Thursday, January 06, 2011

Who is the hero in a Sjöwall and Wahlöö novel?

Sure, Alan Blair's translation of The Man on the Balcony (1968), third of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's Martin Beck mysteries, includes several instances of the word society and one of the welfare state, but much of its social observation is homelier than that:

"Kvist ... inhaled the smell of fresh-baked bread, thinking that these small bakeries were getting rare.

"Soon they'll vanish altogether and you'll be able to buy nothing but mass-produced bread in plastic wrapping and the entire Swedish nation will eat exactly the same loaves and buns and cakes."
These days Kvist might have added "... and drink the same coffee, talk on the same phone, and read the same book on the same e-reader from the same company," but the sentiment remains pertinent today.
***
The novel gives the thought not to Martin Beck or even to his close colleague Lennart Kollberg, but rather to Kvist, a low-ranking officer who makes an important discovery in the scene and plays no role otherwise. Later in the book, two similarly low-ranking officers make an even more important discovery purely by accident.

What is a reader to make of the juxtaposition of serendipitous breaks by underlings and the lengthy, draining, sometimes heart-rending work put in by their superiors? Is this merely a more realistic account of how investigations work? A polemical attack on the convention that a novel must have a central figure? A raspberry aimed at authority by a pair of mischievous leftists?

Whatever the reason, other Scandinavian crime writers, Karin Fossum and Håkan Nesser among them, followed Sjöwall and Wahlöö's lead, dispersing the focus away from a central figure and distributing it among a larger cast.

Why do they do this? What other authors focus more on a cast of characters than on one central figure? What effect does this have? (Please remember to write your name on your blue books before you hand in your test papers.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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98 Comments:

Blogger Dave Riley said...

Why? Because Martin Beck's creators were good Marxists.

Sjowell and Wahloo understood that life, crime and existence is always a medley of relationships and perspectives driven by different subjective experiences and competing interests..

There is really no hero to be had outside the pattern of the everyday and what i appreciate so much about Beck is that he is an Everyman making do with what he finds before him. (AND what better make do than a police procedural).

Magic and archetypes do not exist on the page. Only coincidence.

So Beck is both active and passive within the surrounding social drama: a cog in the constabulary who does a better job at the coal face than most others. And the 'evil that surrounds him is mainly social in form. The criminals mainly just congeal it by varying degrees.

So you need a hefty cast of characters because, I guess, the world isn't ruled by rigidly controlled plots or criminal conspiracies waiting to be 'solved' by savants (or pistol totting cowboys)...

January 06, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I really don't give the "Marxist" leanings (alleged?) a thought. The novels are simply so good -- for me that translates into "believable" among other aspects -- that I don't care about the authors' political ideas. How many mystery authors do we judge by their privately held beliefs? Well, Simenon comes to mind, but as a rule we do not ask if Connelly is a Democrat or a Republican, or if Colin Dexter is a Tory.

The business with the bread is unfortunately all too true in many countries in the world. Mass-produced food has taken over with very sad results. I particularly relate to the bread issue, because I have to drive miles to find decent bread, and then it's never freshly baked and still warm from the oven. We lose so much.

As for the introduction of minor characters into the detection process: surely in a police procedural that is the way things work. Only the amateur detective solves all his cases alone with his superman intelligence. As I said before, I like my detective novels as close as possible to reality.

January 06, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

It's interesting to think about what effect the Martin Beck novels might have on the Swedish wave of crime fiction coming out now that makes them different from the crime fiction of other countries.

And I'd agree with I.J. that it's very common to have the story dispersed among many characters among police procedurals. Fred Vargas, and The Wire spring to mind, and I'm sure there are a lot more.

v word=fiesquit

January 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Magic and archetypes do not exist on the page. ... So you need a hefty cast of characters because, I guess, the world isn't ruled by rigidly controlled plots or criminal conspiracies waiting to be 'solved' by savants (or pistol totting cowboys)...

Dave: That's very much to the point. No reader of crime fiction could fail to notice this.

January 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I called my late first encounter with Sjöwall and Wahlöö (in the form of Roseanna) one of the highlights of my life as a crime-fiction reader. They are of towering achievement, stature and influence. (Vintage/Black Lizard's wonderful new editions of the books feature introductions by prominent crime writers. Jo Nesbø's introduction to The Man on the Balcony ranks Sjöwall and Wahlöö alongside Hammett, Chandler and Simenon, and insofar as his criteria are excellence and influence on writers who followed, he's right.) So you'll get no argument from me over how good these books are.

I don't think Sjöwall and Wahlöö just leaned toward Marxism, I think they fell all the way over into it. I also think it's fair and relevant to invoke their politics in connection with the books for reasons such as the bread example. Their social criticisms are no mere recitations of doctrine, they are deeply human observations of everyday life. And they are coherent parts of a world view that happens to result in some splendid stories. Their books are no mere conventional police procedurals with a newspaper editorial tacked on. When is it relevant to consider a crime writer's political beliefs? It's relevant when it's relevant. In this case, it is.

In re minor characters, yes, that's how police procedurals work, but here, too, S & W employed the method differently from others, such as Ed McBain, though the parallels obviously exists. (Maj Sjöwall insists that she and Wahlöö had not read McBain when they started writing their own books, though they later were to translate him into Swedish, if I recall correctly.) I'll have more to say on S, W and minor characters in my next comment.

I buy my bread baked fresh each day at an excellent small bakery a block and a half from my house.

January 06, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I see we are in agreement, Peter. And lucky you, with a good bakery close by. I need European breads, and I do find then here and there, though always shipped from some other place.

I'm not sure that good bread necessarily depends on a Marxist agenda.

As a writer I'm always hugely tempted to introduce the villain somewhere near the end. That's where, most likely, he is in real life. This idea that you must play fair with the reader emphasizes "play" too much. My objection to cozies!
However, while the pieces of the case (avoiding "puzzle" here) can be brought together by any number of people, the novel must have a central character. S&W do have a central character. So do other Scandinavian writers. The difference is that he is no longer the Sherlock Holmes type, remote and superior, until he can reveal the solution at the very end, much like pulling a rabbit from a hat.
(I don't like Sherlock Holmes).

January 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I'm not sure what, if anything, makes the current wave of Swedish crime writing different. One will occasionally hear it said that Swedish crime writers tend to emphasize social concerns more. I think the reduction in the protagonist's importance is a more impressive influence, though not all Swedish crime writers do it, of course, and not all the authors who do do it are Swedish.

Ed McBain is another crime writer with multiple protagonists, but Sjöwall and Wahlöö do something different. Fred Vargas will shift focus from Adamsberg to Danglard or Retancourt or Camille, and McBain among the various officers of the 87th Precinct. But neither would do what Sjöwall and Wahlöö did in this book, which is to introduce characters out of the clear blue, have them perform significant actions, then whisk them off stage, not to be seen again.

