“A Little Amusement at His Expense:” Conan Doyle’s Sly Subversion of Victorian Society, part 2

The French author Honoré de Balzac once wrote that “behind every fortune lies a great crime,” and his words are borne out in “The Blue Carbuncle.” Belonging to a countess and worth at least £20,000, the precious stone brings nothing but trouble to whoever possesses it. Holmes dismisses the fetishization of such objects in a famous passage:

In the larger and older jewels every facet may stand for a bloody deed. This stone is not yet twenty years old… In spite of its youth, it has already a sinister history. There have been two murders, a vitriol-throwing, a suicide, and several robberies brought about for the sake of this forty-grain weight of crystallized charcoal.

Dismissing the immense wealth of an aristocratic countess as a piece of “crystallized charcoal” represents a fairly overt critique of the culturally constructed relationship between wealth and class.

In “The Noble Bachelor,” Holmes once again expresses his distaste for cases dealing with the nobility, “which call upon a man either to be bored or to lie,” while “the humbler are usually the more interesting.” Holmes even yawns as Watson first describes the case to him, and shows further contempt for the British class system, noting that “the status of my client is a matter of less moment to me than the interest of his case.”

This is one of many characteristics that makes Holmes such a beloved archetypal hero. Money, class, status–none of it matters to him. But it mattered very much to the Victorians.

Lord St. Simon, whom Watson describes as “a man whose pleasant lot it had ever been to command and to be obeyed,” comes off as a condescending fool in his first exchange with the great detective:

[Lord St. Simon:] “I understand the you have already managed several delicate cases of this sort, sir, though I presume that they were hardly from the came class of society.”
[Holmes:] “No, I am descending.”
“I beg pardon?”
“My last client of the sort was a king.”
“Oh, really! I had no idea. And which king?”

Lord St. Simon also believes that his fiancé ran off because marrying into such a fabulously prominent family was simply too much for her. Needless to say, Holmes rejects this self-aggrandizing assertion.

This issue of wealth and class turns up again in “The Beryl Coronet,” in which one of “the highest, noblest, most exalted names in England” refers to £50,000 as a “trifling” sum before entrusting the coronet in question to a banker who is understandably hesitant to assume responsibility for such a priceless and irreplaceable object. That the nobleman makes this unorthodox arrangement in order to cover up some potentially embarrassing indiscretion goes without saying, of course.

Too much wealth concentrated in one place has a poisonous effect on human relations, and in this story we see it trickle down from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie: The banker is awfully quick to presume his son’s guilt when a piece of the coronet goes missing, and when the jewels are returned, he hugs “his recovered gems to his bosom,” a display of affection he has not shown to his own family. The banker is another “portly” figure who resembles John Bull in the Paget illustrations, who therefore could be said to symbolize English society in general.

In contrast to the “vacuous” Miss Mary Southerland in “A Case of Identity,” Holmes is “favorably impressed” by Miss Violet Hunter in “The Copper Beeches.” She is humble, brave, and above all, intelligent: Her story provides Holmes with all the details he needs, and unlike the petulant and privileged aristocrats who typically engage Holmes’s services, she is “a woman who has had her own way to make in the world.”

This time, the bourgeoisie take it directly on the chin: Mr. Rucastle is “a prodigiously stout man” who rubs his hands with glee as he ogles the prospective governesses for his child, a nasty little boy who enjoys trapping animals and “giving pain to any creature weaker than himself.” Oh, and Mr. Rucastle also keeps his own daughter locked in an upstairs room so he can keep all her money for himself.

Once again, he resembles John Bull in the Paget illustrations, and an academic might be tempted to suggest that if Mr. Rucastle represents England, his false good humor masking a homicidal coldness and greed, then his sins are visited upon his children: his son represents the cruelty that a system of such extreme economic inequality produces–the violence needed to enforce imperialism abroad and repressive values at home–while his daughter represents those who suffer from their vulnerability to the forces symbolized by the two male figures. But that might be going a bit far for some of you.*

Fortunately, a member of the working class, “a persevering man, as a good seaman should be,” in Holmes’s words, wins the girl’s heart and spirits her away.

