Monday, January 24, 2011

The hero in the bathtub

A few months ago, I wrote about a charming tribute Andrea Camilleri paid Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö in his novel The Track of Sand. Sjöwall and Wahlöö accord similar tribute to another crime writer in The Fire Engine That Disappeared (1969), fifth in the Martin Beck series:

"He also drank some coffee and cognac and watched an old American gangster film on television. Then he got his bed ready and lay in the bathtub reading Raymond Chandler's The Lady in the Lake, every now and then taking a sip of cognac which he had placed within reach on the toilet seat."
Who said Swedes don't know how to live? A recent Detectives Beyond Borders post asked "Who is the hero in a Sjöwall and Wahlöö novel?" There's your answer: If you know what a character likes to read, he's your protagonist.

***
On the other side of the Atlantic, I wonder if Every Bitter Thing, Leighton Gage's fourth novel featuring Inspector Mario Silva of Brazil's Federal Police, has been translated into Spanish and, if so, how well the book sells in Venezuela. Not that the novel names Hugo Chávez, at least not early on, but Chavistas might frown at several references to "the Clown."

How do you feel about such topical references in crime fiction? What are some of your favorites?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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24 Comments:

Anonymous Elisabeth said...

...reading Raymond Chandler's The Lady in the Lake, every now and then taking a sip of cognac...

Well, other than the contention that one ought to drink gin Gimlets whilst reading Chandler, it sounds just about perfect.

As for topical references... I loathe topical references to popular culture unless they are firmly nestled in context so they they remain relevant years later. Ex., I'm reading Ed McBain's 1970 novel Jigsaw. On a pleasant June Saturday, 2 teenagers beat up another teenager. "They left him senseless, his nose shattered, four teeth knocked out of his mouth. All they took from him was a Ban-the-Bomb button he was wearing on his jacket. Then they went to a movie where John Wayne was starring in 'The Green Berets.'" Even if one didn't know who John Wayne was, the dichotomy is still clear. But fairly often in and older novel I'll read about some then-popular TV show, celebrity, or what-not, that serves only to date the novel when the author undoubtedly wanted to be hip and cool by making a reference to it.

Topical references to historical, cultural, sociopolitical, etc. subjects are perfectly fair and appropriate and bolster the sense of authenticity of time and place. (John Lawton's novels are choc-a-bloc with these.) If I want to know more about "who is this Clown they're talking about?" 40 years from now, it's up to me to find out.

Another ex., my dad is a Morris Minor fancier and he enjoyed the passage I read to him from Lawton's A Lily of the Field about Troy's brother Rod's new Morris (nobody will ever buy that Hitler car, the Volkswagen, they'll buy a Morris, the true people's car!). In this passage, a sentence begins something like this: "And that was in addition to the Rolls, the Crossley, and the Lagonda...". Well, I know what a Rolls is and I knew from an earlier passage that a Lagonda is a very fast touring car, but Pop-the-car-nut laughed out loud to hear a Crossley sandwiched between a Rolls and a Lagonda. Then he told me what a Crossley was...

January 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, I wonder how those Clown references will look in a few years. John Lawton must love research and he does a beautiful job of establishing context. But no one in my crime-fiction reading does as good a job as David Liss did with seventeenth-century Amsterdam in The Coffee Trader.

Your McBain selection illustrates your point well. Even if I knew nothing about the period in American culture or its symbols before I'd read that passage, I would now.

I've just looked up the Crosley. I was interested to learn that the comapny's owner was the same Crosley for whom the Cincinnati Reds' former ballpark was named.

January 25, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Topical references are fine. Makes a book seem current and more realistic. Whether I agree or not is another story, but I do enjoy it when classic mystery or other authors are raised by a main character, or politics, name-brands. Sure, why not?

If it's interesting and adds to a story, setting, backstory, character or mystery, why not?

January 25, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Well, in current books that works. But it no longer works ten or twenty or forty years later. Such references date a book and, as in the McBain example, it may make a reader refuse to identify. But certain books are timeless, and some music also is. Unfortunately, I'm not up on British rock groups of the past, and I really stumble over the many long passages that British authors include in wht their protgonists listen to while on the way to a crime or to interview a suspect, or while lying in the tub, sipping Scotch.

January 25, 2011  
Anonymous Simona said...

Andrea Camilleri suggested to Sellerio (his publisher) that they publish Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. I have read three of their novels in Italian, and I will get more. I liked the movie The Lady in the Lake, which I watched before reading the book.

January 25, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, the danger of topical references is that what makes a book current now may make readers scratch their heads in ten years -- or six months. I like Elisabeth's suggestion that such references are fine as long as the author has provided context to make the reference clear -- to make the reference more than a mere ephemeral label, in other words.

January 25, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Simona, I'm not surprised to learn that Camilleri made that suggestion. He has Salvo stay up until 4 in the morning finishing a Martin Beck novel -- a high honor, since Salvo does not always finish books he starts

January 25, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., popular-music references are problematic for the reasons you suggest. I've written about this problem before.

