Monday, December 6, 2010

A Discovery: Hans Fallada

Somehow in 2009, I missed the fair amount of deserved attention given to the English translation of Hans Fallada's 1947 novel of Nazi-era Berlin, Every Man Dies Alone. The book -- I read on publisher Melville House's website -- was on the "Notable" or "Best" lists in the NY Times, the New Yorker, Sunday Telegraph, Toronto Globe & Mail, etc. Maybe I missed it because I wasn't paying attention to war-related books until the start of this year.

Every Man Dies Alone primarily tells the story (based on an actual Gestapo file) of a working-class, semi-elderly couple, Otto and Anna Quangel, who oppose the Reich by dropping postcards with anti-Nazi and anti-Hitler statements in various public buildings. This simple form of dissent has questionable impact, and it of course places the Quangels at extreme risk. Fallada also follows the thread of other characters' lives who come in contact with the Quangels -- their deceased son's former fiancee, a series of ne'er-do-wells, a retired judge, and others.

The novel also has a crime fiction element -- a Gestapo police procedural of sorts, with Inspector Escherich pursuing the Quangels and pressured by his superiors for results. He is an interesting detective who comes to admire the luck and intelligence of the mysterious postcard-dropping perpetrator (or husband-wife perpetrators, as it turns out).

On its own terms, the book tells a compelling story of resistance, determination, corruption, evil, etc. It is also especially notable on two counts: First, it captures slices of life in wartime Berlin (and a little in the nearby countryside) -- the fear, the bombing, the Nazi Party cronyism, rations, and so on. Second, the book arguably stands an an important and illuminating cultural response to the Nazi era in its immediate aftermath: Fallada wrote the book, apparently in just 24 days, mostly in October 1946 -- fewer than 18 months after Germany's unconditional surrender to the Allies.

During the war, Fallada resisted to some extent and made compromises as well. He also spent time in a Nazi psychiatric asylum -- in part for treatment of alcoholism. Over 53 years, Fallada survived a childhood horse-and-cart accident, a failed suicide attempt, the Nazis, their asylum (often a death warrant), and the destruction of Berlin, but he died in 1947 of a morphine overdose shortly before the publication of Every Man.

Addendum: I should note that this book has a terrific Afterword by Fallada scholar Geoff Wilkes of the University of Queensland -- providing biographical, historical, and literary insight. I dropped him a note of thanks, and he followed up by recommending Fallada's Wolf Among Wolves for "the breadth of its social focus."

Saturday, November 13, 2010

And More Charles Willeford... Book Covers

A strange meeting of American originals: Davy Crockett and Charles Willeford. Evan (aka Dave) Lewis runs a great blog called Davy Crockett's Almanack, where he shares a lot of pulp and paperback fiction -- covers and text. Cross-referencing my recent Willeford article on the Mulholland Books site, he has put up a post with about 20 covers from Willeford books from several decades. Check it out here.

I should note too (by way of disclosure and admiration) that Mr. Lewis and I are in a writing group, and the man has a way with words -- and he's starting to pop up. In the last year, he's had a story in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and his work also appears in two new anthologies, Discount Noir (an eb00k with buzz -- Kindle and other formats) and Beat to a Pulp, Round 1.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Charles Willeford on Mulholland Books

Mulholland Books, the new crime imprint of Little, Brown, has been hosting a great blog since the imprint launched. It has musings about noir, appreciations of writers, fiction, interviews, and more. Today, they were kind enough to run a piece of mine on one of my favorite writers, Charles Willeford. Even if you don't want to read about Willeford, it's worth looking at the piece to see two of the pulpy covers from Willeford's books (and a photo of the writer himself). Here's the lead...

When I hit certain moments in works by Charles Willeford (1919–1988), I feel like the top of my head is going to rip right off. This is my brain teetering on the strange mental precipice that is the hallmark of Willeford’s odd and destabilizing fiction.


(Addendum: Piece highlighted online in the Oregonian's books section: "Portland writer Doug Levin on Charles Willeford's crime classics.")