(*And if you really want to go off the deep end, one might suggest that in “The Engineer’s Thumb,” the loss of Hatherly’s opposable thumb–a crucial characteristic of our development as a tool-making species–to an ax-wielding assailant in a room that has been converted into a giant hydraulic press represents how industrialization and its accompanying greed robs us of our humanity. [Warning: This is extreme literary analysis performed by a trained professional. Don’t try this at home.] Hatherly is another Doyle-like figure, most notably when he describes the troubles facing a newly minted engineer: “I suppose that everyone finds his first independent start in business a dreary experience. To me it has been exceptionally so. During two years I have had three consultations and one small job,” he laments, in words that could be describing Doyle’s own early struggles.)

Another arrogant bourgeois gets a taste of Holmes’s unique brand of justice in “Silver Blaze,” when Holmes notes, “The Colonel’s manner has been just a trifle cavalier to me. I am inclined now to have a little amusement at his expense.” Presumably Doyle’s audience lapped this up, just as we do today. (We still love to see arrogant rich people get their comeuppance, don’t we?)

Finally, we come to “The Yellow Face.” Though by no means one of the great Sherlock Holmes stories–and perhaps because of it–this story contains a number of references to cultural tensions between the English and the Scots, and seriously challenges the presumed moral superiority of the imperious English.

Though unstated in the story, Mr. Grant Munro is very likely Scottish (Leslie Klinger informs us in the New Annotated Sherlock Holmes that “both Grant and Munro are common Scottish names”). English popular culture of the time typically caricatured the Scots as backward country folk with thick accents who are ignorant of big city ways, and above all, cheap. (The Scots would counter that their characteristic frugality is a result of having their country’s wealth plundered by the English, but that’s another story.)

Munro has called while Holmes was out, leaving behind a pipe that Holmes examines closely and identifies as a well-made but relatively inexpensive model that has been “twice mended.” Doyle’s target audience was presumably expected to jump to the conclusion that this is a sign of cheapness, until Holmes point out that the repairs have been made with silver bands that “must have cost more than the pipe did originally.”

So instead of labeling Munro a cheapskate, Holmes deduces that he is a man who would rather repair something that has emotional significance for him than “buy a new one with the same money.” Munro is loyal to the things he loves, which has important ramifications later in the story.

We are soon told that Munro didn’t want his wife to sign her money over to him, even though she has “a capital of about four thousand five hundred pounds,” because he already has an income of “seven or eight hundred.” Again, there is a difference between appreciating what you have and being “cheap.” Munro (“a muscular man… with an excellent set of teeth”) compares quite favorably with the portly, overfed Englishmen in the other stories who are willing to abuse and imprison their family members for the sake of money.

Munro fears the worst–that his wife’s first husband has come back to haunt them, perhaps–and is greatly relieved when he learns that the big secret his wife has been keeping from him is that her first husband was black, and that they have a black child.

“It was a long two minutes before Grant Munro broke the silence,” we are told. Munro’s silence is apparently due to him processing the unpleasant revelation that his wife didn’t have enough faith to confide in him from the beginning. Thus the story suggests that the Scots may be more tolerant of racial difference than the English, perhaps because they identify more readily with oppressed minorities.

In his final speech, Munro can be seen as representing all of Scotland addressing their English neighbors to the south when he says: “I am not a very good man, Effie, but I think that I am a better one than you have given me credit for being.”

And just in case you start feeling superior to all those smug Victorians, Klinger points out that the first American publication of “The Yellow Face” lengthened Munro’s silence to ten minutes, suggesting that Munro is confronting the unpleasant revelation that his wife had a child with a black man–a very different emotional moment, to be sure.

There are many more examples of such implicit critiques of Victorian society in the Holmes canon, but I think that’s enough for now.

Barbaric Kings and Plodding Imbeciles: Conan Doyle’s Sly Subversion of Victorian Society (part 1)

Hi, folks. Janet Hutchings of EQMM asked me to write something a bit different, so I came up with this new angle on the Holmes stories. Part 2 comes out next Wed.

A number of today’s crime writers are also college professors who bring a unique critical approach to reading (and writing) crime fiction. In the course of teaching a college class that covers material stretching from Edgar Allan Poe and Dashiell Hammett to S.J. Rozan and Megan Abbott, I have uncovered evidence of numerous indirect criticisms of English society in the Sherlock Holmes stories, and a propensity for subverting revered Victorian institutions such as the aristocracy, the justice system, and even motherhood itself.