One could plausibly suggest that Vargas has one traditional hero with an able supporting cast, McBain a shifting cast of traditional heroes, and S and W no traditional heroes at all.

January 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., anyone will tell you that Marxists do not live on bread alone. But the bread scenes demonstrates that Sjowall and Wahloo cared about people and not just about doctrine -- or could give a convincing impression that they did.

My local baker is Cambodian and left the country right around the time you might expect. He spent the intervening years in France, where he trained as a baker and a patissier in Paris and, I think Lyon as well. This makes for some good things on the shelf each day.

I've now read just two of the Sjowall and Wahloo novels (I'll start on a third as soon as I post this comment), so I can't speak with great authority about their conception of a central character. But Martin Beck is a different kind of central character, as you suggest. And this is where I have to believe that Sjowall and Wahloo influences such Scandinavian crime writers as Hakan Nesser and Karin Fossum. Beck is central at least as much for the crime's effect on him as for his effects on the crime.

January 06, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Its interesting that you should pose the question about this particular novel, Peter, as after finishing this one, I put my plans to read the entire series on hold, as I thought that just too much social commentary was creeping into their writing; I accept, of course, that it may well have been required by the subject of this particular novel and I intend, anyway, to at least read 'The Laughing Policeman', having enjoyed the film, but as somebody who tends to not take too kindly to preachifying in any work of art, all I'm saying is I was just sufficiently concerned

January 06, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Remember in Andrea Camilleri's latest, The Track of Sand, when Salvo goes to bed to read a Martin Beck novel and finishes it at 4 AM? Leftist Camilleri, via Salvo, makes explicit the relationship between the two detectives. But I prefer Camilleri's less pedantic and ofteh slyly humorous leftism to the more strident and obvious one of Sjöwall and Wahlöö. Maybe if I were younger, my opinion would be reversed. I was much more militant 30 years ago. Perhaps Camilleri, via his nonfiction, essays, and op-ed pieces in Italian newspapers has more outlets to vent his spleen.

As for the "why do they do this?" Well, if one is going to write fairly realistic police procedurals, as I.J. notes, it's simple common sense. The "lone wolf" detective (à la Harry Bosch), as appealing as this type can be, is not very realistic. Eventually, it's a dead end. And Montalbano readers will find Camilleri giving greater emphasis to Fazio and Mimì in the next 2 novels to be translated.

For authors of series, another "why" might be: to keep characters and plots from growing stale. McBain was a master of this. And not all his cops are "traditional heroes." Det. Andy Parker comes to mind. He's a slacker, a clock-watcher, a bigot, and not above trading sex or drugs for leniency.

Anecdote... I had a Kvist moment (as in "Soon they'll vanish altogether and you'll be able to buy nothing but mass-produced bread in plastic wrapping and the entire Swedish nation will eat exactly the same loaves and buns and cakes") at a Scandinavian bakery in the ever less-and-less Scandinavian Seattle neighborhood of Ballard before Christmas. In amongst the bread and pastries of "my people" (Julebrød, Wienerbrød, Limpa, Berlinerkranser, etc.) were the inevitable maple bars, chocolate chip cookies, blah blah. Hellige London!

Fortunately, good fresh bread, from many cultures, is readily available in L.A.

January 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TCK:

Interesting you should pose that particular comment. I have read that the series became more tendentious as it progressed, and I deliberately singled out the societys and welfare states as possible signs of that tendentiousness. My only basis for comparison was Roseanna, the first novel in the series, which surprised me with its lack of preaching. The Man in the Balcony is the third book, and I'm about to start the second, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke. I'll be alert for speechifying.

Hmm, do you suppose the English titles of Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who/With ... titles are homags to S&W's The Man Who ...? (Larsson's Swedish titles are unrelated, so any relationship would be an English thing.)

January 06, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Peter, I highly recommend the first two books; by and large they keep their opinions on the state of Sweden to the bare minimum, but I suppose, having suppressed them for so long, they needed to release the pressure valve in the third novel.
Its well crafted, if overlong, but it just annoyed me too much.

The first two are very different types of novels; 'Roseanna' is coldly clinical in its precision, and I was hugely impressed.
I think you may have contributed to my comment regarding the usefulness of a map to track the progress of the suspect during an extended police tail, albeit that the description was masterly, and you didn't really need to have a map by your side; I was also particularly impressed by an extended sequence in the second where nothing very much seemed to be happening, and I was wondering was there a 'punchline'.

But they delivered.

The first two books proved to me that they were good enough writers not to let their personal opinions stomp all over their novels, and I haven't given up on them, .....but,.....

January 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, I noted Montalbano's choice of a Martin Beck novel here. I took it as a special tribute to Sjowall and Wahloo that Camilleri had Montalbano finish the book since his failure to finish reading a Simenon is a running gag in an earlier Montalbano novel, "The Voice of the Violin," perhaps.

As for the differences between the ways S&W and Camilleri express politics, don't discount Mediterranean joie de vivre and Nordic stolidity as factors -- though the latter is an odious stereotype, of course. Whatever the differences, I would certainly choose both for the reading list in a hypothetical course on Crime Fiction and Politics for Crime Readers Who Hate Politics.

I wonder if there's a tendency for ensemble-cast series to run longer than lone-wolf series. On the one hand, Ed McBain and his 87th Precinct cast, on the other, perhaps, his friend Richard Stark's Parker novels and Bill James' Harpur & Iles. They-- but I feel a new post coming on, so I'll save further discussion for later.

Sjowall and Wahloo were certainly among the first to write ensemble-cast police procedurals. I wonder if they ever discussed why the made this choice and whether the choice was a conscious rejection of the lone-wolf tradition. And who the heck was the first European lone-wolf detective anyhow? When did that particularly American crime-fiction tradition make its way to Europe?

January 06, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"...don't discount Mediterranean joie de vivre and Nordic stolidity as factors -- though the latter is an odious stereotype, of course."

Well, naturally I wanted to say this but I'm glad you said it instead of me! And I hope you didn't add the last part for my benefit. I'd be the first to claim it as true, there being no stereotype without a prototype.

January 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TCK, I noted a propos of "Roseanna" how impressed I was by the lengthy stretches when nothing happened in the investigation. I believe Henning Mankell was similarly impressed and noted this in his introduction to the current edition of the book.

The Beck books may be well worth reading in order to chart the shifts in the authors' strategy.

January 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, of course I added the last part for your benefit. You once took good-natured umbrage at my having invoked the stereotype of the stolid Norseman. But look, you won't find Nordic detectives eating as well as Montalbano or Pepe Carvalho or Jean-Claude Izzo's Fabio Montale, so yes, a type lies behind the stereotype.