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The End of War: All Quiet on the Western Front

I'm going to try to wind down my war reading for a bit, but I thought I would read another classic that I've missed: Erich Maria Remarque's World War I novel All Quiet on the Western Front. My expectations were moderate: I thought it might strike me as quaint or dated, and somehow I've come to associate the book with high school curriculum -- perhaps accessible and yearning youth in the trenches. Finally, the title made me expect attention to lulls in the war ("All Quiet" -- a questionable translation for "Nichts Neues").

These expectations were misguided, to say the least. This book is bloody, brutal, anguished, and unredemptive. It has several scenes that capture the unspeakable fear, chaos, and inhumanity of battle. Here, a description of a counterattack: "We have lost all feeling for one another. We can hardly control ourselves when our glance lights on the form of some other man. We are insensible, dead men, who through some trick, some dreadful magic, are still able to run and to kill."

The narrator later reflects on the wounded in hospitals, and how hospitals filled with maimed men are spread across Europe: "How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is."

Remarque (so I read in Wikipedia) left Germany in 1931 and emigrated to the U.S. in 1939 (returning to Switzerland after the war). The Nazis burned his books and guillotined his sister.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Simenon Discussed on Mulholland Books

Yesterday on the Mulholland Books website, there was a post focused on two of Georges Simenon non-Maigret novels, "When Businessmen Attack: A Pair of Simenon Hard Novels." I've been reading Simenon on-and-off for a few years, so I added this comment to the discussion...

The New York Review of Books has done a great job republishing some of Simenon’s romans durs. Of additional interest [beyond the two novels discussed in the original post, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By; and Monsieur Monde Vanishes], I’d note two of his books set in the U.S. (where he lived for a time): Three Bedrooms in Manhattan and Red Lights. Neither seems as compelling to me as his best works, but if the titles Mr. McMeel names are existential, then Red Lights is pretty damn noir — especially for a book whose entire plot revolves around a married couple going to pick up their kids at camp in Maine. Two other call-outs: (1) Dirty Snow, also known as The Snow Was Black, is a bleak post-War novel with echoes of Camus’s The Stranger; and (2) Tropic Moon has a great atmosphere and setting — colonial Africa.

Correction/clarification: Dirty Snow was published after the war, but is set in German-occupied France.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The New Centurions, 40 Years Later

I’d never read anything by Joseph Wambaugh, so I went ahead and read his first novel, The New Centurions (1970). Don’t be fooled by the original cheesy cover: Centurions is gritty, harrowing, occasionally sentimental, but ultimately really a pretty great book.

The novel shifts among the lives of three main L.A. policemen, from their academy days through their first five years of service. For the most part, Centurions is episodic -- vignettes from vice, juvenile, domestic, felony crime, etc. -- though it follows the men through personal and, to a lesser extent, professional relationships. Wambaugh also carefully charts a range of attitudes toward police work -- and captures fear, prejudice, maybe nihilism. The novel culminates -- semi-apocalyptically -- in the 1965 Watts riots.

More than other police procedurals (usually with a central case followed to the end), Centurions reminds me of the ensemble World War II books I’ve read lately: Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and Jones’s The Thin Red Line. So (and I say this without judgment), Centurions is more a novel about cops than a cop novel.

Because the novel has no single protagonist and no central plot line per se, as good as this book is, I don’t know that it would be published today as a first novel by an unknown writer. Who knows, but I can imagine someone along the way telling Wambaugh he should write either narrative non-fiction (or a memoir) -- or a more tightly plotted police procedural. Those alternatives seem less compelling (or compelling in a different way) than what Wambaugh delivered.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

My New Story, "The Docile Shark," Excerpted on EQMM

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine just updated their website to feature the December 2010 issue (yeah, they get a jump on the calendar; cover illustration by Norman Saunders, originally from a 1949 issue of Black Mask). I didn't make the cover of the issue, but my story, "The Docile Shark," has a nice accompanying illustration (by Mark Evans) and it's excerpted on the site at this link. (Note: In a month, the same link will feature a different excerpt.)