Any Holmes fan is familiar with the scenarios in which the police officials are completely baffled by a case, draw ridiculous conclusions from the available evidence, waste time chasing worthless clues, are stubbornly insistent upon arresting an innocent man, and then claim all the credit when Holmes solves the case.

This is not the cynical world of corrupt police officials found in the later American hardboiled school. In the Holmes stories, the incompetence and arrogance of the police inspectors is usually handled with a humorous wink at the reader. But any competent literary critic will tell you that in rigidly hierarchical societies such as Victorian England, humor is often the best vehicle for social commentary, since a direct attack on such institutions would be met with ostracism and even prosecution in some cases.

Think of that fabulously arch moment in the first published Holmes short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” when the king of Bohemia, so overdressed when we first meet him that Watson is unfavorably impressed by his “barbaric opulence,” speaks of Irene Adler:

“Did I not tell you how quick and resolute she was? Would she not have made an admirable queen? Is it not a pity that she was not on my level?”
“From what I have seen of the lady, she seems, indeed, to be on a very different level to your Majesty,” said Holmes, coldly.

Meaning, of course, that she is far superior to the king.

That princes and kings can be cads is not exactly news, but we should take a moment to consider how radical it was to say so in print at the time, even if the criticism was safely displaced onto the Bohemian nobility. While some Victorian readers might have chuckled at the implied inferiority of the Central European nobility to a mere stage actress (and a commoner), many in the audience must have picked up on the indirect criticism of all such spoiled monarchs. The king in question, after all, has a German name–an almost comically absurd one at that–just as Queen Victoria’s mother and husband did (Princess Marie Luise Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, respectively).

Some of these negative attitudes towards the aristocracy and the police are a result of the British class system. The audience for the Holmes stories clearly relished the depiction of the nobility as pompous asses who are every bit as criminal in their behaviors as the lowest thieves, and the besting of the plodding, lower class British bobbies time and again by an amateur (and a gentleman) who is happy to work for free if the client is needy and the case has one or two points of interest, as Holmes himself would say.

However, if we recall that Victorian Britain considered itself to be the very pinnacle of civilization at the time–the aristocratic characters repeatedly treat police inspectors (and even Holmes himself) as mere servants who are there to serve their “superiors”–it is possible to perceive the sly subversion of that society in these unflattering portrayals of the noble classes and the criminal justice system. (Perhaps that is also one of the reasons Holmes keeps quoting French terms and catchphrases in the early stories as well.)

These carefully crafted critiques may also reflect Conan Doyle’s own experiences as the Scottish-born child of an Irish family (yes, they were an oppressed minority) living in England, who couldn’t directly attack the social structure that he desperately needed to be a part of, and as a young doctor who, despite his excellent medical qualifications, struggled for many years to gain recognition and build a client base, much like Holmes himself in the early stories. (In later stories, once his reputation has been better established, Holmes is shown working in closer collaboration with the police.)

Consider the case of Mr. Jabez Wilson in “The Red-Headed League.” As a businessman and a shopkeeper, he can be said to represent the very backbone of English middle class society. He is also described as “a very stout, florid-faced, elderly gentleman, with fiery red hair.” In other words, he very much resembles John Bull, the symbol of England personified, especially in the original black-and-white illustrations by Sidney Paget. If we combine this image with Napoleon’s famous dictum that England is “a nation of shopkeepers,” Mr. Wilson can indeed be said to symbolize England. Yet Watson tells us that Mr. Wilson “bore every mark of being an average commonplace British tradesman, obese, pompous, and slow.”

So a symbolic representative of the average Englishman is obese, pompous and slow–so slow that he doesn’t even recognize Holmes’s genius: “I thought at first that you had done something clever, but I see that there was nothing in it after all,” says Wilson, chuckling with self-satisfaction.

Once we leave 221B Baker Street, the main action of “The Red-Headed League” takes place in Saxe-Coburg Square (the surnames of Queen Victoria’s closest relatives), where we are introduced to Merryweather, a bank director dressed in an “oppressively respectable frock-coat” (now there’s a curious phrase) who apparently cares more about missing his card game than preventing a bank robbery, a police agent named Jones whom Holmes calls “an absolute imbecile,” and a criminal, John Clay, who as he is apprehended declares, apparently without irony: “I beg that you will not touch me with your filthy hands… You may not be aware that I have royal blood in my veins. Have the goodness also when you address me always to say ‘sir’ and ‘please.’”