January 06, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"...who the heck was the first European lone-wolf detective anyhow?"

Perhaps Louis Joseph Vance's Michael Lanyard? His nickname was The Lone Wolf. He was more of the criminal-turned-good-guy type, not a police dept. detective, of course. First book = 1914.

January 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Was he in the Vidocq or gentleman-thief traditions, perhaps?

January 06, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Gentleman-thief. More here.

January 06, 2011  
Blogger Dave Riley said...

There are many ways to skin a cat and Sjowall et al does it one way and Camilleri another. Being a dedicated leftist or a Marxist is not a creative sentence. If we started listing all the crime fiction novelists --and film noir writers/directors -- who were so aligned, we'd have a very long list indeed.

Even Mankell was a signed up Marxist for a time...and the noted Marxist economist, Ernest Mandell wrote a v good book on crime fiction -- Delightful Murder -- exploring it in its social context.

Nonetheless, with all due respect to their so aligned peers no one does it better than Sjöwall and Wahlöö.

The mesh of drama and the exploration of a particular social context -- Sweden in the sixties and early seventies -- is so subtly and creatively done that you have to respond to the rich humanity of the Beck project and its insights.

..in my case, with awe.

And in deference to the original question -- I think Peter touches on a key element in the orchestrated mix. The medley of different personal stories coming together and colliding isn't always the stuff of fiction especially when it is used not necessarily as a means to drive the plot a la, say, the conincidences that drive Great Expectations.

And the writers do this without , unlike so many pseudo realist writers, turning a maudlin sod (something Mankell often falls victim to). In Sjöwall and Wahlöö people are congealed sociology making do as legally or as criminally as they can.

There isn;'t the liberal penchant for moralism nor the fetish with perversion...nor, as happens in Camilieri et al, an overriding obsession with his own lead character.

January 06, 2011  
Blogger Dave Riley said...

PS: THe irony is that the most noted Marxist writing crime fiction -Stieg Larsson-- wrote to a over bearing conspiracy formula . But Larson's political credentials were superb as a leading activist and writer/editor.

But he was no match to his Martin Beck forbears. And what bugs me is that he chose a social relevance route that caused him to over write the plot and stereotype his characters.

It's as though all he got from Marxism was..politics. In contrast Sjöwall and Wahlöö understood the philosophical raison d'etre. ..and logic. Nothing was alien in their creative universe. Nothing had to be imposed for the sake of a schemata.

Everything flowed...

January 06, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

"The mesh of drama and the exploration of a particular social context -- Sweden in the sixties and early seventies -- is so subtly and creatively done that you have to respond to the rich humanity of the Beck project and its insights."
Dave, if you've read "The Man in the Balcony" and still insist on the 'subtly' bit in reference to it, then I think we'll have to agree to differ.
And there was me thinking the 'skinning the cat' analogy was a peculiarly Irish expression!.

Love your mix of favourite movies, however, albeit not each film.
Although I missed about the first 10 minutes of 'Death in Brunswick', I can safely say that I'll still prefer it to 'Death in Venice', though I can't say I plan to put it to the test

January 06, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I'm just auditing this course, but what an interesting discussion. I agree with much of it, including Dave's points.

I find Sjowall/Wahloo's books to be just right, as are Camilleri's; they're just different. (i.e., I don't fall over laughing while reading S&W's books, nor do I see as much human compassion.) Their political observations are done well, though without lecturing the reader, in my opinion.

I appreciate both of these series, and am steeling myself to space out the reading of both, so as to savor them over time.

I am reading the delightful book by Hammett, "The Thin Man," and I do see traces of his political views, said subtly, but in there nevertheless. (If necessary, for the quiz, I can provide documentation.)

By the way, Marxists like freshly-baked "le pain," but also "le gateau," as well...just to clarify.

And, as a cat lover, can we possibly find another metaphor?

January 07, 2011  
Anonymous john wirebach said...

Pete: Nothing to do with the swedes, which I believe is English for turnips...

Thanks for the pieces on Aussie-Land. Very informative and useful.

IN that spirit I recommend Jared Henry, a melbourne writer and ex-cop who's obviously read his Michael Connelly. Blood Sunset, set among the scum of St Kilda (a Melbourne version of Atlantic City)is a true piece of noir.

Of course, it's not available in the US. Have to buy it in England.

Best, John Wirebach

January 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gentleman-thief. More here.

Thanks.

January 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dave:

There are many ways to skin a cat and Sjowall et al does it one way and Camilleri another.

And Jean-Claude Izzo another.

Thanks for the heads-up on the Ernest Mandell book.

Being a dedicated leftist or a Marxist is not a creative sentence.

No, but excessive polemics crowding their way into fiction or any other kind of discourse can be. The politics work best when it "is so subtly and creatively done that you have to respond to the rich humanity." That puts a finger on what makes Sjowall and Wahloo so good.

January 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TCK:

"Dave, if you've read "The Man in the Balcony" and still insist on the 'subtly' bit in reference to it, then I think we'll have to agree to differ."

I'll weigh in here and expand on what I've said above. Yes, "The Man in the Balcony" had its moments of polemics. These were not the novel's strongest moments, not were they its best political arguments. Such incidents as the Kvist's thoughts about the bakery work better. And even some of the overt commentary is effective -- to the extent that it's specific and avoids abstractions.

January 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

PS: THe irony is that the most noted Marxist writing crime fiction -Stieg Larsson-- wrote to a over bearing conspiracy formula ... It's as though all he got from Marxism was..politics. In contrast Sjöwall and Wahlöö understood the philosophical raison d'etre. ..and logic. Nothing was alien in their creative universe. Nothing had to be imposed ...

Dave, that's the sort of thinking that could give Marxist writing a better reputation than it has. I think middle-class Americans are scared of Marxism less out of fear of a worker's revolution than from memories of being buttonholed by cliche-spouting harangues from equally middle-class college classmates who chose Marxism as their college affectation rather than drugs, sex or old movies.

January 07, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Peter, from memory, I'm thinking that 'Balcony' carried rather too much flab for my liking,in contrast to the 'lean and mean' Roseanna..
But I'm always one for giving somebody a second chance; even Homer nods!

January 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, no quizzes here. Hammett is an interesting case in the matter of political views. He is said to have had his eyes opened when, as an employee of Pinkerton's, he was offered money to murder a miners' union leader. But I think those views manifested themselves more in his life after he stopped writing than in his novels and stories.

I have also noted several times what must be the novelty to we cold, puritanical Americans of such crime writers as Camilleri, Jean-Claude Izzo and Maniel Vázquez Montalbán who are both men of the left and enjoy good food.

There must be some other way of expressing the thought encompassed by "There's more than one way to skin a cat." In the meantime, here are some remarks about the expression's history.

