Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Canned fruit cocktail: The key to telling detail in crime fiction

At Bouchercon 2009, Martin Limón said the years between the Korean War and South Korea's more recent economic and social success offered "tremendous conflict of gangs, the black marketeers ... In the interim there was a lot of room for crime."

I've thought about that remark while reading The Wandering Ghost, fifth of Limón's novels about Ernie Bascom and George Sueño, a pair of U.S. Army investigators in South Korea in the 1960s and '70s, especially when I read these bits:
"Small rooms open, no doors. Jam-packed with black-market merchandise, cardboard cases of canned fruit cocktail imported from Hawaii. In the next room, cases of crystallized orange drink were piled almost to the ceiling. The next held boxes of bottled maraschino cherries and about a jillion packets of nondairy creamer."
and
"The entire facility reeked of damp canvas and decayed mothballs. A cement-floored walkway was lined by square plywood bins, each bin filled to overflowing with steel pots, web gear, helmet liners, wool field trousers, fur-lined parkas, ear-flapped winter headgear, rubber boots, inflatable cold-weather footgear, ammo pouches, and everything the well-dressed combat soldier needs to operate in the country once known as Frozen Chosun."
The sheer profusion gives a convincing idea of the staggering amount of stuff it takes for a wealthy country to provision a modern army, and of the temptation to crime that must come with it. You can keep your submachine guns and briefcase-size nuclear devices for cotton-headed thriller fantasies. If I want a convincing mystery, rich with criminal possibility, I'll take a warehouse full of crystallized orange drink, nondairy creamer, and canned fruit cocktail by any day.
***
A quibble: Sueño refers to the "sexual harassment that women at the 2nd Division live with day in and day out." The term sexual harassment might not yet have been current enough in the early 1970s for anyone to use it as casually as Sueño does.
***
News flash: The Associated Press reported Tuesday that "As much as $60 billion in U.S. funds has been lost to waste and fraud in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade through lax oversight of contractors, poor planning and corruption, an independent panel investigating U.S. wartime spending estimates."

I suspect Martin Limón would not be surprised.

***
Limón will be part of my “NEVER LET ME GO: PASSPORT TO MURDER” panel on Saturday, Sept. 17, 1 p.m., at Bouchercon 2011.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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39 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

As to the term 'sexual harassment', maybe Sueño was just a very enlightened guy...

August 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No doubt he's an enlightened guy, and the sympathy he has for the crap military women and Korean bar girls had to put up with is believable and admirable. But the term might simply not have been around. The book is set in the early 1970s, and the term sexual harassment may not have been recorded until 1973.

August 31, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Recorded doesn't mean not around, though...

August 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, the chronology in the Wikipedia article to which I link would lead anyone to be skeptical that a male soldier would be using the term in the early 1970s.

Its use may not call Sueño's character into question, but it does suggest that the book could have been edited a bit more carefully.

August 31, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I read it but it did not make me that skeptical. Maybe he had a consciousness raising sister.

August 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Rowe has stated that she believes she was not the first to use the term, since sexual harassment was being discussed in women's groups in Massachusetts in the early 1970s"

It could be that a kid who bounced from foster to home to foster home in East L.A., as Sueño did, then was in Korea when the term "sexual harassment" was first used would have have learned the term almost immediately upon that first use from his counsciousness-raising sister many thousands of miles away in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but I suspect not. My guess is that it's a lapse that no editor caught.

I shall try to remember to go right to the source in a few weeks.

August 31, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

OK, you're a fuss budget, Peter. This isn't a major crime. And don't talk about editors. What you mean is that the author should have known better. Or looked it up in the OED, or something.
It's an easy fix: just imagine the sentence without "sexual."

It is entirely likely that author (and publisher) wanted to make a point, though it's not really necessary. Most readers would get it without the adjective.

As for theme in the novels: I never saw a great deal of depth there. The books are fun reads about a couple of loose-cannon G.I's. The plot is a romp.

August 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The plot's a romp, and the G.I.s are loose cannons, but detail of the kind I cited is a real attraction. Limón appears to have put his military experience to good use. The detail contributes to the fun.

Fuss budget is merely a twitted writer's or cost-cutting publisher’s synonym for a good editor; I wear the title proudly.

It has occurred to me that author (and publisher) wanted to make a point, which is why if I were editing the book, I would not strike out sexual, but rather insert a brief marginal note of my objection and let author (or publisher) decide what to do. A second possibility is that my objection is unfounded and that Sueño could indeed have been in a position to use the word. If I were editing the book, I'd consult more than just one paragraph of a Wikipedia article before inserting that marginal note.