No wonder Holmes declares near the end: “My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence.” After all, his remarkable gifts go unrecognized by the “oppressively respectable” and hypocritical society of his time. (To top it off, Holmes’s final remark is a quotation from Flaubert–another Frenchman.)

Crime so often shows the worst of human nature, so depicting an evil mother is not to be taken as a condemnation of all mothers. But consider the mother in “A Case of Identity” who connives with her second husband to take advantage of her daughter’s “short sight.” Not only is the Victorian ideal of the self-sacrificing mother inverted here, but even the daughter comes in for poor treatment. Watson tells us that Miss Mary Southerland has a “somewhat vacuous face,” gives a “rambling and inconsequential narrative,” and wears a “preposterous hat.” Watson notes her “vacuous” face twice and her short sightedness several times. So much for the idealized image of the young woman as innocent victim of criminal deception.

In “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” an innocent man has been charged. “Many men have been hanged on far slighter evidence,” says Watson. “So they have. And many men have been wrongfully hanged,” Holmes replies, questioning and subverting the exalted principles of British jurisprudence.

Naturally, Inspector Lestrade dismisses Holmes’s methods:

“I find it hard enough to tackle facts, Holmes, without flying away after theories and fancies.”
“You are right,” said Holmes, demurely; “you do find it very hard to tackle the facts.”

Holmes calls Lestrade an “imbecile” later in the story.

Some of Holmes’s frustration at being dismissed by those with inferior minds is derived from Poe’s Dupin, another man a with brilliant mind who is forced to waste his time dealing with ignorant and unappreciative people. But Dupin’s contempt was displaced from Poe’s America and aimed at the Prefect of the Parisian police. Doyle was writing about his own society.

One might even suggest that the happy ending of this Holmes story, in which the young couple will live “in ignorance of the black cloud which rests upon their past,” is a veiled condemnation of the average Briton’s ignorance of (or indifference to) the ravages of British colonialism, since the germ of the story’s conflict began years before in the diamond minds in Victoria, Australia. (Victoria, you say? Gee, that name sounds familiar…)

Groucho Marx and Philip Marlowe

And this one is from the Criminal Element site:

Humor is the weapon of the powerless.

Being the child of intellectual Jews gave me many advantages as a kid (bagels, Woody Allen movies, skepticism of political power), but when we moved to suburban Long Island in the late 1960s, I discovered the downside. First, none of the local barbers knew what to do with my frizzy “ethnic” hair (they tried to plaster it down with something resembling industrial shellack), and second, most of my schoolmates never seemed to question the existing order of things, like mandatory attendance at pep rallies, which struck me as somewhat fascistic back in 7th grade. My views were unappreciated by the dominant jock culture, but I was able to survive by making the big guys laugh.

I first discovered the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, which was especially popular during the Vietnam War era because of its perceived satirical stance against authoritarianism and war. Groucho’s omnidirectional mud-slinging, and especially his old vaudevillian’s trick of pointing out the absurdities of a given situation by speaking directly to the audience gave me a blueprint for navigating the treacherous pathways of adolescent identity. (Full disclosure: I played Groucho twice in elementary and junior high school adaptations of Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera.)

By 9th grade, I had memorized most of the dialogue of the Marx Brothers’ first 10 films, and was looking for another source of irreverence.

I found it in Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe.

I was already a fan of mysteries, having progressed from the Boxcar Children and Basil of Baker Street (the source of Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective) to the tales of Poe and Doyle’s complete cycle of Sherlock Holmes stories.

But this Marlowe guy was different. As tough and hardboiled as he was, he reminded me a little of Groucho, tossing out irreverent comments about all that is pompous and false–except he wasn’t going up against the harmless farcical gangsters of Monkey Business, he was going up against hardened killers in a city that was thoroughly and hopelessly corrupt. (This was during the Watergate era, which probably helped.)

Ballantine Books was reprinting Chandler in paperback (95 cents!), and the first story I read, “Trouble Is My Business,” included cynical one-liners like:

“What are you going to be when you grow up–a five-foot shelf?”

“He’s so tight his head squeaks when he takes his hat off.”

