, and couldn't see that changing.

Loren,

I am going to have to put The Ax on my list.


Dorte,

So things are apparently not as rotten in the state of Denmark as they are elsewhere, huh?

March 22, 2009  
Blogger petra michelle; Whose role is it anyway? said...

Ah, the pendulum swings! But your pov may well be right on, Peter!

p.s. *laughing* No, Kate wasn't a contender as St. Brigid, but she is for Jill in Jack and Jill, if interested! You are truly loyal!
;)

March 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Uriah: Alas, this is still a fantasy. My hope is that I quit my job before it quits me.

Linda Richards' character is reconciled to her job, which is precious to her. Someone should write an entirely fictional account about the seething resentement of some employees to whom their jobs are equally precious.

March 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dorte, people here aren't freezing or starving in mass numbers yet. But there is a toll on those who still have jobs as well.

Of course, my perspectives is that of a worker for a company in a dying industry whose management is at an utter loss for how to handle the transition to its next state. That's an interesting story in itself.

March 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren: The really interesting part of Kitty Pangborn, as Richards conceived the character, is that she does what the Effie Perrines of the world would really have to have done if their bosses got drunk, beaten up and shot as often as 1930s PIs really did.

The economic angle is more a part of the character's back story than her front story, an explanation for why she took the job rather than a spur to the plot.

Richards' previous crime novels were set in the business world, I think, so that may account for attraction to an economic motive for Kitty's going to work for a PI.

March 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, you mean you read a few fictional jabs at the fictional lack of copy editing at a fictional newspaper.

March 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

PM, a swinging pendulum is the wrong metaphor for my industry and my company. A clock running down would be more to the point.

If I keep my own Baltimore Drive-by going, maybe I'll find a role in it for Kate Winslet.

March 22, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

you read a few fictional jabs at the fictional lack of copy editing at a fictional newspaper

Oh, uh, right.

There were some good lines in it, though.

March 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I suppose one task for anyone, especially a beginning author, who tries to incorporate real-life experiences into fiction is to attain sufficient detachment from the material. I would have to make readers care about the characters' predicament, and not my own. That detachment is the chief reason for dropping real names and substituting fictional ones.

March 22, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

This might make for a short story rather than a novel, but imagine you've run a clipping service for years, and suddenly you find yourself a) superceded by Google Alerts and b) finding that the source of the actual paper clippings themselves are going out of business.

March 22, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Bah. Source "is" going out of business. That'll teach me to insert a couple of words into an already-formed sentence.

March 22, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

That's funny, Linkmeister. The way I first interpreted that was that you had discovered that the source you imagined going out of business actually had gone out of business.

That's the problem with financial crises stories right now--by the time we can dream them up fictionally, they seem to have already happened.

March 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, someone was musing the other day, perhaps over drinks or bagels, about what the replacement of print with digital storage will do for historians and other interested people in the future. This musing was prompted by this person's possession of old stories in some medium, perhaps a floppy disk, that was now difficult or impossible to read.

And to think that some people may still believe that the digital age means increased freedom.

March 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Google, Kindle, Amazon -- to think there was a time, just a few decades ago, when Americans believed that massive concentration of power in one set of hands was a bad thing.

March 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, for the reasons you suggest, perhaps any writing of value that comes out of the current crisis will concentrate, like Westlake's The Ax, on the effects on people at the bottom of the heap rather than the machinations of those at the top.

March 22, 2009  
Blogger Dorte H said...

Peter,Denmark has a reasonably good & fair welfare system - but right now I have been hit by the flu & cannot see things in perspective any more :(

March 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I hope you do not allow clogged sinuses, watery eyes and a queasy stomach to cloud your view of a welfare system that probably leaves Denmark's citizens in a less precarious position than Americans. God bedring!

March 22, 2009  
Blogger Linda L. Richards said...

I wrote most of Death Was the Other Woman in 2006. Death Was in the Picture in 2007 and early 2008. But Peter, I don't think the timing is fortunate. In fact, the reverse is true. When I wrote the books, the financial reality that is a subtext of both novels was outlandish and different. It was one of the things that made it interesting. Now, as one reviewer remarked, some of those aspects are a little too much like watching the news.

But the economic aspects weren't tacked on. (Though, in fairness, I'm not quite sure what that means.) However, they were never meant to be a reflection of our times. Rather, they're central to the premise that drives the books. The end of Prohibition. The beginning of the Depression. And at this crossroads crime thrives and breeds.

Actually, watching the news is a little odd for me right now. In some ways, it does begin to feel as though I had some sort of crystal ball. I did not. Rather, in one sense, I interpreted what I saw between and beyond the lines of the earliest of Hammett's novels. I think Hammett saw a tough PI doing what it took to get the job done. I saw a damaged soul -- emotionally scarred, self-medicating -- who couldn't possibly be doing what he seemed to be doing without help. It happens that those books were written in the late 1920s and early 1930s. I tried to reflect what was happening at that time in that region and have that reflect to the characters and what drives them.

This is all just a very long way of saying that the socio-economic conditions in my books were never meant to be anything beyond subtext. But they were the foundation of the story -- not an afterthought.

March 23, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yikes, I hadn't thought that the coincidence would be unfortunate. But I'd urge you to take heart. I meant what I wrote about Kitty's attitude toward her job possibly leading readers to reflect on their own situations. That's what I've done, though I suspect Kitty is more accepting and productive an employee than I am.

I'm glad you mentioned the damaged-soul aspect. To me that comes across more strongly in the second book than in the first. Kitty's heartbreak at seeing Dex in bad shape is quite touching.

March 23, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Linda,

Take heart. That was only one reviewer. Personally, I think the resonance between the two eras makes the books sound all that much more interesting. And perhaps we will all empathize more into the situations of the characters than we would have.

March 23, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, that's just what I was suggesting. I suspect the -- allright, unfortunate -- parallels with the current economic downturn might enhance interest in the book.

March 23, 2009  

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