Posts from March 2014

March 31st, 2014

Mystery Monday: Strangers on a Train!

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Our book today is the unsinkable 1950 Patricia Highsmith masterpiece Strangers on A Train, which wastes no time in leaping straight to the area of crime-fiction that always fascinated her: motive. Mystery novels love to play with all three of the tenets of crime – motive, means, and opportunity – but every author finds his own fascination among the trio, and Highsmith, who seldom took responsibility for any of the horrible things she did in her strangers on a train coverlife, was therefore naturally obsessed with why people do the things they do (one can only shudder at the mainstream novels she’d have written if the murder-genre paychecks hadn’t been so satisfying). Strangers on a Train is famously a book entirely about motive, and it’s premised on the uncanny ability of sociopaths to sniff out other sociopaths.

The marquee sociopath in the book is of course Charles Anthony Bruno, so immortalized by Robert Walker in the hit movie adaptation of the book. He encounters Guy Haines on a train, and the two of them get to talking – Bruno about his tyrannical father and Guy about his philandering wife. Both are young men, and Bruno – one of Highsmith’s most convincing characters, oddly enough – is extremely personable and outgoing; he quickly divines that both he and Guy have one central person in their lives who could do with a spot of killing.

And yet, what sane person would risk it? Killers invariably get caught and electrocuted, and the main reason they get caught is because some dogged policeman pieces together the connections between the killer and the killed: who wanted the victim dead? Who might have benefitted from it? Draw up a list of those people and then sift the list according to who had the means to carry out the crime – who owned a gun? Who had the requisite garroting skills? And then once you’ve got that shorter list, you sift it again, this time for the people who had both the motive and the means and also the opportunity – not just the riflemen on the list but the riflemen who were anywhere near the victim at the time of the crime.

Highsmith gives Bruno a brainstorm: what if two random strangers who happened by pure chance to meet on a train were to swap murders? There’d be nothing – except the meeting itself – connecting the perpetrators with their victims, and hence no chance of a dogged policeman making any incriminating connections.

Guy laughs the whole suggestion off, but he accidentally leaves a book behind on the train, and Bruno takes that as the opportunity to write Guy a letter offering to return it  – and lightly alluding to his idea of swapping murders. The carefree tone of Bruno’s letter tugs at Guy, who’s feeling very hemmed in by his well-meaning family and his loutish wife. “It was pleasant to think of Bruno’s freedom,” we’re told, and he sits down to write a response:

A sudden impulse to write Bruno made him sit down at his work table, but, with his pen in his hand, he realized he had nothing to say. He could see Bruno in his rust-brown suit, camera strap over his shoulder, plodding up some dry hill in Santa Fe, grinning with his bad teeth at something, lifting his camera unsteadily and clicking. Bruno with a thousand easy dollars in his pocket, sitting in a bar, waiting for his mother. What did he have to say to Bruno? He recapped his fountain pen and tossed it back on the table.

As anybody who’s enjoyed the aforementioned movie will know, Bruno’s mad idea eventually does ensnare Guy, who soon enough finds himself in the nightmare moment of standing in the late-night bedroom of Bruno’s sleeping father:

The gun was in his hand already, aimed at the bed that looked empty however he peered at it.

He glanced at the window over his right shoulder. It was open only about a foot, and Bruno had said it would be open all the way. Because of the drizzle. He frowned at the bed, and then with a terrible thrill made out the form of a head lying rather near the wall side, tipped sideways as if it regarded him with a kind of gay disdain. The face was darker than the hair which blended with the pillow. The gun was looking straight at it as he was.