If you want to read the harrowing conclusion to this spine-tingling tale, you'll have to go buy the magazine (e.g., at Barnes & Noble; also available in electronic editions, including Kindle), at least for now. I'd certainly like to hear any feedback anyone has on the story (just click "Comments" below). You can also "friend" me on Facebook at, though I'm still getting used to Facebook (and thus far, there's more everyday minutiae than writing and reading updates).

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Quick Welcome to Ellery Queen Readers

I just received my December 2010 Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in the mail today, and was surprised and pleased to see my new story "The Docile Shark" inside, with an illustration, no less. In the little bio blurb, the editors were kind enough to refer to my blog -- that is, this blog. So I thought I would just say hello, encourage you to read my story (and feel free to comment here, of course), and explore the blog, which is mostly a commentary on crime/mystery fiction (and also film and lately, some war books).

I've had a couple of other stories published: "Wilson's Man" in the January 2008 issue of EQMM; and "Fire Lines" in the 2002 collection Measures of Poison. I have a completed novel in manuscript (Jailhouse Pale) and an agent, so please cross your fingers for me. I recently joined Facebook (and its etiquette is new to me), but if you like what you read here and want to hear if I have anything coming out (or what I'm reading), subscribe to this blog or friend me on Facebook ( Thanks.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Westlake Shorter Fiction

In 1998, Donald Westlake (under the infamous name, Richard Stark) brought back his heister Parker after a 23-year (or so) absence. By then, I had read all the Parker novels (tracking some of the hard-to-find titles by interlibrary loan).

I never took to Westlake's comic heister Dortmunder in the same way, though I have read and enjoyed several of these books. For me, Dortmunder (and maybe humorous crime fiction more generally) works better in shorter form. The Dortmunder stories, Thieves' Dozen (11 stories!), are pretty great. Dortmunder also appears in a strong (and less slapsticky) novella, "Walking Around Money," in Transgressions (edited by Ed McBain).

Westlake also wrote a series of linked stories about a morose cop, Levine. This collection -- bittersweet, world-weary, bracing -- is really worth reading.

I'm still on my war literature campaign (just read The Thin Red Line -- thumbs up), but I took a break and read Enough, which Westlake called a "two-reeler" (and both "reels" loosely deal with the film industry). The book includes one short novel, A Travesty, and a novelette (?) called "Ordo," which was reprinted in The Mammoth Book of Pulp Fiction (edited by Maxim Jakubowski). A Travesty is a fun, humorous lark about a crime-solving, murderous film critic who is unfairly framed for a murder he commits (think about that?!). "Ordo" is pulpy in its way -- featuring a sailor protagonist and an underage wife (and later starlet) -- but it also has what I might call existential resonance. (And now I've just discovered a French film adaptation, 2004, after I wrote the word "existential." Hmm.) In other words, more Westlake worth reading.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Strange, Droll Harpur and Iles Books

I've been dashing through all of these war books, so I thought I'd better break up the assault and read something else. For unknown reasons, I pulled Bill James' Eton Crop off the stack. This book falls in the middle on the Harpur and Iles series. Colin Harpur is a police detective and Iles is his amoral boss. I've read maybe five or so in this 20+ book series over the last decade. I've liked others better, though this one offers a good sampling of James' offbeat humor, great dialogue, dealing, and double-dealing.

I found an interesting 2004 interview with James (a pseudonym, so I read, for James Tucker). Notable: "They [the books] are not laboriously realistic. Some would say not realistic at all. Luckily, there are people who appreciate that touch of the unlikely, even fantastic." The books are police procedurals, but the action has its own rules and lives in its own bent world. (The English city where the books take place has no name.)

In 2001, I wrote a "Short Take" review for the Oregonian of Pay Days, which follows...

