Monday, July 11, 2011

Reading fun from Faust to the Federalist

My reading has been both eclectic and promiscuous in recent weeks. Here are some highlights:
  • Fiction from outside one's own country comes with a burden of greater expectations. We expect such fiction to contain clues to the essence of the country where it originates, and I sometimes wonder if this is unfair to authors who may just want to show the reader a good time. I don't know yet what Mike Nicol's thriller Black Heart says about South Africa, but it sets a fine mood of tension, suspense and paranoia.

  • Christa Faust's Hoodtown is as much alternate-universe fantasy as it is crime. In this case, the universe is a neighborhood populated entirely by luchadors and luchadoras (masked Mexican wrestlers) and their descendants. Sure, fetish sex is part of the mix, but this is mainly a story of outcasts, a protagonist with a dark past, thwarted love, and this bit of musing on the decadence of today's youth: "It was easier back then. Not like now when you got joints all through Hoodtown with Hood girls in máscaras that might as well not exist, string bikinis for the head that cover barely more than a Halloween domino. You couldn't pay me enough to leave the house like that."

  • Frederick Nebel's writing has not dated as well as that of his fellow Black Mask authors Dashiell Hammett, Paul Cain, or Raymond Chandler. Period slang and dated locutions weigh more heavily on his work than on theirs. But Nebel was at least as good as the big three at creating an atmosphere of  menace and uncertainty, and his writing at times has as hard an edge as Cain's. He deserves to be better known and more widely published.

  • But the hardest-edged writer I've read this week, the one with the bleakest (or most clear-eyed) view of humanity, may be Alexander Hamilton. Here are some selections from Federalist Paper #6:
"(M)en are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious.  ...

"Have republics in practice been less addicted to war than monarchies? Are not the former administered by
men as well as the latter? Are there not aversions, predilections, rivalships, and desires of unjust acquisitions, that affect nations as well as kings? Are not popular assemblies frequently subject to the impulses of rage, resentment, jealousy, avarice, and of other irregular and violent propensities? Is it not well known that their determinations are often governed by a few individuals in whom they place confidence, and are, of course, liable to be tinctured by the passions and views of those individuals? Has commerce hitherto done anything more than change the objects of war? Is not the love of wealth as domineering and enterprising a passion as that of power or glory? Have there not been as many wars founded upon commercial motives since that has become the prevailing system of nations, as were before occasioned by the cupidity of territory or dominion? Has not the spirit of commerce, in many instances, administered new incentives to the appetite, both for the one and for the other?
© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Re Frederick Nebel's "dated locutions"... I guess they don't bother me as much, perhaps because I'd rather watch almost any Warner Bros. movie of the 1930s than almost any contemporary movie, and the former are, of course, littered with "dated locutions."

Hamilton's observations / truisms are perhaps behind the thriving (relatively speaking) crime fiction publishing scene. "Ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious" men (and women) provide endless fodder for the genre.

July 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I meant that Nebel's stories have more of the sort of thing that became the targets of satirists and parodists of the pulps. Cardigan or Donahue or MacBride are always striding "away on his long legs," and stuff like that. Sure, Hammett's characters sometimes said things like "Get me?" but it doesn't stick out as much because he's Hammett. Or a Nebel chapter will end on an old-fashioned, contrived cliffhanger note.

But you may be right that he belongs ahead of Paul Cain in the pantheon, if only because Cain wrote so little. MacBride's entrance in "Doors in the Dark" is superb, and how many authors would kill off a cop the readers have come to know, the way Nebel did? (I forget which story that happened in.)

I love the splash of ice water that Hamilton throws in the face of readers in Federalist 6. He was not a man to suck up to his audience.

July 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think, too, that dated locutions -- or locutions of any kind -- will stick out more on a page than on a screen, though they could stick way the heck out on a screen when Edward G. Robinson uttered them.

July 11, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Well, Hamilton was sucking up to some of his readers, those who believed a powerful central gov't must be in place to counter the squabbling factions among the individual states. This view was, as you know, in opposition to Jefferson's advocacy of states' rights and a limited federal gov't.

I think it can be argued that Hamilton, with his pessimistic view of human nature, was engaging in a bit of fear mongering, too.

lovely v-word > spinabif

July 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

My v-word is pretty good,too: ampow

What I like best are the tactics and the rhetoric. Federalist 6 doesn't just say "A republic is good," he says, "Don't get all fat and self-assured just because you're in a republic." So I'd call him tactical, not fear-mongering.

As for faction, I've just read Federalist 10. That was Madison's first, so you know things are getting serious.

July 12, 2011  

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