January 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, St. Kilda's history as a crime-fiction location dates back at least to 1886 and Fergus Hume's The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. It predates Sir A.C. Doyle's London, in other words. "Swede" is an etymological cognate of "stolid." Say both words fast. It's obvious.

Thanks on Jared Henry. If you order books from England, you'll already of heard of the Book Depository (and ABE Books, for that matter). Another source is the Sleuth of Baker Street crime-fiction bookstore in Toronto. It stocks many British imports, and Canadian editions are often published simultaneously with British ones, which means titles may become available before their U.S. counterparts do. I bought Peter Temple's Iron Rose on my last visit there.

January 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TCK, if The Man on the Balcony carries flab, it has 3 or 4 percent body fat compared to Roseanna 0 or 1. It's still a pretty tightly constructed book.

January 07, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

What I was saying was that sometimes readers think that Hammett did not discuss his political views in his fiction.

I found that, though subtle, some of his opinions are even expressed in "The Thin Man," if one is alert to that.

Camilleri gets his points across in often a humorous way, with subtlety and sympathy, but his alliances are clear, even as a police inspector.

Leftist writers of crime fiction usually don't beat people over the head. Whatever Stieg Larsson's ideas were, his writing was popular, as we know. So he didn't antagonize or alienate readers. And, Mankell is popular, too, as is Camilleri, who uses humor and compassion.

Yes, food is definitely in the Italian mysteries, and the accessing of good meals is a reason to get up every day.

One other point is about Hakan Nesser's Inspector Van Veeteren, who while dispatching other detectives to do interviews and research, he does have the "aha moment" at the end, and he is the one who figures out the culprit.

January 07, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

"Leftist writers of crime fiction usually don't beat people over the head. "
kathy, I suppose it depends, at least in part, about the politics of the reader

January 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, Camilleri is an exception to some of what I’ve said about authorial intrusion. Not only will he have Salvo think, speak and act in sympathy with, say, immigrants and other exploited people, he’ll also inject bits editorializing in what seems plainly to be his own voice. But these are often so barbed and so funny that I don’t mind.

I’ll have to think more about “Aha!” moments. I’m wary of them. Or rather, I’m wary of the old “Something bothered him, but he couldn’t say what” device that is arguably a prelude to the “Aha!” moment. I feel like putting a book down when I read such a sentence, especially when authors don’t even bother to try to disguise it.

And I may have to add The Thin Man to my list of recent Hammett reading, with an eye toward feretting out Hammett's politics.

January 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Leftist writers of crime fiction usually don't beat people over the head."
kathy, I suppose it depends, at least in part, about the politics of the reader


It also depends, in great measure if not entirely, on the skill of the writer.

January 07, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Just came across the "something bothered him" passage in a Graham Thomas novel. This author is new to me and really quite good. The phrase didn't bother me at all. It is natural that at some point, and after a huge amount of information has been gathered from different sources, a detective should have trouble recalling something. I very much prefer a human weakness like that to the "I-know-it-all-but-won't-let-on-till-the last moment" form of detection. I have a vague memory of having used the device myself at some point.
As for the politics, some random thoughts: Americans are excessively bothered by anything smacking of Communism. I grant characters in a novel the right to have political opinions as long as they don't lecture me. Agendas are out! Maybe I should reread Camilleri, but I don't think I separated the reflections as being the author's rather than the protagonist's. In my rather simple world, Camilleri's protagonist is entitled to his eccentricities.

January 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., you're absolutely right that such a moment is to be expected in a real investigation. Even those of us who are not investigators will be familiar with the feeling of being unable to process the masses of information with which our brains might be loaded. Perhaps you feel that way once you've wrapped up your research but before you've begun writing a new book.

In fact, my quarrel is less with the phenomenon than with the trite words sometimes used to express it.

Americans are excessively bothered by anything smacking of Communism.

Absolutely. That's why we (OK, I) are surprised that leftist crime writers from the Mediterranean can deliver crime stories with panache featuring protagonists for whom political convictions and a zest for life are not antithetical. I would not say that agendas are out, but rather that overt, polemicizing agendas are out.

I think the political allusions for which Stephen Sartarelli provides explanatory end notes tend to be more the author's or narrator's voice than Salvo's. But it's no great concern to me because I enjoy them, and I find them very much of a piece with the rest of the novels in which they occur. They are not intrusive in the least.

January 07, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Maybe it's not an "aha" moment, but in the "Mind's Eye," Van Veeteren book (Nesser), other detectives do interviews and research, but the main protagonist figures out the culprit, as is true in Donna Leon's books, where Commissario Brunetti also sends out trusted detectives to do interviews and research.

It's true about the reader or the skill of the writer in explaining political views, whether it be Sjowall and Wahloo, Mankell, S. Larsson, Camilleri, Leon (who does interject her views), even Hammett, who is very subtle, indeed.

Writers made a lot of asides and remarks showing their views, but also can utilize different characters to espouse varying viewpoints, and it's not always easy to spot the writer's opinion.

It can be tricky.

Anyway, I'm putting "The Thin Man," on my list of delightful books, which is where I put Camilleri's.

I'll have to then solicit advice on what next to read of Hammett's, having read "The Maltese Falcon," but actually liking "The Thin Man" better. I know this is sacrilege, but that's my view.

January 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, that's a nice analysis of the investigation, that subordinate detectives chip in with the work, but Van Veeteren puts it all together.

You might try Hammett's Continental Op stories. The novels Red Harvest and The Glass Key, often considered his best, have a harder edge certainly that The Maltese Falcon.

January 07, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

kathy, if you haven't seen the film of 'The Thin Man', starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, you should check it out.
Its a Masterpiece; might even be better than the novel, albeit for different reasons.
And, while you're at it, check out the DVD box-set of the series of 'Thin Man' films, which is probably selling for 'half-nothing' these days.

Its been about 20 years since my only reading of the novel and although I enjoyed it, I seem to recall it being untypical of the hard-boiled Hammett style
(although but that may be down to me confusing it with the film, which I've seen a number of times)

January 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll endorse the movie of The Thin Man as well. It's surprisingly faithful to the novel in some of its details. And, just so you won't be surprised when you discover this, the thin man in the novel is not the protagonist, Nick Charles, but rather the man he is hired to track down, Clyde Wynant. This did not stop the producers from titling movie sequels After the Thin Man, Song of the Thin Man, and the like even though Wynant had long since left the scene.

January 07, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Well, I wouldn’t say I was “scared” but I feel like you performed the Vulcan mind meld on me with this comment, Peter: “I think middle-class Americans are scared of Marxism less out of fear of a worker's revolution than from memories of being buttonholed by cliche-spouting harangues from equally middle-class college classmates who chose Marxism as their college affectation rather than drugs, sex or old movies.”