Bill James’ Harpur and Iles series of mystery novels takes place in an unnamed British coastal city that has seen better times. In the most recent installment, “Pay Days,” the criminal underworld and the police force both begin to unravel. A young Chief Inspector, Dick Nivette, is either taking bribes or pretending to take as part of a clandestine investigation that does not have the approval of his superiors. Meanwhile, the body of a petty drug dealer turns up on an abandoned ship. Gangland violence threatens to run amok. Detective Colin Harpur and his boss, Desmond Iles, go about their investigation in a rather seamy fashion. Iles primarily seems intent on preserving the criminal status quo and protecting a young prostitute whom he patronizes. “Pay Days” is filled with intrigues, shifting loyalties and action. However, it is the droll, offbeat dialogue and extraordinary characterizations that make this novel stand out. The Machiavellian Iles -- the Richard III of fictional police officers -- is a remarkable person to watch and hear. Iles despises most people, “many for being undifferent from themselves.” He spends much of the novel protecting and undermining his own superior, Chief Lane, whom he praises in oxymoron: “‘His soul I prize and his future I know will be hallowed and banal.’” Iles teeters on the edge of violence, culminating in a fine performance on the occasion of a fellow officer’s funeral.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Two Vietnam Memoirs

My armchair and I continue to spend a lot of time in war zones, mostly Vietnam. (I also recently read the pretty good Battle of Mogadishu book, Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down, but I won't comment on it here.)

Back-to-back, I read two well-respected Vietnam memoirs, Tobias Wolff's In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Last War and Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War. These two books provide an interesting contrast because the Vietnam experiences of the authors were significantly different.

At loose ends, Wolff volunteers without a lot of ideological commitment. He comes from a broken family background (father in prison) and has an ironic understanding of his position in the military from the get-go. For instance, he is kept in OCS to help put on a theatrical show. Wolff studied Vietnamese for a year, and then primarily served within an ARVN unit. He saw little combat, though had some close calls and certainly lived in some fear. Still, the memoir has a M*A*S*H-like feel to it: the book opens with 2nd Lt. Woolf and his sergeant attempting to procure a TV on Thanksgiving to watch Bonanza. (They eventually steal a TV.)

Caputo, on the other hand, entered the Marines and the war with significant dedication to their causes. He was among the first combat troops in Vietnam in 1965 and saw the war quickly escalate. This memoir's greatest strength is Caputo's examination of himself and others as line soldiers (platoon leader) under ongoing deployment and combat stress. In this regard, the second half of the book reminded me a bit of Karl Marlantes's recent Marine combat novel, Matterhorn. In the course of his time in Vietnam, Caputo came to see the war as terribly misguided, if not criminal. I couldn't help drawing imperfect but telling comparisons to Afghanistan -- civil war, assistance to local troops, fighting in or near villages, ambivalent civilian populations, etc.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Uh... Marine Sniper and Others

Two-plus years back, I set up this blog to ruminate on crime fiction, occasionally film, and my own writing progress. Of the latter, I have had some progress and success, but I haven't quite grown comfortable with general self-reporting. I have, however, been plowing through a lot of crime fiction... and other books.

Two crime titles to note briefly: Megan Abbott's Queenpin (which won the 2008 Edgar for PBO); Arnaldur Indridason's Jar City. Abbott's book is a fun, occasionally brutal neo-pulp noir. The writing is slick, the fashion thick, and the traditional gender roles somewhat inverted (e.g., there is an homme fatal instead of a femme fatale.) I would note in passing that Abbott has a Ph.D. in English from NYU. When I started writing crime fiction, I thought I would be the only English Ph.D. trying to ply the trade. It turns out we're a dime a dozen. Indridason is Icelandic, and the best part of the book is arguably the (genre expected) Scandinavian dreariness.

And, still on my war-reading path, I read Charles Henderson's Marine Sniper as a follow-up read to Matterhorn (see previous post). Marine Sniper is the non-fictional account of Carlos Hathcock's two tours in Vietnam. The book (subtitled, 93 Confirmed Kills) is largely straightforward heroic reporting on Hathcock's most astounding feats. They are riveting tales: holding off a large contingent of NVA, stalking into an enemy general's compound, killing a man from 2,500 yards. The book does not purport to examine the politics or the strategy of the war much, though it does chart the decline in effectiveness and morale between Hathcock's first tour (1966-67) and second tour (1969). It also does not pull certain punches: for instance, in the opening episode, Hathcock kills an approximately 12-year old boy (transporting rifles by bicycle) at 2,000 yards. Though Hathcock survived many, many dangerous situations, the book does not quite represent his combat struggles or fears (which may have been often contained; he was a smart, confident, brave sniper). In this regard, the fictitious Matterhorn might be the more accurate (or representative) book (though Matterhorn's infantry soldiers are not snipers).