As you say, it's not a major crime, no worse than having a medieval Irishman eat a potato in a historical mystery. It's not as if such a mistake is going to jar an intelligent reader, set him to wondering about the rest of the book's research, pull him out of the story, or make him put the book down if he’s wavering, is it?

August 31, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Oh, but there's a huge difference between a medieval Irishman eating a potato and the modern author using a slightly modern phrase in a historical novel's narrative. One is a historical anachronism; the other is a reader wanting the book to contain nothing but medieval phrases when it deals with the M.A.
There are indeed authors who attempt to reproduce the language of the time, but we've argued about this already. In my view, a modern author writes in his own language, though possibly modifying dialog if he chooses.

I'm bound to have all sorts of unacceptable words in my books by your standards, but I do have my historical facts straight.

August 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I may be able to hoist you on your own petard on this one. You made the sensible remark in a previous discussion that verbal anachronism applies only to dialogue. "Sexual harassment" occurs here not in dialogue, but it is in the thoughts of a character who is relating events as they occur. His thoughts need to meet the same standards of historical accuracy that dialogue does.

But we're back to the point we argued before. Some words may lack any strong connotations of a given era. Others are so strongly rooted in their time that to use them anachronistically is to jar the reader.

What if a novel set in the 1950s had a burglar talking about trying to "access" a safe? Or a bunch of middle-class people discussing "African Americans" or accusing one another of speaking "psychobabble"? Any would likely jar you. I suggest that "sexual harassment" is in that class.

August 31, 2011  
Anonymous solo said...

Gee, I never heard of a fuss budget before. We call them fusspots over here.

I don't think it's unreasonable to call out historical novelists for anachronisms. A slap on the wrist is probably sufficient punishment. That's what your comment was, Peter, wasn't it?

IJ talks about a 'slightly modern phrase'. There are no slightly modern phrases, anymore than there are slightly pregnant women.

August 31, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

"Slightly modern" referred to being off only by a decade at most. Peter wasn't altogether sure if the phrase might not have been in use at the time. The authority tends to be the OED, but that relies on printed evidence. Words and phrases may exist for decades before someone actually writes them down and gets the work published.

I give you dialogue. Narrative is a different matter. Thoughts may or may not fall into the narrative mode, depending on point of view.

August 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, it was a slap on the wrist, if even that severe. I enjoyed the novel and, as I remarked to I.J., I could be wrong about the usage. The author might possess historical justification for the usage. (I'll have a chance to ask him in a couple of weeks at Bouchercon, where he is scheduled to take part in a panel that I'll moderate. I'd raise the question before or after, since I don't think it's of sufficient or wide enough interest to be brought up during.)

I'll defend I.J. on "slightly modern." Use of a term coined in 1965 in a a novel set in 1963 might be anachronistic, strictly speaking, but likely to be far less grating than it would be in a novel set in 1913 or 1923.

August 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., you beat me to the punch. In this case the anachronism might be even less than a decade.

In any case, nailing down a term's first use may be insufficient to answer the question. The decider has to be when a term came into widespread use, either generally or within a given group or population. That's what stopped me. Even if the term sexual harassment had been recorded by the time in which The Wandering Ghost is set, is it likely to have attained sufficient currency for the character to use it? Perhaps yes. Further research is required.

August 31, 2011  
Anonymous solo said...

Words and phrases may exist for decades before someone actually writes them down and gets the work published

That may have been true once, IJ, but I doubt if it's true now. In the age of Twitter we're all writers now.

But I take your point. Much of what was belived or said in the past didn't make it into print. If it did the writer could well have ended up on the stake.

But I think Peter is unlikely to be wrong about the use of 'sexual harassment'.

And even if it turned out he was wrong, and he didn't claim to be definite about it, I still think it raises an interesting question: when did a particular phrase come into use. Something like that is worth knowing.

August 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Another factor in the current discussion is that, while The Wandering Ghost is set in the early 1970s, I'm not sure the year is specified.

Sexual harassment is probably an easy case. Even such a quick and dirty source as Wikipedia narrows its initial usage down fairly closely in time and place, and by social group.

August 31, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I think that though Peter is probably right about this, I can imagine a writer actually researching this a bit, and finding out that the term sexual harassment came into being in the early seventies and finding it plausible if not usual for it to enter a character's mind as such. It might have sat easier with a copyeditor if there had been some implication that it was a pretty new coinage that the character was aware of.

It isn't as if the story was set in the 1950s. It's set in the exact era when this was being talked about.

In other words, I can see how a writer might think it would work and a copyeditor might think otherwise.

August 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, you could be right, though my guess is that the author would probably slap himself in the forehead and say the question of anachronism never occurred to him. I do suspect that editors analyze such matters more than authors do.