(Highsmith is a writer who’s been rather egregiously over-praised in the last twenty years, mostly by New Yorker-type deadline hacks who periodically trylucy reading strangers on a train to liberate decent prose stylists from the shame of genre-writing, but even so, she’s very frequently capable of nifty details, and one of them happens in this scene, when the hovering, nervous Guy briefly hears a snatch of distant laughter away someplace in the nighttime neighborhood – it’s genuinely chilling)

And the neat rhetorical trick running through Strangers on a Train is the steady, systematic undermining of our confidence that we know who the crazies are – Highsmith subtly reminds us of the point we started with: that sociopaths have an uncanny ability to sniff out other sociopaths. As the book gathers momentum, passages like this one happen more and more often in Guy’s head:

But there were too many points at which the other self could invade the self he wanted to preserve, and there were too many forms of invasion: certain words, sounds, lights, actions his hands or feet performed, and if he did nothing at all, heard and saw nothing, the shouting of some triumphant inner voice that shocked him and cowed him.

This is one of the twists that still manages to animate this sturdy old book even after all this time, this and the fact that, swapped murders or not, there’s always the fascination of watching those dogged policemen at work. They can’t help it, and neither can we.



March 25th, 2014

Memoirs of an Editor!

memoirs of an editorOur book today is Memoirs of an Editor, a big, bustling 1924 volume by Edward Mitchell, who was for a long time the editor-in-chief of the old New York Sun, a position he took over from his semi-legendary predecessor, Charles A. Dana, a brilliant and recondite figure who was always the smartest person in any gathering. Dana cut his rhetorical teeth in the brawling world of Boston journalism, and Mitchell, who was born in Maine, followed in that same path, taking a job as a full-time deadline hack for the dear old Boston Daily Advertiser while it was under the brilliant but ramshackle leadership of Edward Everett Hale, who gets several loving pen-portraits the author in 1872early on in Memoirs of an Editor:

My acquaintance with Hale was made at a house in Beacon Street. The city desk had sent me to report a reception where Lucretia Mott was the guest of honor. Serene in the dignity of great achievement, the placid little lady of eighty, in a drab garb of the Hicksite Friends with starched white cap and kerchief, stood quietly in the centre of a multicolored and very vocal group. I am glad to have seen her, though nothing in the chronicles of abolition or woman’s rights could then compete with the invention of the heavenly contrivance for ascertaining longitude. The creator of the brick moon and of Philip Nolan came in, unkempt as usual as to hair and beard, untidy in attire, and not overgraceful in his movements, but engaging in the personal approach. Many things were possible to him, but you felt it was impossible for him to be “well dressed.”

The odd, slightly unsettling fly-on-the-wall tenor of the passage is perfectly indicative of what the young Mitchell was like during what he’d later come to think of as his apprentice years in Boston. Hale liked him, in that disinterested and forgetful way Hale liked almost everybody, and the Daily Advertiser was as tough and fun a proving-ground as any deadline-writer could hope to have. And Boston itself did her part to season the young man – and gave him a generous store of good anecdotes, almost all of which find their way into Memoirs of an Editor at some point or other, like the time he was again a fly on the wall, this time at one of the city’s most beloved institutions:

One day some years ago, Mr. Sanborn was scanning the shelves in Goodspeed’s bookshop in Boston, with back turned to the spot where the proprietor was talking with a customer. A lady came in and inquired of Mr. Goodspeed about the value of a single folio volume she owned of Piranesi’s plates of Roman antiquities. The customer casually remarked to the bookseller that he had all the twenty-eight or twenty-nine volumes of Piranesi. Mr. Sanborn, who had been listening and could no longer contain himself, wheeled around and said:

“I congratulate you, sir; I congratulate you! Do you happen to be aware that you have a very rare possession, sir a most valuable possession?”