Saturday, June 12, 2010

More War: Matterhorn

I'm not quite sure what has happened , but now I have undeniably taken a detour into the fiction of war. It has been a startling, exciting period of reading. The titles I've read -- The Naked and the Dead, The Kindly Ones, and now Karl Marlantes's Matterhorn -- make a good list of epic, monumental war novels.

Each of these three novels has an interesting back story. Marlantes, a Marine veteran of Vietnam, apparently worked on and off on his novel for three decades plus. He tried to find a publisher at various times (e.g., 1977), but the book has only been published now, first by a non-profit, and then picked up by Atlantic Monthly Press (i.e., Morgan Entrekin). It received a glowing review by Sebastian Junger on the front page of the New York Times Book Review.

Matterhorn may not live up to its very highest praise, but it is pretty damn good. Fundamentally, the book offers a grueling, hyper-vivid account of combat and patrols in Vietnam. Marlantes is detailed in his descriptions of tactics and weaponry (and he includes a lengthy glossary and weapons list). Some readers may find the detail exhausting, but I found it interesting and a necessary part of the fiction. The long description of one brutal march (without resupply or medevac) echoes, I think, the exhausting march in The Naked and the Dead. Like Mailer -- though to a lesser extent -- Marlantes also wants to capture the social and economic diversity of the soldiers (and race plays a central role in Matterhorn as well).

This novel's shortcomings are few and excusable. In attempting to depict a wide swath of characters, some inevitably blur. In a small note on the copyright page, Marlantes writes, "Novels need villains and heroes..." In fulfilling this requirement -- and the requirement for a plot beyond the grind of war -- Marlantes lets the fictional mechanisms of his book creep in. But the occasional intrusion of the fictive also underscores how real and lived the novel feels.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

More True Crime: Tokyo Vice

Whoa -- the second post in one week and the third in a month (for the first time since January 2008). I'd better lie down and take my temperature or something...

After writing recently that I rarely read book-length non-fiction, I discover that several of the last posts are on the same. Strange. Anyways, Jake Adelstein's Tokyo Vice is well described by its subtitle: "An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan." As the subtitle suggests, much (but not all) of the book is episodic and incidental -- happenings on the beat, learning to be a reporter, etc.

At the same time, I'd note that two of the blurbers are novelists -- George Pelecanos and Barry Eisler: the book has the drama and something of the narrative arc of a novel (or a novella at the start and finish, with episodes in between). If you can ride with this organization -- novel and non-novel, personal narrative and journalism -- then you'll survive fine (as long as you can stomach yakuza threats). It might be a little choppy for some.

For me, the book's greatest strengths are its descriptions of Japanese culture: hierarchy, practices, laws, attitudes toward sex, women, work, etc. For instance, Adelstein spends part of one chapter discussing Japanese "how-to" manuals, such as The Perfect Manual of Suicide. (The best-selling how-to book in Japan offers guidance for arguing with Koreans.)

Another small note: the book might a have been subtitled, "A Jewish-American Reporter..." Adelstein writes a bit about attitudes (and prejudices) toward Jews in Japan. The daughters of his best friend have been told in elementary school that all Jews were killed in World War II, and they want to take him to school for show-and-tell.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Kindly Ones: Crime and Controversy

It was complicated how I stumbled (back) onto The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell. This novel -- narrated by an educated, articulate, gay Nazi SS officer -- was all the talk at the Frankfurt Book Fair a few years ago, and Littell won the two big literary prizes in France in 2006 (the book is written in French; Littell is American by birth, lives in Europe, raised and educated in France (and then Yale)). I forgot about the book, but then someone mentioned it to me; I had just read another WWII epic, The Naked and The Dead (discussed here), so I thought I'd have a look.