If I were an author, I'd be wary of making "current" references in my books, since such references could easily not be current by the time the book sees the light of day.

January 25, 2011  
Anonymous adrian said...

Peter

Strange coincidence. I was reading Lady in the Lake this morning while my kids mucked around in the Harold Holt Swimming Baths. I was at the bit where Marlowe breaks into Bill Chess's cabin to find the old Sheriff waiting there for him in the dark. I found that scene a bit unconvincing (the Sheriff didnt seem the type to wait in a cabin with the lights off all night on the off chance that Marlowe might break in) but it advanced the plot nicely.

Harold Holt incidentally was the Australian Prime Minister who drowned while out for a swim.

I was drinking hot chocolate from the coffee machine and it wasn't bad, although it could have been improved Castillian style with some brandy, brown sugar and cream.

January 25, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I'm reading Finishing the Hat, by Stephen Sondheim, and he talks a bit about this very thing when it came to writing "When You're a Jet" for Westside Story. The problem was to try and come up with the words that gave the idea of slang without using contemporary slang that would soon be dated.

Of course the music helps, as I'm sure he'd concede.

January 25, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

oh and an interesting book to read in the bath might be Franny or Zooey by JD Salinger (I forget which one) which takes place almost entirely while either Franny or Zooey lounges in the bath.

January 25, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I'd wager that no scene in a hard-boiled crime story has ever begun "I was drinking hot chocolate when ... " But that doesn't mean that none should begin that way.

Seems to me I'd heard that someone had named a swimming pool after Harold Holt, which struck me a marvelous bit of macabre humor.

January 25, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I'd be interested in what Sondheim has to say. I'm running the song through my head now, and it's devoid of contemporary slang. But lines like "When you're a Jet, you're the top cat in town / You're the gold-medal kid with the heavyweight crown" certainly sound like American vernacular.

January 25, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, Josephine Tey famously wrote The Daughter of Time, in which her protagonist solved a mystery from a hospital bed, so why not a case solved entirely from a bathtub?

January 25, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Yes Bill Bryson talked about the irony of the Harold Hold swimming baths in his book on Oz. I dont know if he actually visited them though. They really are pretty good.

January 25, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Right, the vernacular, but not the more quickly changing slang. It's been interesting to hear the behind the scenes conflicts and pressures. He is quick to point out what he thinks were his mistakes in all the musicals.

It's always interesting to read what a thoughtful person has to say about tecnnique, regardless of genre.

January 25, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian: Bill Bryson is a zany guy, and he loves Australia. I may have mentioned that in a post-Olympics edition of In a Sunburned Country, he takes a shot at a sportswriter from my newspaper who criticized Australian food.

January 25, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Right on, Seana. Sondheim might have something to say to all writers and readers.

January 25, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Colin Dexter's Morse also solved a crime from his hospital bed.

January 26, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Wench is Dead, a fine title.

January 26, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

I have to say that I do not like references to 'modern' music in books, rock music and the like, mainly because I never know who or what they're referring to. I know next to nothing about music from the 70's onward. I must have been out to lunch. Can't blame it on drugs because I never did any. I think I just stopped paying attention.

I also don't like references to starlets or current celebrities, again because I generally do not know who they're talking about.

I read a book where the protagonist, a kid in a coma, tells the story and figures out what happened. It worked too.

I love DAUGHTER OF TIME. A brilliant book.

But I never mind topical references in context. If I did I wouldn't read so many vintage mysteries. That topicality is often part of their charm.

I do mind product brand names if they're over-used. I hear that's the latest trend now. It's almost like a buying an ad inside a book. I'm wondering when Patterson will take advantage of that, if he hasn't already. :)

January 26, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, one problem with references to current and recent rock and roll in fiction is the music's popularity. How can a taste for such music serve as an effective character marker if, in real life, everyone listens to it? Here's a rock and roll reference I like.

Ads in e-books are already a topic of discussion, so I assume they'll appear soon if they haven't already. There's one more reason not to like eobooks.

Which book has a comatose kid as a protagonist and narrator?

January 26, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

THE NINTH LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX by Liz Jensen. The book begins thusly:
"I'm not most kids. I'm Louis Drax. Stuff happens to me that shouldn't happen, like going on a picnic where you drown."

There are some chapters in the book that are narrated by the kid's doctor, but the kid is the main narrator. It is a very unsettling book. Quite amazing really. A heartbreaking mystery.
I would love to know what you think of it.

Peter, I meant product ads inside the manuscript. As in, a character would drink a specific soda or eat a specific brand of something. It's the coming thing. Ha!

January 26, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, I have no doubt. It also would not shock me if higher bids could supplant earlier product placement in books. Say Coke pays to have the protagonist drink its product. Coke's contract expires two years, Pepsi outbids Coke for the right to be the new official beverage, Amazon (or any other major e-book publisher) tinkers with the software it graciously lets you pay for, and suddenly the protagonist is drinking Pepsi.

January 26, 2011  

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