The felicitated and instructed stranger happened to be J. P. Morgan, Jr.

dana at workOnce Mitchell moves to New York and begins his long association with the mighty Sun, the narrative of Memoirs of an Editor really starts to flex its muscles. We see an almost endless gallery of famous movers and shakers in politics and society; we watch the great issues of the day being hashed out in the halls of power; we gain the intimate access to the presidencies of Grover Cleveland and, later, Theodore Roosevelt, that only a writer at the country’s most powerful newspaper could give us. We also get a long and loving portrait of Charles Dana in all his moods, and through it all there’s Mitchell’s signature low-key puckish good humor lifting the whole thing above the ranks of musty Edwardian memoirs. It brings a smile to your face, the relish with which lucy reading memoirs of an editorhe commits to the written page the stories that had set many a dining room to roars of laughter over the decades – including the time, when he was still a very young man, when a gloomy doctor told him if he didn’t pack up immediately and go to Colorado to take up peaceful sheep-farming, he’d likely die before the decade was out. At Dana’s insistence, he went to see a different doctor, a certain old specialist named Doctor Flint, who wrote him out a prescription and suggested he might live past that projected decade. Forty years had passed since then, as Mitchell loved to point out, and in this present volume, he not only reproduces the written prescription for the amusement of his readers, but he also distills the meaning of it all in a quintessentially Mitchellian aside:

Heaven bless the optimists! In Doctor Flint’s profession and in every other, in the pulpit, in the sanctum, and at the speakers’ table after the half-cups are filled; for it is the optimists who keep the world a-going.

The world of Memoirs of an Editor has transformed itself out of existence in the century since this book appeared and disappeared; Mitchell is another of those countless authors who’ll never been reprinted, never consulted, and never found in libraries, since his books will never be digitized for electronic holdings. But if you find this book somehow, you should read it; a lost era lives again in its pages.




March 24th, 2014

Mystery Monday: Pictures of Perfection!

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Our book today is 1994’s Pictures of Perfection, one of the incredibly entertaining Dalziel & Pascoe mystery novels of the late, great Reginald Hill, although really I could be just as happy picking any of these delightful novels to re-read and praise here.

pictures of perfection coverHill wrote mountains of prose (the full catalog may never be assembled, since he very often wrote under clever pen-names, the rogue), and all it was filled with the perfect quotability that only first-water hacks ever achieve. But it’s easy to feel, when you’re reading them, that his Dalziel & Pascoe novels were where his writing heart beat strongest and truest. Here we find the adventures of grim, foreboding (and gay, though it’s nowt of your bloody business) Detective Sergeant Wield, sharp young go-getter Inspector Pascoe, and that gruff-mouthed, shovel-handed Lord of All He Cares to Survey, superintendent Andy Dalziel, the Fat Man who rolls through these stories like a literature-quoting rump-scratching avalanche. Hill exploits the ensemble feel as well as any writer, but he clearly knows what his readers also quickly realize: Dalziel is his immortal character, his Sherlock Holmes, his Hercule Poirot, his Judge Dee, his Horace Rumpole.

What makes Pictures of Perfection such a delight is the same thing that makes all the other Hill novels delights: he’s always willing to surprise us. The surprise in this novel comes from the fact that Dalziel and Pascoe themselves are slightly secondary in the plot – this is Wieldy’s book to shine, starting with him at the tail end of a very rare vacation, riding his big motorcycle (in full leather riding gear) through the seemingly idyllic village of Enscombe, where he’s briefly interrogated by an attractive young rural constable named Bendish, who learns to his dismay that he’s been laying the heavy hand on his superior on the force, much to Wield’s amusement – if you can discern it as amusement:

Wield barked the sound which friends recognized as his way of expressing amusement – though others often took it as a sign that the interrupted lycanthropic process suggested by his face was about to be resumed.

Wield no sooner reports back for duty at the station than he’s walking in on a complaint being made by one of the high-strung local grandees of Enscombe – a complaint about him, as a suspicious outsider who may or may not be connected with suspicious goings-on about town. The townsman, one Digweed, is astonished to find the mysterious stranger of his complaints actually working at the police station. Like most people who encounter Wieldy’s rather alarming thuggish appearance, Digweed has trouble believing there’s a trained professional underneath the surface, and he’s not diplomatic about saying so:

A detective? You? That does indeed sound like a very great mistake. I still find it hard to believe, Superintendent …?”