First, I'll pat myself on the back: The Naked and The Dead seemed long and harrowing (which it was), but The Kindly Ones is longer and more harrowing -- or at least more transgressive. It is basically a thousand pages (984, to be precise) of death squads, concentration camps, slave labor, urban warfare, Nazi bureaucracy, camaraderie, onanism, and incest. Great stuff, really. The book documents -- deposits readers vividly at -- the worst places and events: Our protagonist, Max Aue, wades among the bodies in the ravine of Babi Yar (where I imagine I had some distant relatives, my grandfather having come from near Kiev); he visits Auschwitz; serves in Stalingrad; survives the destruction of Berlin; confronts (sort of, strangely, laughably) the Fuhrer in the final bunker, etc. The book's greatest strengths are its representations of these nightmarish places. Some critics have called this a "pornography of violence," but that seems unfair. We can estimate the dead at Babi Yar, but that is very different from the experience of herding or being herded. Littell also has Aue describe in pages and pages of detail the Nazi bureaucracy and in-fighting, which belies the mythology of Nazi order and efficiency.

Like other readers, I found the Aue family/personal/psychological story less compelling. This story includes reveries, masturbation, and murder, and Aue is pursued by two Kripo (Reich police) detectives. Thus The Kindly Ones also includes a crime story, though this is a weak narrative thread and relies on fantastical (or action-adventure) coincidence. This weakness -- the artificiality of the crime and pursuit -- arguably ties into Littell's ambitious examination of crime, culpability, guilt, and so on. More important than the crime novel structure is the framework provided by the Oresteia (The Kindly Ones is another name for the Furies (or Erinyes), who pursued Orestes for killing his mother). The most detailed review and the best explanation for the connection to the Oresteia and for the book's transgressive and graphic sex is Daniel Mendelsohn's piece in the New York Review of Books. (Also of note: an interview with the translator, Charlotte Mandell.)

It is easy to be critical of this novel on various counts: it is tedious at times; long-winded here and there; it either falls apart or never quite coheres. And true, the subject matter might have limited appeal for gentle readers. Still, this is a serious, ambitious, complex, detailed historic novel that deserves admiration (even if grudging, which my admiration is not) and notice. It is therefore dispiriting to me (as a reader and writer in the U.S.) to see how terribly panned and dismissed the novel was in major American publications. Kakutani savaged the book in the New York Times; David Gates also reviewed it unfavorably in the Times, as did Melvin Jules Bukiet in The Washington Post.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

True Crime and Public Policy: Dangerous Doses

I don't read a lot of non-fiction books (except the occasional Highsmith biography) -- true crime or otherwise, but I picked up and devoured a really great book recently, Katherine Eban's Dangerous Doses (which is subtitled in hardback, How Counterfeiters are Contaminating America's Drug Supply; and in paperback, A True Story of Cops, Counterfeiters, and the Contamination of America's Drug Supply). I'm always looking for a good heist, and recently in Connecticut, there was a $75 million product theft from an Eli Lilly pharmaceutical warehouse. I read the news story and subsequently, the New York Times ran an op-ed ("Are You Buying Illegal Drugs?") co-authored by Eban, which led me to her 2005 book. Boy, does she have a yarn to tell!

Basically, Dangerous Doses tells the story of the illegal and gray markets of bought and resold prescription drugs. Worse, some very expensive drugs (hundreds of dollars or more per dose) are "uplabeled": 200 U/mL doses become falsely labeled 2,000 U/ml (which means a patient is not receiving the prescribed dose, and the medicine has often degenerated). This would be interesting by itself (and was the source of a 60 Minutes segment), but it becomes riveting because Eban has a great cast of characters: an emotional, larger-than-life cop, an unlikely prosecutor, a do-nothing boss, a shady urologist, an over-the-top criminal, and so on. The investigative team does great work -- a good plug for dedicated civil servants -- though today, apparently, our prescription drug supply is far from safe.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Talented Miss Highsmith

Well, I managed to read my way through the massive and generally interesting new Highsmith biography, The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith by Joan Schenkar. I'm not much of a reader of biography, but since I have a significant readerly attachment to Highsmith, I thought I'd better read this book. (I've already read the previous Highsmith biography, Beautiful Shadow by Andrew Wilson, as well as Marijane Meaker's memoir, Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s. I've read 21 of Highsmith's books, including all the major novels except This Sweet Sickness.)