“You bumped anybody off tonight?”
“I’d have to look at my notebook.”

“I never had a forty-five. A guy who needs that much gun ought to use a pick.”

He reached quietly under my coat and took the Luger. I might as well leave it home from now on. Everybody in town seemed to be able to take it away from me.

Needless to say, I could hear echoes of a closet Grouchophile behind the scenes of these hardboiled dramas. And while Marlowe never pulled a live turkey from under his trench coat (as Harpo does in Room Service), he did wear a trench coat and was very quick with the wisecracks.

So, back to the theme: Humor is the weapon of the powerless.

Although Groucho occasionally played the president of a college or a rather screwy country, he usually portrayed an impoverished charlatan of some sort–a stowaway, an opera impresario with no clients, a horse doctor trying to pass as a respected physician, a theatrical agent with no backers, the manager of a failing hotel who lampoons the very idea of the American Dream when he says:

“Think of the opportunities here in Florida. Three years ago I came to Florida without a nickel in my pocket. Now I’ve got a nickel in my pocket.”

Marlowe is equally cynical about the promises of the so-called land of opportunity, and usually finds himself outranked, outnumbered and outgunned by big time crooks and “legitimate” businessmen who make way more than his lousy 25 bucks a day plus expenses. He has virtually no political, social, or economic power, but he makes up for that with boatloads of attitude and smartass humor.

Attitude. That’s what got me through the tough times, and this same quality can be found in my favorite crime writers. For what is the figure of the private investigator if not the ultimate outsider? The ultimate charlatan, pretending to bring order to a world that refuses order like an old school vampire recoiling from the sight of a cross?

Despite their apparent differences (including the little-known fact that only one of them was a genuine flesh-and-blood human being), these two mid-20th century figures were crucial to my formation as an author, and I trust that you’ll see plenty of that in 23 Shades of Black, the first novel in my Edgar Allan Poe Award-nominated series.

Environmental Crime

OK, folks, I know it’s been awhile, what with working the day job and all, but I’ve got two new posts. The first from Janet Rudolph’s MYSTERY READERS JOURNAL:

Nobody wants to read a political tract disguised as a novel, especially a crime novel.

But one of the major reasons I was attracted to the crime genre in the first place is its long history of social commentary, going back to Hammett in the 1920s. (One of my favorite quotes from Red Harvest: “The room was as dark as an honest politician’s prospects.”)

So when I started writing 23 Shades of Black, the first novel in my Edgar-nominated series featuring Ecuadorian-American detective, Filomena Buscarsela, the toxic legacy of the Reagan Administration and his Secretary of the Interior, James “We will mine more, drill more, cut more timber” Watt, was still fresh in my mind.

Environmental crime features prominently in the series because, obviously, I’m genuinely concerned about rampant environmental destruction. But what makes this type of crime particularly fertile ground for noirish mystery novels is the hardboiled nature of the offense: unlike so many formula-driven mysteries in which an individual kills someone to protect a dirty family secret or some such motive, environmental pollution is usually committed by faceless corporations (or a major branch of government, like the Navy) in ways that make it nearly impossible to isolate a single, guilty perpetrator in time for a nice neat dénouement.

That’s because it’s hard to draw a definite causal link between, say, the toxic PCBs that were dumped in the Hudson River in the 1950s and the cancer clusters that emerged in the surrounding population twenty years later, because it’s easy for the potentially responsible party to claim that other factors could have caused those cancers.

In some ways, that’s my definition of hardboiled: in many traditional mysteries, the guilty party is an individual who no longer pose a threat to society once their guilt is revealed, and we can all rest assured that we are now safe from their depravities (this is why they’re called “cozies,” after all). Whereas in the hardboiled world, guilt and corruption are rampant, and it’s impossible to clean up the whole mess. In such a world, people (and corporations) can and do get away with murder.

And so my mole at the US EPA has been especially useful in providing material for my novels. (That’s right, I’ve got a mole at the EPA. Bwah-ha-ha!) We met in biology class way back in ninth grade and, as members of the Bio-Ecology Club, went on a month-long field trip in July 1975 that stretched from Cadillac Mountain, Maine to Key West, Florida. (Looking back, my heart goes out to the hapless teacher-chaperones who agreed to haul a couple of minivans full of 14-year-olds on a thousand-mile field trip. We sure owe them a debt, I’ll say that much.)