“This is Detective Sergeant Wield, one of my officers,” said Dalziel in a dangerous voice. “Will someone tell me what’s going on here?”

“I was in Enscombe yesterday, sir,” said Wield. “I met Mr. Digweed briefly. Then a bit later on, I -”

“You assaulted Constable Bendish!” interposed Digweed. “Excellent. To preserve your cover, isn’t that the term? I presume that extraordinary costume you had on was some form of cover?”

“I spoke with Bendish, sir,” said Wield stolidly, addressing himself to Dalziel.

“Oh, aye? And what did he say?”

Wield glanced doubtfully at Digweed, who said, “Yes, yes, of course. From being so vital a witness I have to be dragged from my place of business – which incidentally will be doing no business at all while I’m away – I have become an intrusive member of the general public who must on no account be allowed to overhear high-level police discussion. Excuse me, gentlemen. I shall return home where I will spend more of my valuable time penning a strong letter of complaint. You do, I presume, employ at least one token literate to read such letters? Never mind. I’ll put it on tape also. Now I give you good day.”

He strode out. It was a rather good, very English sort of exit.

Dalziel jerked his head to Filmer, who went in apologetic pursuit.

Then the Fat Man turned to Wield and fixed him with a gaze which would have frozen a Gorgon.

“Right, sunshine,” he said with dreadful softness. “Now you can tell me what you were doing in fancy dress beating up PC Bendish!”

The joy that Hill fell into when writing these books is evident on virtually every page, I think. You can’t help but smile at a tossed-in line like “It was a rather good, very English sort of exit.”

Of course Wield tries to explain everything to his boss (as he sagely observes later in the book, “You didn’t apply human rule to a force of nature”), and soon our team finds itself investigating the odd local rituals of Enscombe – and, as so often happens in these novels, Andy Dalziel finds ample opportunities to exert his oddly effective lucy reads reginald hillNeanderthalic charms on the local women:

“I’ll tell you what, luv. You carry on, and I’ll just fit in the odd question as you go by.”

“Well, if it’s official,” she said, weakening.

“If it were any more official, it’ud be wearing pinstripes,” he assured her. “In fact, why don’t I give you a hand with these trays while we’re talking.”

“And yourself a hand with my grub, I don’t doubt,” she said sharply.

” ‘Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn,’ ” said Dalziel. “Deuteronomy.”

“I know where it’s from,” she said. “I’m just amazed where it’s got to.”

“You and I are going to understand each other very well,” laughed Andrew Dalziel. “Is that apple pie? My favorite.”

“Aye, but it’s not cut.”

“Cut? You’re not expecting it to do more than one, are you?”

She began to laugh, and Dalziel would have laughed with her if his mother hadn’t taught him that it was rude to laugh with your mouth full.

I’m pretty sure that Mystery Monday will be returning to the Dalziel & Pascoe books again in the course of 2014, and it’s no good saying Pictures of Perfection is an odd place to start, being so unconventional an entry in the series – all these great books are unconventional in one way or other; that’s a big part of their charm. For somebody so predictable, as one character remarks in an earlier adventure, the Fat Man can be bloody unpredictable.


March 20th, 2014

The Embattled Canon in the Penny Press!



The New York Times Book Review pauses to take note of the fact that it’s been twenty years since Harold Bloom wrote his big, controversial book The Western Canon, a little anniversary that had completely slipped my mind. To honor the occasion, the NYTBR enlisted two of our sharpest public thinkers, Pankaj Mishra and Daniel Mendelsohn, to reflect briefly on the book.

harold bloomThose brief reflections are fairly disappointingly facile, but then, they each had only a hundred words or so, and it’s just one old book, and Bloom is a figure nearly all agree it’s safe to mock, however gently. He was already decidedly eccentric in 1994, and in the twenty years since he’s become almost pathetic, the first mourner at a funeral without a corpse. If one of Lionel Trilling’s bore-fests were having an anniversary, Mishra and Mendelsohn would probably have been given more space to work with.