Ultimately, the Schenkar biography casts some light on the novels, but the criticism only goes so far (and granted, Schenkar doesn't pretend to provide in-depth readings of the books). I found the background on Highsmith's work in the Golden Age comics industry illuminating (Highsmith basically tried to suppress this information). Comics superheroes of course have doubles -- Clark Kent and Superman, etc. -- and this sort of doubling and theme of secret, hidden lives is important to understanding Highsmith (and it was important in a number of ways to her own identity). Schenkar also lists some of the emotional sources of Highsmith's characters (which I find more interesting as a writer than a reader).

Because of Highsmith's nature, this book is tough and relentless reading, too. Highsmith was a weird, often isolated, mean, bitter, and hateful person. I basically knew she was misanthropic, but she was impolite, too. Her detachment, anger, obsessiveness, paranoia, and lack of tolerance -- so biographically off-putting -- clearly provide some part of the foundation of her fiction's power. I'm a little wary of cultivating these traits, however.

This biography leaves some questions unanswered, but I don't think there needs to be another Highsmith biography (at least not yet). Maybe some academic critics can say something more about the fiction. For general readers, I'd be more interested in seeing a volume of letters or perhaps excerpts from her "cahiers"--the 38 notebooks found in a linen closet after her death (she also had 18 volumes of diary). Incidentally, she always subdivided her cahiers into the following sections: People and Places, Keime (i.e., "germs" of ideas, stories, etc.), Daily Notes, Favorite Quotes, Ideas for Longer Fictions, and "Notes on an Ever-Present Subject" (i.e., homosexuality).

Sunday, April 4, 2010

War Report: The Naked and the Dead

Most of the time, when I'm reading, I'm reading crime fiction, but I take occasional departures. A few years back, for instance, I read a handful of books (fiction and non-fiction) about the Vietnam War. Unrelated, I have a stack of "big" books (generally long, harrowing, ambitious books) that I glance at, but fear I will never read. So, I finally read one of the big books that I've been trucking around for about 15 years, Norman Mailer's first novel and World War II epic, The Naked and the Dead (1948). (The photo is by Carl Van Vechten, taken in the year the book was published.)

The verdict: great stuff. I find it surprising that it never appeared on a syllabus of any class I took (or received mention). It is a big book in the sense that it is long (626 pages in my edition), ambitious in its representation of characters across many social and economic strata, verbally compelling (i.e., intense, poetic descriptions), and detailed in its descriptions of physical and interior worlds. Mailer captures hard men not by giving them inscrutable exteriors, but by sinking deep into their thoughts, fears, half-recognitions, contradictions, and so on. Interiority, I suppose, is associated with sentimentality in some ways, as well as slow action. Not the case here, though at times the action is slowed in an intense way to represent the agony of the soldiers.

Some of Mailer's characterizations seem dated and clichéd -- for instance, the "natural" man Wilson, who has a whiff of Erskine Caldwell about him. Still, this book was one of my most memorable reads in some time. I'm going to try to keep Executioner's Song on my radar, and I may try to read something by James Jones soon (maybe The Thin Red Line).

Friday, March 12, 2010

Poisoner's Handbook and Winter's Bone

Once again, I am reading more than I am writing and blogging (at least here). Actually, I did finish writing a story recently, "Sheltered Assets."; I'll report back if anything happens with it. Quick takes on two books...

I don't read a lot of book-length nonfiction, but I did suck down Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. I read it with something of an eye toward writing crime fiction, and the book provides plenty of nice details about poisons and the symptoms shown by their victims. I haven't written much period fiction, but one point shines clear for such tales: back in the day, it was pretty easy to poison someone. The other strength of this book is its discussion of Prohibition -- and the terrible outcomes of this failed policy. What was the nation thinking?!