Man, oh man, did that give me a flashback to the time when the graduate art history dept’s reigning Marxist (the same one who admitted, while raging drunk one night, that Marxism really couldn’t be applied to the study of Medieval art—his area of specialty) sent one of his students, who normally wouldn’t give me the time of day, to ferret out why I was planning on writing my Master’s thesis on the influence of naturalism and St. Francis in early Italian Renaissance art. How would this thesis “help the people” (she really did say this). When I said it wasn’t expected to, she said “don’t be so bourgeois.” I said, “I can’t help it, I am a member of the middle class.” Reply? “Well, so am I but you don’t have to act like it.” That lunch had such a jawdropping effect on me that I remember it 30+ years later. I wound up writing a thesis on the patronage of a Milanese fresco cycle; it received the blessing of the dept because the patron was a woman (well, she was a wealthy aristocrat, but you can’t have everything).

Fast forward. My father, a conservative, of Swedish-Norwegian extraction, finds the novels of Sjöwall and Wahlöö “tiresome” (his word) because of exactly what you said, Peter, their “polemicizing” agenda. On the other hand, he loves the Montalbano novels. Pop can read Norwegian (Swedish) and some Italian and he is au courant with news in Italy and the Scandinavian countries. (I always feel I have to qualify by adding stuff like this because otherwise it would probably be assumed that being a self-described conservative, he’d by definition also be an ignoramus.) I’d argue that S&W’s polemicizing is less tiresome to readers who already share S&W’s sociopolitical views when they come to the books. More than ever, most people don’t tend to enjoy reading political views other than their own. Another example of this might be the Jack Liffey novels of John Shannon. J. Kingston Pierce, an avowed man of the left, loves them, can’t understand why they don’t have a wider readership. I’d say one reason is because of their polemicizing tone. Each chapter in the latest novel concludes with a quote from a news source which functions as a polemic—as if the storytelling itself didn’t provide enough clues to the author’s thoughts on, in this case, homelessness in one of the richest cities in the world, Los Angeles. As an avowed woman of the center I found this tic “annoying.”

Peter, you left out my (and many others’) “college affectation”—ROCK ‘N’ ROLL!

January 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, I wonder idly what the fate of academic Marxism has been in our recent multicultural years. Marx, after all, was a Western intellectual, from Germany, writing in England. I don't know much about him other than the bare facts that everyone knows, but it's my understanding he predicted the revolution would happen in heavily industrialized countries, England in particular. If he did in fact so predict, well, it's a good thing he didn't try to make his living as a handicapper.

My Marxism memory from college was of a student quite comfortable with the terminology and content to write use it regardless of whether his readers were similarly initiated. So much for being a man of the people.

To be fair, this sort of youthful arrogance and enthusiastic brandishing of abstractions was not confined to young Marxists.

I wonder what your professor's excuse was, other than that she had tenyure, earnestly hoped to get it, or had a brilliant flair for self-parody.

January 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, I see know that your inquisitor was not herself a professor, but rather a member of the professor's secret police.

January 07, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I.J., re your “I really don't give the ‘Marxist’ leanings (alleged?) a thought. The novels are simply so good -- for me that translates into "believable" among other aspects -- that I don't care about the authors' political ideas.” This “proves” that you aren’t a Marxist. Marxist readers/scholars tend to look for “Marxist leanings” even in the most unlikely places, let alone the novels of avowed Marxists. Ex., something I had long suspected, that Marxists scholars tend to start with a premise and THEN go searching for the “proof” of said premise, rather than begin research with a “well, let’s see where this leads, huh?” approach. I found “proof” of this in a footnote in: “Forms of Labor in Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest,” by Carl Freedman and Christopher Kendrick, PMLA, Vol. 106, No. 2 (Mar., 1991), pp. 209-221. Referring to a quote from character Bill Quint in the novel, the authors state: “Yet, to the historically minded, like Hammett, even recent history is history, and in view of his general political formation, it is difficult to believe that he was not consciously thinking of fascism. Of course, the allegory of fascism works whether or not the author explicitly meant to signal it.” Yep, whether or not Hammett really said this, this is what he means.

I realize how terribly old school I am to find facts essential to research (facts tend to be very dicey characters for Marxists) but as Richard Layman, Hammett’s best biographer, said in the preface to Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett, “Facts are the important things. Research has taken precedence over invention or speculation.” And a propos of Hammett’s writing, “the theme of political corruption—always handled without adopting a political stance—became a common one for Hammett in the late 1920s and early 19302.”

Why are facts, rather than invention or speculation, so out of favor in modern scholarship? Why must readers of Hammett search for evidence of his personal biography in his writing? That there is no primary evidence/documentation (that is, from Hammett himself) for his political leanings in his work should take precedence over those seeking to find subtle or not-so-subtle clues to this man was a Marxist for much of his adult life.

Marxism is alive and well (if that can be the proper expression) in academia. And we musn't forget that Marx was able to sit around and write about his theories because he was financially supported by his (bourgeoise) wife.

January 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Could someone of a whimsical turn of mind argue that Hammett's turning more overtly toward politics only after he stopped writing demonstrate that creativity and politics are inimical? I would not so argue, but if one is going to mine a writer's life for clues, thy the hell not?

I say one clue to the intentions of the authors you cite is their use of the word "formation." That's one to beware of, I'd say.

January 07, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"Hammett's turning more overtly toward politics only after he stopped writing." Good point. And I know you don't mean "stopped writing" in the literal sense. We all know he continued to write, just not the crime fiction we know and love.

One item on my eBay watchlist (I always get outbid...) is the project that resulted in The Battle of the Aleutians (1944). Again from Layman's bio: "Characteristically, Hammett let [his friend Robert] Colodny take control of the project. Colodny, who had been wounded in the Spanish Civil War as a member of the Lincoln Brigade and who was widely read in political theory, saw the project as an opportunity to express his theories about geopolitics. When he finished, he had written a highly political theoretical discourse. Hammett objected that Colodny had not written for the audience. He rewrote Colodny's manuscript, depoliticizing it and aiming for the enlisted man who read The Adakian. He left unrevised only the captions Colodny had written for drawings...to illustrate battle action."

Hammett's insistence on "writing for the audience" goes back the his pulp and advertising copy writing days and is, I believe, another reason that searching for hidden political messages in his crime fiction is misleading.

January 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In Hammett's case, though, it's at least fair to ask and speculate about politics (if one want to call it politics) because of the story that he had been offered money to kill an IWW union leader who was lynched soon after. What are the details of the story, by the way?

January 07, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"...the story that he had been offered money to kill an IWW union leader who was lynched soon after. What are the details of the story, by the way?"