They might also have been less facile. As it is, they quickly pat The Western Canon politely on the head and send it off to bed. They agree that Bloom’s book is now thoroughly outdated, a curio of an earlier era. Mishra calls it “quaint”:

But it is Bloom’s complaints about the “Balkanization of literary studies” by the “academic rabble” that make a book like his seem very quaint in 2014. Aesthetic connoisseurship in the gardens of the West today is menaced not so much by resentful feminists as by the hard-nosed accountants of an insecure commercial society – had allowed a few men to use their solitude to revive and deepen a fantasy of Western civilization.

Bloom’s book shot to prominence twenty years ago for its hopeless attempt at a rear-guard action against the tides of political correctness that had been swamping college campuses for nearly ten years. He listed a vital canon of a couple-dozen great authors and deprecated the specialized “schools of resentment” that had taken over the English departments of colleges and universities all over the West, and he was attacked immediately for promulgating the “dead white male” literary hegemony and unjustly dismissing all later accretions. Pundits and literary critics leapt at such an easy target, and the whole subject was debated everywhere, but Mishra and Mendelsohn are agreement that time has moved on. Here’s Mendelsohn:

Published at the height of the culture wars, the book ardently defended the idea of works whose aesthetic value was self-evident from what Bloom dismissed as “the school of resentment” – the feminist, deconstructionist and Marxist critics for whom a rigid curriculum of “Great Books” was anathema. To Bloom’s nemeses, the canon was merely a redoubt of white, male, imperialist values: a culture Stonehenge, as the Oxford literary critic Terry Eagleton put it, best curated by the National Trust.

“What’s interesting today” Mendelsohn goes on, “is how dated this controversy can seem.”

To put it mildly, I find this kind of complacency mystifying, but maybe timing explains it. Pankaj Mishra was about 23 in 1994, still a book reviewer in India, and Mendelsohn was 34, just getting his Ph.D. In other words, by the time either one of them was reading Bloom’s book for the first time, the Balkanization Bloom was warning his readers about had already taken place, and it had happened pretty much exactly as he’d feared. Mishra and Mendelsohn entered their adult careers after the cataclysmic earthquakes Bloom worried about had almost completely re-shaped the landscape.

It’s a sentence I’m galled to write and one I couldn’t write in any other context, but in this circumstance only, Harold Bloom was right.

The fear animating The Western Canon, the fear that made it so easily mockable (and so easily misunderstandable that even two very perceptive readers can miss it), wasn’t that Bloom’s little list of two dozen specific authors would be displaced by newer authors – contrary to the dramatic effect he often goes for, Bloom is a relentlessly exploratory reader, still very much in constant pursuit of astonishment. The fear at the back of The Western Canon isn’t that Bloom’s venerated authors will be shoved aside but that the whole idea of veneration itself will be shoved aside. His idea of ‘Balkanization’ wasn’t ‘there goes the neighborhood’ but rather ‘who needs the whole idea of a neighborhood?’ His stance twenty years ago was quickly jeered as an old white academic desperately seeking to protect the pre-eminence of the stale old line-up of dead white men who’d have been immediately recognizable to old white academics two hundred years before. But really Bloom was lamenting the fact that he saw as inevitable the shouting-down of all notions of quality by various splinter-schools of identity. What he feared was a curriculum model that no longer assumed the primacy of any work or type of work over any other – and he was right to fear that.

He was right to fear it for two reasons. The first reason is that it was a true pre-sentiment: this exact thing has indeed happened across the entire swath of academia. At Bloom’s own Yale, freshmen can opt for such goodies as “Literary Humor,” “Doppelgangers,” and “Terror, Horror, and the Literary Imagination.” At Harvard, there are options like “The Brontes,” “Consciousness in Fiction,” and “American Poetry in the Online Environment.” And at Princeton, the standard dead-white-guy “Introduction to English Literature” is sandwiched between such things as “Black Popular Music Culture,” Latina/o Performance,” and “Introduction to Asian American Studies – ‘Too Cute!’ and the New Asiamania.”