August 31, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

As to Limón, it would be interesting to know. Yes, as none of us here needs convincing, good editors of all stripes definitely earn their keep.

August 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I shall have more to say about such matters in the future -- about an hour and a half in the future, as it happens.

You may know that Limón served in the military, at least part of the time in Korea. It would be interesting to know what military attitudes were at the time toward what we know call sexual harassment. Now, that might be worth a question during the panel.

August 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

... my guess is that the author would probably slap himself in the forehead and say the question of anachronism never occurred to him.

Seana, I should add that that's what happened when I found what could have been an anachronism in another author's book. In that case, the historical record suggested that the character could, in fact, have used the word in question. But the author said that the question had not occurred to him.

August 31, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I agree that that scenario is more likely. But you never know.

August 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, if I decide to ask him about sexual harassment in the Army, I could ask at the same time about whether he took into consideration when the term originated. He obviously thought the issue, under whatever name, of interest to readers in our time, since he gave it so prominent a role in a book published as recently as 2007.

August 31, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I'm sure you'll be tactful, whatever you choose to ask him.

August 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You know, the more I think of it, the more I think I will ask about sexual harassment -- why he decided to give it sucha large role, how closely the novel reflects reality at the time, and so on. Then maybe I can ask him about the other thing after the discussion.

August 31, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Sounds good to me.

August 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maybe when we're puffing cigars in the green room.

August 31, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Green room?

August 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, just like in TV studios for talk-show guests to hang out before they go on!!!

Bouchercon usually provides them, though I like to prepare well enough beforehand that a brief shaking of hands with the panelists before we go on stage is enough -- that is, if we haven't all met in the bar the night before

August 31, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Don't remember a green room. Preparation had better take place via e-mails among all the participants well before the event. At least that's the way I like it. Much good luck, Peter. And be sure to buy Limon a drink if you're going to lambast him about "sexual harrassment".

I see that the horrible waste of taxpayer funds during foreign wars continues happily in more recent wars where the locals are equally eager to stockpile American goods and the G.I.s are busily trading in them. By the way, MASH (the T.V. program) was a superb example of combining the heroism and depravity, humor and tragedy of such a setting.

As for anachronisms: I have news for everybody: I have far more important problems to worry about than the off-chance modern phrase slipping into the narrative. On the other hand, eleventh century Japanese is very forgiving in that respect.

September 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I certainly would not lambast Limon over this, both because that's no way to treat a panel guest, and because even if I'm right, this particular anachronism is not that obtrusive. But the discussion has persuaded me to ask him about sexual harassment in the military and why he chose it as a subject.

Your books will inevitably consist entirely of modern phrases, written as they are in 21st-century English. I would think that the trick is to avoid words and phrases that are too jarringly modern.

September 01, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Yup.

September 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., e-mails are how I've always prepared for panels. I want all the work to be done before I arrive. Besides, I don't think drinks are served in the green room.

September 01, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Sexual harassment? I believe that's what's referred to as "mashing" in the period fiction I read...

September 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

What period is that? This is the 1970s, and the harassment rises to the level of abuse and out-and-out rape. "Harassment," among other things, seems such a mild word.

September 01, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

What period is that?

1920-40s.

Rape is another verb entirely. Offhand, I can’t think of any novels I’ve read from these decades in which this act takes place “onstage.”

But in those decades annoying, unwanted attention (almost always of the male-on-female) variety was viewed differently, by both sexes, than it is today. In our hypersensitive age, even an admiring wolf whistle (imagine the “wolf” in Tex Avery’s Red Hot Riding Hood) from a construction worker may be cause for a complaint to the construction company. And pity the poor guy who tells his female co-worker: “That’s a nice sweater (skirt, etc.). It looks good on you.” She ain’t glowering at him cuz he said “good” instead of “well”…

"She was built for speed, but like I said, kinda compact too, like a submarine."—John Garfield, Destination: Tokyo, 1943. Today, I think this kind of observation would be viewed as sexist rather than the compliment Garfield intended. And if he said this in a mixed-sexes setting, at least one woman would be thinking, “If he says something like that again, I’m going to Human Resources!”

v-word = Aussie for "caved in"? > kivedin

September 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Limon's book has both a brief on-stage rape and references to several off-stage ones. His female characters' descriptions of daily abuse/harassment/mashing is fairly convincing.

September 01, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

$60 billion that could have been used for public schools and health care right here.

Or for disaster relief, the need for which is soaring.

September 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I could ask Martin Limon if he thinks military fraud and abuse are any worse now than when he served in the army. With all the other interesting questions I could ask him, I hope we get around to discussing his books.

September 01, 2011  

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