Well, the only source for this much-repeated anecdote is, unfortunately, Lillian Hellman who, among other tasks she set herself in promoting Hammett's memory in her image after he died, was to repeat this anecdote every so often. Here's Layman again: "That story [of Hammett's connection with events leading up to the lynching of Frank Little] of Hammett's peripheral involvement is implausible though his telling such a tale is likely. Hammett's accounts of his days as a detective are always suspect, because he was writing these accounts, describing his adventures in interviews and telling friends stories about his past after he had changed occupations. He was by then a writer with experience and considerable interest in advertising. He knew that people liked his writing because it was realistic, made to seem more so by his firsthand experience as an operative. In a half self-serving, half playful manner [documented by his younger daughter, Jo] he characteristically amplified his stories, rewriting, revising, even inventing accounts of his experiences."

January 07, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I don't think people who are Marxists look for those ideas in Hammett's or other books. They, like other readers, want a good book, a good story, interesting characters.

If they find ideas they like while reading, even in Hammett's, where a few things appeared surprisingly, it is duly noted--but not searched for, and not a requirement for a satisfying reading experience.

The period of 1929 through the
1930s, and then even through the 1950s did influence a lot of writers, directors and artists' political leanings, thoughts and activism.

Hammett was one, Lillian Hellman was another.

I doubt if it was one incident that influenced Hammett's thinking, although that may have been a watershed moment.

Creativity and politics can go hand-in-hand, whether in writing or other arts. There are many artists who shared Hammett's beliefs, too.

January 07, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Kathy, scholars and other writers of literary criticism (as opposed to recreational readers who might happen to be Marxists) who are Marxists do look for clues to Hammett's political thought in his fiction. The authors I mention above are two of them, the influential Hammett scholar Steven Marcus is another.

I have read as much by and about Dashiell Hammett as I can, in every language I can read. I have such enormous respect for him as a writer and a man that, until primary evidence comes to light documenting his direct involvement with the pre-lynching of Frank Little (and I don't care whether or not Hammett acted as Hellman said he did) I must rely on the facts available to us, not Marxist or any other literary interpretation du jour.

January 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, Hellman has been called a liar, I think, but I never cared enough about her to investigate.

It sounds from Layman's account, though, that if Hellman made up or exaggerated the Frank Little story, she did so in a way that Hammett might have done himself.

January 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, there was also a brief vogue for avowedly proletarian crime writing in America, though I think that happened after Hammett had written his novels. I've read one or two such stories in anthologies. At least one was affecting for its violence and for its setting among characters who would likely have been unfamiliar to many middle-class readers.

I also agree with Elisabeth's suggestion that it's professional scholars rather than ordinary readers, who may or may not be Marxists, who try to tease out Marxist or other political meanings from Hammett. And Hammett has attracted such attention from various philosophical schools.

January 07, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"...if Hellman made up or exaggerated the Frank Little story, she did so in a way that Hammett might have done himself."

Absolutely. This is what makes some elements of Hammett's bio so frustrating at times, i.e. how to distill fact from fiction/quasi-fiction, from what is known, from what Hellman thought Hammett would want us to know, and from what Hellman wants us to believe, whether it is true or not, and whether or not Hammett would have wanted/cared whether we believe it or not. The fact that he was an intensely private man--almost none of that Chandleresque heart-on-a-sleeve stuff in his letters, even those to Hellman and other lovers--hasn't made Hammettian studies any easier.

January 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, Steven Marcus remarks in one of his Library of America introductions that The Maltese Falcon "is the history of capitalism," which struck me as stretching a point. But he drops the subject quickly.

January 08, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"But he drops the subject quickly."

Marcus actually can be quite congenial and he doesn't always come across as an ideologue in his writings, especially those for a general audience like the LOA's. You can probably surmise that I would have preferred Layman write those intros/commentaries, not only because of his impartial point of view but because he is an all-around Hammett scholar, not just an academic/literary critic author/prof as is Marcus. RL edited the DH Selected Letters volume and in addition to his many Hammett books/articles he also produces reference works in literary and social history, including the Dictionary of Literary Biography.

Of no particular relevance is that Marcus has written at length on Victorian pornography. These writings, too, have been criticized for their subjectivity.

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth: So Hammett studies are no simple matter of branding Hellman a liar, either, it appears.

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The history of capitalism passage in the LOA introdution is endearingly brief, as if ejaculated (yeah, I'm reclaiming that word) by an admirer in wonder that Hammett could say so much. From what I know of Layman (mostly from you), I, too, was surprised that he did not write at least one of the LOA intoductions.

January 08, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Nope, she just drives us nuts...

Mr. Rap Sheet just reminded me that the 50th anniversary of Hammett's death is this Sunday, the 10th. (For some reason, I thought it was later in the month.) We'll break out the Johnnie Walker Black and read "The Girl With the Silver Eyes" and ______________?

January 08, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Whoops. The 10th is Monday. One extra day to decide on a second short story. May have a shot of the JW Black on Sunday anyway. I'm sure that's what Hammett would want me to do...

fun v-word = nonlog

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Give yourself a smile and read "The Scorched Face."

Oh, and the Pen & Pencil club has Hendricks gin. But lately I've had culinary revelation while drinking beer at a new bar near my house.

January 08, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"The Scorched Face"--good idea! I was thinking, too, of "Corkscrew" as it is laugh-out-loud funny.

"...the Pen & Pencil club has Hendricks gin"--by popular demand, no doubt.

Re Hendrick's... I thought of you when I read this in the United Airlines mag, "Hemispheres," for January 2011.

A "culinary revelation"? Sounds intriguing.

January 08, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Going back to an early post, I have seen "The Thin Man" several times. Cannot imagine anyone other than William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles.

I am thinking of them as I read the book.

I can't vouch for Lillian Hellman. Some of the plays based on her writings are quite good and hard-hitting, but I don't know about her personal claims.

I would say about Hammett that he was principled (do I hear gasps?) in how he handled his political views and actions, how he answered questions when asked about his affiliations, implicated no one but replied about himself.

That says a lot to me about his character.

That said, I really don't know more.

He certainly generates a lot of discussion though, every time his name comes up.

It's good for me, as it causes me to read more of his writing, although I'm not looking for his world view, just enjoying a good book with wonderful dialogue.

And, as much as I enjoyed the movie many times, the book offers different qualities. Both have a lot of merit and provide much enjoyment.

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth: If you like sequel stories, you could also pair "$106,000 Blood Money" with "The Girl With the Silver Eyes."

If the P&P has Hendricks by popular demand, the demand was not mine. The club has apparently stocked it for some time, though I have not drunk it there. Thus I don't know where the P&P would fall on the Hendrick's and Tonic Crime-Convention Cost-of-Living Index.

The culinary revelation was simply that a slightly bitter white beer cuts right through the gamey aftertaste of my local's wild-game chili (venison, boar and rabbit). I'm not an experienced game eater so, while I like the chili's taste, the aftertaste takes some getting used to. The beer's bitterness dispels it perfectly.