And the far more important reason Bloom was right to fear this model isn’t its mere appearance but its devastating Procrustean quality. Even those few scattered requirednyt bookreview undergraduate courses that still have the quaint old-fashioned stubbornness to include figures like Defoe or Wordsworth will absolutely never any longer assert that Defoe and Wordsworth are better than anybody else at what they do. In the new world of these curricula, the 18th century broadside-freelancer Elisabeth Wratton is studied alongside Thomas Paine, but a student even so much as hinting that Paine is the more talented writer will be immediately expelled as unteachable; a teacher who said the simple line “William Shakespeare is a more powerful dramatist than Aphra Behn” will be not only fired but sued. In this new world, all assessments of relative quality are now ruthless impositions of false hierarchies. This is the definition of Balkanization.

Mishra giggles that the carefully-curated gardens of the Western canon aren’t threatened by resentful feminists so much as by hard-nosed accountants of an insecure commercial society, but he’s dead wrong: the resentful feminists – and every other kind of ist – are the hard-nosed accountants. They police the new and flatter landscape they created, watching always for the assertion of ‘quaint’ old hierarchies, anything to challenge their relentless, joyless assertions of selfhood. They not only have no interest in Bloom’s Western canon, they actively scorn it – they proudly name their Facebook friends and drinking buddies as artistic figures more worthy of their study than St. Augustine or Victor Hugo, and they’re no longer laughed at when they do it.

Twenty years ago, quaint old Harold Bloom had the old-fashioned nerve to worry out loud that the Western canon that had shaped cultures and produced incalculable beauty was in danger. He worried out loud that the splinter-groups he so provokingly called “the schools of resentment” would succeed – through lawsuits and protests and noisemaking – in destroying the idea of the canon itself. And he asserted that the loss of that idea would be a very, very bad thing.

The average college-level undergraduate English major has not only never read John Milton but actively mocks the idea of doing so. If you press him, he’ll assert not only that there’s no qualitative difference between John Milton and the late Bill Knott but also that any claim there is represents faulty critical thinking. And he’ll assert that because he’s been taught to assert it, by teachers who’ll get swamped with negative student evaluations if they don’t teach it.

Yes, it’s been twenty years since Bloom’s doomsaying. But it sure as hell wasn’t quaint.




















March 18th, 2014

The Kings of Vain Intent!

KingsofVainIntentOur book today is the lusty 1970 historical novel The Kings Of Vain Intent by Graham Shelby, a mid-20th century hack book reviewer who struck historical novel gold with his book The Knights of Dark Renown, the prequel to this present book. Shelby is a largely artless writer, but he knows full well the visceral heart of the story he’s telling, the violent and bloody story of the Third Crusade, and he spares no effort to make his readers feel it all:

Men-at-arms and crossbowmen lept aside as the horsemen thundered toward the surviving Mamlukes. The riders heard shouts from their left, “La ilaha il Allah! There is no God but Allah!” Then ostrich-feathered arrows and cane spears rained down on them. They had been met unexpectedly by Takedin’s contingent and the garrison from Acre. As horses plunged and fell, causing havoc among the tightly-grouped knights, the iron-tipped missiles were replaced by bladders of Greek Fire. The acrid stench of burning flesh mingled with the stirred dust, while hardened Crusaders gagged at the sight of men and horses wrapped in a cloak of flame. Animals collided, splashing the ghastly liquid; riders threw themselves from the saddle in a frenzied effort to avoid contact with their burning comrades.