Next, I read Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone (2006) (which I just found out has been made into a movie). Woodrell continues to captivate me -- great, weird, eerie, harrowing characters, settings, and scenes. Woodrell writes a thick, intense prose -- and in this book, I got a little lost here and there. One might shelve Woodrell alongside Erskine Caldwell or some Katherine Anne Porter (less with Flannery O'Connor, whom he calls a major influence). Still, Woodrell uses, if obliquely, crime fiction genre elements. In Winter's Bone, a young woman hunts for her missing father, out on bail, so their home is not lost to the bondsmen. One crime is solved, sort of, but another crime remains unsolved, as in Woodrell's Tomato Red.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

P.D. James on Detective Fiction, More Pelecanos

I'm squeezing in a quick post before the end of the month.

I read P.D. James' Talking About Detective Fiction. This is a breezy, brief piece of criticism that does not offer a lot of new insight into detective fiction (e.g., the detective restores order to society in traditional mysteries). Two components stand out: first, in passing, James provides a good overview of Golden Age writers and singles out a few titles. Thus, if you want to read a good, representative Dorothy Sayers or Ngaio Marsh, you can find some titles here. The second bit that caught my attention was James' discussion of setting. She writes that setting propels her imagination, the spark comes from a location.

Just finished reading George P. Pelecanos' The Big Blowdown. Set mostly in the 1940s, it is the first of his D.C. Quartet. I've owned it for a while, and in part hadn't brought myself to read it because of the cover (see image); the image should be cool and B movie-ish, but somehow, the guy looks too lost. So, I judged the book by its cover. The book also has an introductory appreciation by James Sallis, another writer I like, but this piece seems out of place, comparing Pelecanos to Balzac and referring to Flaubert -- an attempt, it feels, to sell a "literary" audience on a writer shelved in the mystery/crime section. I liked this book quite a bit, once I got past the cover. The book has two early sections -- a boyhood scene and a WWII combat scene -- that set up the rest of the action, and they seem a little mechanical (especially the Pacific Theater war scene), devices for the action that follows. Once the book reaches its main postwar time period, it's pretty great stuff. Pete Karras steps back from working with some mobsters, pays a cruel price, and then years later aims to redeem himself. As always, Pelecanos draws complex, sympathetic characters, captures the atmosphere of Washington, D.C. (but specifically not the transient world of politics), and shows a vibrant workplace (here, a diner).

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Man Alive, Another Month Gone...

Okay, I let another month go by. Excuses: household illness, excessive work, self-recalcitrance. I did keep reading -- and managed some writing, or at least some creative noodling. I read some more Pelecanos and Woodrell -- great stuff as usual.

But I'll comment a little more on a first novel, Devil's Trill by Gerald Elias. It is a murder mystery (the murder comes late, in Carnegie Hall) and a violin theft caper. The author is an accomplished violinist, once with the Boston Symphony and now the Associate Concertmaster at the Utah Symphony.

I have a semi-personal connection to this book. My brother is a professional violinist (and crime fiction reader) and for years, he has been telling me stories of violin thefts, purchases, and catastrophes. I have written two unpublished stories (and part of a third) about instrument thefts, one featuring a violinist. So anyway, this book seemed somewhat up my alley and really up my brother's alley. I missed Elias's appearance in Portland, but picked up a signed copy of the book, which I sent to my brother.

I usually don't read traditional, fair clued, semi-cozy mysteries -- as this one is, more or less -- but I liked it quite a bit. The amateur detective, blind violin teacher Daniel Jacobus, is almost too cranky (and mean to a student), but he grows on you. In the end, the book's strengths are its glimpses into the seamy world of classical music and instrument dealing, and there is also a good dose of musical appreciation guidance.

I am now wrestling with reading yet another book about Patricia Highsmith, my third: The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith by Joan Schenkar. This is the big (or bigger) Highsmith book, in detail, analysis, and heft (nearly 700 pages). I'll report back. Highsmith is even more cranky and crazy than I thought (and I was already pretty scared, though about 20 of her novels have sunk far into my skin).