In 23 Shades of Black, my detective acts pretty much on her own against the corporate criminals, with decidedly mixed results. In Soft Money, second in the series, she starts working for a non-profit environmental organization, which allowed me to introduce Gina Lucchese, regional investigator for the EPA, who helps Filomena get to the bottom of some very dirty crimes.

I got access to mounds of EPA documents, which are available, in theory, through the Freedom of Information Act. But it might take a regular citizen months or even years to see them. I got them right away. Of course I had to change the names of the entities involved, but the chemical names and environmental statistics are all taken right from the public record. No need to invent any nasty threats when reality itself is already so frightening.

In The Glass Factory, third in the series, I took on the classic motif of setting the story in a seemingly idyllic American town that turns out to be rotten to the core, both symbolically–with the usual rampant corruption–and literally, when my detective visits her latino cousins, who live in a poor neighborhood across the street from the foul-smelling factory of the title.

In Red House, fourth in the series, I took a case straight from the EPA’s files about an abandoned industrial space that was remodeled for residential purposes, leading to disastrous results due to… well, you get the idea.

Blood Lake, fifth in the series, takes place in Ecuador, and even though there’s no EPA presence in the novel, there’s plenty of environmental damage. I lived in Ecuador for three years and witnessed the devastation first hand–from an earthquake that damaged the country’s sole oil pipeline, spilling untold quantities of crude into the jungle, to floods, hyperinflation and attendant food shortages.

In fact, people who read Red House, which takes place in Queens, often say that the craziness in that novel must be real because it’s so New York, when I actually made most of it up; and people who read Blood Lake say that I must have made all that up because the craziness is so over-the-top, when in fact most of it is true. The damage to the environment and the indigenous communities caused by oil drilling in the Amazon jungle has been carried out in a way that would never be permitted in the continental US.

But it’s not all gloom and doom, of course. My series has been recognized for its humor as well, even if it’s usually cynical, smartass New York-style humor (no surprise there, I suppose). Because once again, no one wants to read a political tract disguised as a novel. But it is our job as authors to write about what makes us laugh and cry, about what thrills us, and above all what makes us angry: What fresh outrages has man created to feed his bottomless greed? This is the stuff of great novels, not just great crime novels. And so we must bear in mind what George Orwell, surely one of the great political novelists of the 20th century, said in his 1947 essay, “Why I Write”:

Looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.” [emphasis in original]

Tell it, George.

Now, did you ever hear the one about the…?

Guess what? Power corrupts: Anthony Mann’s Reign of Terror (1949)

On the recommendation of the Czar or Noir, Eddie Muller, I watched Anthony Mann’s Reign of Terror (a.k.a. The Black Book, Eagle-Lion, 1949), with Robert Cummings, Richard Basehart and Arlene Dahl.

Don’t be misled by the plot description: it was noir to the max! And I’d definitely recommend it to any aficionado of film noir.

It’s set in France in 1793, the year of the Terror, but this is no prissy costume drama. In fact, in some ways the historical setting frees up the filmmakers to show a level of corruption and depravity in the highest positions of political power that they wouldn’t have been able to get away with if they had set the story in the U.S. in 1949.

Plus it’s got style out the wazoo. Outrageous camera angles, dark shadows and distorted close-ups, all in glorious black and white. It’s a bit dated, of course, especially the characterization of the femme fatale, but it is definitely still relevant as hell in terms of the seductive and destructive nature of absolute political power. And boy, is the ending cynical.

The version I watched is from VCI Entertainment, who have done a decent job of restoring the film, but there are still several short gaps and glitches, and maybe someday someone will fully restore it. But take my word, it’s worth checking out in any form. And thanks for the recommendation, Eddie.

Vive la France! Vive le film noir! (though not necessarily in that order….)

Big Budget Cop-Outs (or, Too Big to Fail?)

Let’s face it: You get marginalized in this culture if you’re a novelist who’s too open about your left wing politics. Of course, if you’re willing to suppress all (or most) of your social commentary, the rewards are there.

Two authors whose work I respect and admire recently published novels that were huge disappointments to me precisely because of the workings of the marketplace (and the pressures of the book-a-year cycle): the bigger you get, it seems, the less you want to risk alienating a chunk of your audience by expressing genuine outrage at the various white collar crimes and other offenses (e.g., war crimes) that permeate and corrupt the ideals of our society.