What about that United mag reminded you of me? Three perfect days in Las Vegas? Guerilla knitters? Twitter executive stepping down?

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I agree with you on William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora. It was probably their chemistry that kept the series of movies going as long as it did. I think of them when I read the book, too, especially as the movie borrowed a fair amount of dialogue from the novel.

Hammett was apparently a principled man politically and also a hell of a writer, my current nominee as the best crime writer ever. That's a good combination.

I read the novel some time ago, but I do recall its being a bit darker than the movie and also that the movie altered the ending a bit. But the book is certainly lighter in tone than some of Hammett's other novels.

January 08, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Agree with above points.

Principled, yes.

Best crime writer ever? I know he's a favorite of DBB, but didn't know the superlative rating.

I have to ponder this idea.

Also, I haven't read more than two books of his, so cannot comment on this.

He might have a lot of competition nowadays, given the global scope of crime fiction writing, with Nordic, Italian, French, English, South American, African, Australasian, Asian and lots more U.S. authors. (Apologies to whomever I left out unintentionally.)

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I elevated Hammett to the perch after I'd read the Continental Op stories -- before I'd read The Glass Key, in other words, which many consider his best novel.

I also realize I have not read nearly widely enough to make a firm, reliable choice, but I can't imagine anyone better than Hammett.

I was surprised during research for a recent post to find that one of England's big newspapers (The Times, I think) ranked him just thirteenth on its list of the fifty best crime writers ever. (Patricia Highsmith was first, and I don't know who else made the list.) What surprised me was that the Hammett entry seemed to regard him as a kind of poor relation to Chandler, ranking behind him in esteem and achievement.

I have met the English crime critic who wrote the list's introductory article and may have prepared the list himself his well. I shall have to ask him about Hammett if we meet again.

January 08, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Yes, do ask him. That would be interesting.

The question arises: How can "better" and "best" be evaluated for writers? What's "objective" and what's "objective"? What is the criteria that reviewers and critics use?

Maybe if ten reviewers made such lists, they'd all be different or would there be much overlap?

Would like to see not only lists, but explanations which are substantive for each entry.

And really looking at the international writers.

January 08, 2011  
Anonymous chelsea said...

Errata: Meant to ask the objective and subjective factors that go into making up "best writers" lists.

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, in addition to whatever we think of as defining excellence in an author, influence can be a factor as well.

I've written about a discussion Declan Hughes and John Connolly led at Bouchercon in 2010 called "Ten crime writers to read before you die," Hughes called Hammett the Bach, the Louis Armstrong" of crime fiction. "Everything started with him."

The complete list of the top 50 seems no longer to be on line, so I don't know where interenational writers fit in. All I know for certain is that Americans were numbers 1 and 13.

January 08, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

If you come across any of these "best detective story" lists in the future that has explanations of the criteria used to do the selection, please post.

I did a brief search and found Hammett listed as numbers 10 and 31 on a top 50-classic mysteries list.

Anyway, to be researched and continued.

I may be convinced yet to read the Continental Op books, but have such a huge TBR list right now, including global reads.

I'm sure this topic will be revisited here.

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I'll post a link to that London Times list if I find it. Without knowing who else makes the list, I'm skeptical of any ranking that has Hammett as low as 31, at least on a top-writer rather than a top-book list.

The best source for the Continental Op stories might be the Library of America edition of Hammett's crime stories and other writings.

January 08, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

That list had Hammett listed twice in the top 50 crime writers, once at 10 and once at 31, for different books.

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Aha. The London Times list was of top crime writers rather than top crime novels. Two in the top fifty is impressive, especially considering that at least three of novels (and, in your case, four) could plausibly make the list.

January 08, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Jeez, how many posts in 24 hours? I can't keep up with this. And Peter, how do you find the time and energy?

As for a post (from Elizabeth?) way back there: no, I'm not a Marxist (though I've come to do a lot of grumbling at Conservatives here in the U.S. lately). I have a nodding fmiliarity with some of Marx's writings from way back in my youth and as history student. The message was that Marx has been much maligned and that his message was based on atrocious conditions in British factories. It is, of course, possible to see capitalists as villains, and many mystery writers still do so regularly. Ian Rankin, for example. I'm bothered by this as a repeated plot device. Villainy needs to be spread about.

January 09, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I would say there are many ripe for villainy portrayals: bankers, Wall Street tycoons, CEO's, hedge fund managers, mortgage brokers, health insurance company magnates (and pharmaceuticals), etc. And, I'd add Tea Party extremists, as well as the garden variety of rural paramilitaries, etc.

There are lots to choose from these days.

But I'd say what with the still high unemployment rate in the private sector, layoffs in the public sector, continuing cuts in health and pension benefits, that working people are trying to survive.

Okay, this post is not about mystery fiction but what has gone on with Wall Street, the bailouts, the bonuses, the hedge funds, investors and speculators, Bernie Madoff, the financial crisis, etc., that Dashiell Hammett would have had a field day.

And Sjowall and Wahloo would have had a field day in Sweden.

Who are the contemporary mystery writers dealing with the financial disasters?

January 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Who are the contemporary mystery writers dealing with the financial disasters?
"

Good question, at least for American crime writing, and my answer is I don't know. But an author could write about financial disasters by dealing with their consequences at street level rather than crimes at boardroom level.

This has even less to do with crime fiction than your comment, but I sometimes scratch my head at the financial messages government and corporate officials send. Remember a few years ago when pundits would lament Amercans' abysmally low savings rates? Well, now we're not supposed to save anymore, we're supposed to spend.

January 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I try to put up one post a day. Some subject, Sjowall and Wahloo among them, are more fertile ground than others for discussion. In any case, you'd be susprised how much time one can make if one musters the determination to neglect one's responsibilities.

My nodding familiarity, too, tells me that Marx based his message on atrocious conditions in British factories, but Britain is not where the revolution came. If he thought that urban, industrialized states were preconditions of workers' revolution, what would he have said as he watched China and Russia come from behind in the homestretch to win a rural, underdeveloped exacta in the Revolutionary Derby? And no, I will not make a post out of this.

One category of villainy noticeable for its frequency in current and recent crime fiction is real-estate speculation. Not necessarily real-estate speculators, but their acts and the consequences thereof.

Yes, spread the villainy about, and give workers their share in control of the means of production of crime.

January 10, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I guess I'm more inclined to want to see the corporate greed personified in the guilty conspirators and culprits in mysteries, rather than regular everyday folks.

I think that Marx would have been amazed by Russia and China's developments, which would have caused him to write more major tomes analyzing those phenomena. He would have had to develop his basic ideas and adjust them in explaining the reality of what happened in those two countries.

