Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Bill James on Stieg Larsson, the Krays, and what the modern hit man wears

Like all right-thinking readers, I'm wary of contemporary pop-culture references in crime novels. Jo Nesbø's recent Phantom, for example, drops the names of Don Draper and Mad Men to no great effect.

But I'll make an exception for the following, from Undercover, the latest installment in Bill James' Harpur and Iles series:
"‘You’ll remember that moment in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson,’ she replied.

"‘Oh?’ Harpur said.

"‘Where the investigative reporter, searching for clues about a missing girl, finds a group photograph of her glancing off-picture at somebody or something that shocks and/ or fascinates her,’ Iles said. ‘It’s a kind of revelation. Actually, the reporter comes over as thick as shit, so he needs revelations.’"
Another reference earlier in the book, to an English cultural phenomenon not quite so contemporary, shows that James does not just write funny things, but write things funny. The discussion has turned to the business wardrobes of hit men, and:
"For instance, people wouldn’t put on a decent suit for today’s type of mission, not because the smartness would seem freakish at a killing and a bit too Kray, but on account of the vulgar, showy bulge of shoulder holsters."
"A bit too Kray" rather than, say, "a bit too much like the Kray twins," is a nice touch and an example of why Bill James is a delight to read.
*
(Read Detectives Beyond Borders' 2009 interview with Bill James.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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12 Comments:

Blogger R.T. said...

Allusions within a text to other texts have the limited advantage of having a wink-and-nod appeal to readers in-the-know, but those allusions risk being obscure and irrelevant to other readers.

Moreover, such allusions become even more obscure and irrelevant over time. Consider two examples from literature (not crime fiction): (1) Dante's The Divine Comedy is so topical in its allusions to medieval events and personalities that modern readers remain locked out unless they have footnotes or other guides; (2) Shakespeare's plays contain almost countless examples of topical or inter-textual allusions; for example, readers (and viewers) of _Macbeth_ are at a tremendous disadvantage if they know nothing about the infamous Gower and Gunpowder Plots, the Elizabethan-Jacobean concern about witches, and the monarchy's vitriolic disdain of Jesuits.

Similarly, drawing again from drama,I wondered if most readers (or viewers) under the age of 30 would have any idea about the references to radio tubes in Tennessee Williams' _A Streetcar Named Desire_. Some of us still remember collecting tubes, taking them to the hardware or drugstore, using the tube-testing apparatus, diagnosing the problem, buying the replacement tube, and fixing the radio or TV.

In other words--now, after all of the foregoing words--writers (at their own peril) use contemporary allusions, inter-textual connections, and examples of technology or other time-sensitive cultural matters. (Note: This is why modern readers of Sherlock Holmes stories fail to understand a goodly amount of what is going on--although the Holmes fanatics are, of course, exempt).

Finally, any allusion to Stieg Larson's trilogy will be (should be) quickly obscure.

December 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., you’re right on all counts. But ...

In order to work, a topical allusion must be able to function equally for readers who don’t get it (or who have never watched Mad Men). I say James’ example works because its bluntness could amuse a contemporary reader who has heard of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo without having read him as well as some reader in the distant future (say, a year or two) who may never have heard of Stieg Larsson.

(I remember being fascinated by the glowing tubes in the back of big radio. I also remember waiting for the TV to warm up before it came on. I am a man of broad and deep experience.)

December 19, 2012  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

I'm very tired today, and when I read your title, I somehow mistook it to mean that you had interviewed Bill James. I almost swooned.

December 19, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

But Peter did. See the link at the bottom. Of course, I should let Peter speak for himself.

December 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kelly, not only did I interview Bill James (In 2009—I link to the interview at the bottom of the post), but I had someone snap a photo of me with the man himself at Crimefest in 2010.

December 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

But your near-swoon suggests good taste. Bill James is one of the best who has set pen to paper writing mysteries in English.

December 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have spoken. Thanks, R.T. This novel looks like one of the stronger of the more recent books in this very long-running series.

December 19, 2012  
Anonymous kevin mccarthy said...

I agree that comtemporary references tend to date quite quickly but that can be part of the fun for future readers in a way. Joyce, for example, recreates a Dublin (from memory)that is replete with snatches of songs, adverts, converstational references to contemp events etc. One I remember, is Bloom noting a passing bus/tram with a billboard advertising Planter's Potted Meats. Now, without notes or the guiding hand of an appropriately lewd/knowledgable lecturer, the reference passes by like the bus, but Joyce did nothing accidentally in his fiction. So the modern reader discovers, if he's lucky, that 'potting your meat' was contemporary Dublin slang for...well, you can guess for what. And given Bloom's obsessions, the reference is relevant and hilarious at the same time, as are many of the others if one is willing to dig a bit. I guess what I'm saying is, any modern/pop cultural reference should have relevance to the story somehow, that will still flare to life for future readers. Season's Greetings All!

December 20, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I probably would not have guessed at the significance of Planter's Potted Meats, but I probably would have enjoyed as a bit of local color. And (I'm embarrassed to say I have not read Ulysses), but if he's recreating an environment--a musical collage, you might say--the cumulative effect is what matters. That's very different from pop-culture name dropping.

Bill James does nothing like collage in this book, but the reference works bvecause he gives it enough context to make it work even if the reader doesn't know Stieg Larsson.

December 20, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

James does not invoke and then discard "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" as a label, he makes it the target of a joke.

Incidentally, I've just read Joseph Roth's "What I Saw," much which was written right around the time "Ulysses" was published. The early 1920s were a heyday for observing the whirl and noise of bright lights, splashy typefaces, and advertising.

December 20, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

I'm not sure conflating James Joyce and Bill James is a good idea. Too many readers run in panic from Joyce's _Ulysses_ (and they flee even faster from _Finnegan's Wake_), but--as I understand your high praise for Bill James, we should not react similarly toward his work.

_Ulysses_ remains on my shelf, but I will let it remain there when I go to the library for some Bill James instead.

December 20, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, I mention them in two separate breaths and, since I've read only a few stories from Dubliners of Joyce's work, you're right. I do not suggest one react similarly to the two writers.

I approve of looking for Bill James in the library, but I strongly suggest you begin with the earlier rather than the more recent books in the Harpur & Iles series.

December 21, 2012  

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