One of these novels took place at a major metropolitan newspaper that was in the middle of downsizing–a terrific set-up for an examination of the collapse of journalistic standards that has helped usher in the toxic political discourse and socio-economic morass we now find ourselves in–written by a one-time industry insider who was perfectly placed to take on this huge (and hugely important) subject, only to turn into a standard serial killer scenario that the author in question has already done twice before, and better.

The other novel took place in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina–written by a richly evocative writer who knows this terrain as well as anybody alive. But again, I was disappointed to see it degenerate into a standard there’s-a-psycho-after-my-daughter plot that abandoned virtually any attempt to explore (much less condemn) the nearly incomprehensible crime of the U.S. government allowing a major American city to drown.

There’s a consensus in the world of film noir studies that the low-budget B movies may have been a bit shabbier than their rich “A” movie cousins, but the lower budgets allowed the B pictures more freedom to explore the dark side of American society in a way that was not acceptable for A pictures.

Something like that seems to be happening with our literary culture as well. So, if you want social realism, read a crime novel–preferably one by an author who is not a New York Times bestseller.

Genre Writing as Olympic Metaphor

Who remembers who came in fifth place in the men’s 400-meter at the 2008 Beijing Olympics? Or any other event, for that matter? Nobody, right? (Unless you’re a sports writer or the guy who came in fifth.) Even though the difference between gold medal and fifth place is a few hundredths of a second, all the attention and name recognition goes to the top medalists.

It’s the same with genre writing. These days, it seems like there is only room in the print reviews, and the public’s mind, for a handful of “gold medalists,” while everybody else gets largely ignored, even though–like the fifth-place athlete who is still one of the fastest people on earth–many of them are easily as good as (if not better than) some of the mighty famous big shots.

Several awards judges over the years have told me some variant of, “Well, you made MY list.” Meaning I’m good enough to qualify for the top honors, but the competition was judged to be a few hundredths of a second faster, so everybody’s heard of them while I continue to wallow in my status as a cult favorite.

I’ve seen it from the other side, too. A couple of years ago I was on a prominent awards committee, and there were a lot of good contenders in our category, but one entry that I really liked, another judge absolutely hated, so it didn’t make the final list. And so it was my turn to tell that author, “Well, you made MY list.” It was small comfort.

I still think that book was as good as anything that made the final list, quite possibly including the winner.

Those are the breaks, baby.

But you keep at it because you can’t imagine doing anything else.

A Book Worth Getting Arrested For

My latest author find is Beth Lisick. I stumbled upon her work when I read her hilarious story, “Tips ‘n’ Things by Elayne” in The Speed Chronicles (Akashic, 2011, ed. Joseph Mattson), and set out to find more. So I was thrilled when I found her publisher, Manic D Press, at the Anarchist Book Fair in San Francisco on the way home from Left Coast Crime in Sacramento.

So I’m on the plane ride home reading Lisick’s hysterically funny collection of short pieces, Monkey Girl, sitting next to a woman with serious OCD who kept straightening out the little tabs that hold the tray tables in place and shrinking away from the slightest contact with my elbow (I tried to limit it, honestly). But I really have to use the men’s room and I’ve got about 5 minutes to catch my flight to Long Island, and somehow in all the confusion I leave the book (along with Ursula LeGuin’s The Wild Girls [PM Press, 2011]) in the seat pocket in front of me, because I’m rushing to make a connecting flight at Chicago’s Midway, not exactly a low volume airport.

And there I am using the men’s room inside the terminal when I realize what I’ve done. So I finish up and rush back to the gate, figuring that since they haven’t started boarding the next flight yet, maybe I can talk them into letting me back on the plane. But the gate’s unattended and nobody stops me as I walk right past the counter and down the jetway, past the flight crew who are waiting to board the plane themselves, expecting the alarms to go off any second and for security to haul me off to a holding cell or interrogation room at any moment. But there are sacrifices that must be made for Art.

I find both books neatly stacked on my seat (and immediately recognize the work of my awkward seat mate). I grab them and go.

So, Beth, if you’re out there, I just want you to know this: Your books are worth getting arrested for.

And that sometimes people with OCD can be helpful, too.

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