January 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I can imagine one difficulty in writing crime fiction about the Kenneth Lays of the world: their schemes could well be too complicated to make for compelling fiction. It can be easier to portray the consequences of financial manipulations than those manipulations themselves.

I should stress again that what I know about Marx is nothing but commonplaces, so one ought not to pay much, if any, attention to what I have to say.

January 10, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

No, but that's a good point about what would Marx have said, seeing Russia and China's developments. He would have been analyzing and re-analyzing and writing volumes to explain what happened there.

Joseph Finder has written some about corporate greed. I'd like to read more of his books, but I would imagine now that the publishing houses must be overflowing with piles of manuscripts on the financial crisis. It's just that I wonder if any "big name" authors are writing on this.

I'll check around on this as I'd like to read books centered on this. The crooks could be so interesting--and evil.

January 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"the publishing houses must be overflowing with piles of manuscripts on the financial crisis."

That's a good point. I'm not sure it's feasible or even a good idea to write novels based on today's headlines. Inevitably, the financial crises and manipulations will have an afterlife in novels being written now and in the next few years. This could take the form of writing about the crisis, but also about people whose lives and attitudes have been affected by it.

January 10, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"What about that United mag reminded you of me? Three perfect days in Las Vegas? Guerilla knitters? Twitter executive stepping down?"

Well, all of those, natch...

For whatever reason, the URL I tried to capture does, indeed, lead one to the homepage.

Try copy-and-paste this instead:

http://www.hemispheresmagazine.com/2011/01/01/still-life/

January 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ah, very nice. I now know more about Hendrick's than I did before. Thanks. ( See if this link works.)

I got into an interesting debate with one of the owners of Whodunit, Philadelphia's secondhand crime-fiction shop, when I visited on my dinner break from work yesterday. I stuck up for Hammett, while Henry preferred Chandler. I'd much rather have continued the discussion than return to work.

January 12, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Speaking of the Kenneth Lays of this world, ('Kenny' to friends/ex-Presidents), we've got our own in Seanie Fitzpatrick, ex-Chairman of Anglo Irish Bank who's been 'pouring his heart out' to two national journalists for their book,'The Fitzpatrick Tapes' which he hopes will help to rehabilitate his 'good name'.

But his former sidekick, David Drumm, currently holed up somewhere in the Boston area, perhaps not surprisingly has dismissed Seanie's attempts to limit his responsibility, and thereby increase Drumm's, for the collapse of the bank, as 'bullshit'.

Whatever happened to the noble concept of 'the captain going down with the ship', or, perhaps a better analogy, 'honour among thieves'?

January 12, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"I stuck up for Hammett, while Henry preferred Chandler."

I'd like to have eavesdropped. I understand your (and Henry's) dilemma.

But I think there's a bit of apples-and-oranges to the debate. Layman told me he prefers Hammett because SDH "has no style," something Chandler had oodles of. (Possibly why one can't mimic/write pastiches or homages to Hammett?) I find myself waffling between the two but my allegiance does tend to lean towards Chandler, probably because of the L.A. connection.

Also, I think romantics tend to lean towards Chandler. I don't think one could use "romantic" in the same sentence as "Hammett," maybe not in the same book. Hammett's deliberate distance and objectivity (which I love--please don't make me choose between the two writers!) don't encourage one to curl up with him in the way one does with Chandler.

January 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth: I did tell Henry that it was a false choice; why should one have to choose between the two? Though I lean toward Hammett for his deadpan style, my recent reading of The Little Sister, Farewell My Lovely and The Big Sleep taught me something about Chandler's similes. Though they are often quoted and exaggerated for humorous effect (I ran a Chandler simile contest on my blog), they are thematically relevant, poignantly so sometimes. So my appreciation of Chandler has increased.

And Henry did acknowledge that he considers The Maltese Falcon one of the best English-language novels ever, irrespective of genre.

January 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Tonight, by the way, I think I'll listen to a BBC radio dramatization of The Maltese Falcon.

January 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TCK, any number of crime novels have cast doubt on the proposition that there is honor among thieves, but I know of no proverb that expresses this doubt.

January 13, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Peter, re Chandler's similes are "thematically relevant, poignantly so sometimes. So my appreciation of Chandler has increased." I think I've read enough by and about Chandler to believe he'd be pleased by your observation. He went to great pains to ensure that the simile was appropriate to the context. He kept a notebook in which, among other things, he wrote down possible similes.

Speaking of TMF, read Hammett's obit in the L.A. Daily News.

Bet you didn't know there was a hidden Commie message in Falcon, did you? Ain't it funny what readers can find in a novel when they want to find it?

I liked the weather report tucked into the obit's space: "No smog today." And I see it was even warmer that January of 50 years ago than it was today (mid-70s).

January 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I once said apropos my art history studies that anything I could say about Giotto or Piero della Francesca would amount to homage. I flattered myself with the thought that that's all that criticism or discussion of great art can aspire to. So maybe nonsense that gets written about Hammett is just homage of a weird kind.

And I knew from Steven Marcus that The Maltese Falcon is the history of capitalism.

January 13, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

The history of capitalism? I'll have to reread The Maltese Falcon with that in mind.

Capitalist greed yes. Colonialism yes. Taking artifacts from other countries yes. So, maybe it does tell the history of capitalism.

But one thing is certain among the world of mystery readers: Books, especially crime fiction, come first. Errands, bill-paying, laundry, buying groceries can all be swept aside when in the throes of a good book.

That is part of the mystery readers' creed.

January 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, I don't think you need to reread The Maltese Falcon with the history of capitalism in mind. Steven Marcus devotes a paragraph, and no more, to the subject in his introduction to the Library of America edition of Hammett's novels. If I recall correctly, Marcus cites an object with a value determined by humans that turns out to be valueless, which does not stroke as uniquely capitalistic. Readers of all political stripes can enjoy the book, I expect.

January 14, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Kathy,as to the mystery reader's creed, we are absolutely on the same page.

January 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In re that creed, I have both done laundry and paid some bills the past two days in addition to reading mysteries. I hope I have not too far neglected my responsibilities.

January 14, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Everyone can enjoy the Falcon and "The Thin Man," which I just recommended to a friend who loves Michael Connelly and other writers like him.

Well, an artistic artifact that has people committing murder for it, that is valued at a high monetary amount, that has people offering lots of money for it, that comes from another country which may own it, but it's been stolen again and again, does show the worship of money and the commodification of art or artifacts. That is a capitalist trait, rather than art for art's sake, which people enjoy, and is not the object of theft or a reason for murder.

If not all this, then why the story? There would not be one.

January 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Some historian -- probably French -- has probably written a history of human greed, and that historian has probably concluded that greed or something like it predates capitalism.

But I will leave such discussion to that historian because, as we agree, anyone can enjoy Hammett.

January 14, 2011  

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