His King Richard I is an entirely un-nuanced character, a violent hothead who scarcely ever troubles to control himself. When he’s outraged, for instance, by the French king’s emissary William des Barres, he immediately offers simply to brawl about it – a childish suggestion that promptly fills des Barres with scorn:

William snapped, “I’m not out here to wrestle …” but got no further, for the furious, heavily-built king collided with him and seized him ‘round the neck.

By now the onlookers were too embarrassed to laugh. Here was Richard Coeur-de-Lion, the greatest general and strategist in the West – time would tell if lucy reading the kings of vain intenthe was even better than Saladin – and here was William des Barres, a paramount warrior and one of Philip’s military advisers. Here they were, these giants, reduced to grappling like peasants on a greased log. It was degrading, and it was Richard’s doing.

Had the king released William without further ado, the nobles would have put it down to his hot temper. Had he then apologized, it would have been forgotten. But Richard was Richard, and he hung on.

The Kings of Vain Intent is one-dimensional chewing-gum entertainment, especially compared with fantastic modern renditions of the character from masters of the form like Thorvald Steen or the mighty Sharon Kay Penman. In fact, the book represents fairly accurately the depths to which historical fiction had sunk (always excepting standout figures like the great Alfred Duggan and the sublime Mary Renault) in the decades prior to the 1980s. But even so, you can hardly go wrong with England’s legendary warrior-king: there’s plenty of entertainment here.

March 17th, 2014

Mystery Monday: Red Dragon!

red dragon coverOur book today is Thomas Harris’s ultra-famous 1981 novel Red Dragon, the perfect shard of falling crystal that triggered an avalanche of such proportions that most novelists don’t even dare to dream that anything like it will happen to them. The book was a moderate seller for Bantam in its modest original printing despite near-universal praise from the ranks of hack-punditry, everybody from Stephen King to the happy-go-lucky crew of the dear old inebriates at Saturday Review.

The book tells the popular inversion of the ‘whodunit’ formula commonly known as the ‘howcatchem,’ in which the reader is in on the chain of causation right from the beginning and the point of the proceedings is to watch how the good guys catch the bad guys. The good guys here are gruff FBI chief Jack Crawford and the reluctant specialist he calls in for a particularly gruesome string of serial killings – a former operative named Will Graham, who shot to fame for helping Crawford catch some of the few serial killers ever stopped … including a cannibalistic psychiatrist named Hannibal Lecter. And the bad guy in Red Dragon is a gigantic psychotic named Francis Dolarhyde, who believes he needs to slaughter families in order to further his transformation into something more than human. Jack Crawford believes his best chance for catching Francis Dolarhyde before he kills again is to employ the weird ability of Will Graham to synch his thoughts with people around him.

The weird abilities possessed by fictional sleuths seldom bring them happiness, and Will Graham is no exception. The very least that his talent causes him is a kind of oily embarrassment:

Graham had a lot of trouble with taste. Often his thoughts were not tasty. There were no effective partitions in his mind. What he saw and learned touched everything else he knew. Some of the combinations were hard to live with. But he could not anticipate them, could not block and repress. His learned values of decency and propriety tagged along, shocked at this associations, appalled at his dreams; sorry that in the bone arena of his skull there were no forts for what he loved. His associations came at the speed of light. His value judgments were at the pace of a responsive reading. They could never keep up and direct his thinking.

When Crawford is talking with a consulting expert on the subject, Graham’s weird talents take on a slightly more sinister cast:

“One thing I’ve noticed – I’m curious about this: you’re never alone in a room with Graham, are you? You’re smooth about it, but you’re never one-on-one with him. Why’s that? Do you think he’s psychic, is that it?”

“No. He’s an eideteker – he has a remarkable visual memory – but I don’t think he’s psychic. He wouldn’t let Duke test him – that doesn’t mean anything, though. He hates to be prodded and poked. So do I … What he has in addition is pure empathy and projection. He can assume your point of view, or mine – and maybe other points of view that scare and sicken him. It’s an uncomfortable tool, Jack. Perception’s a tool that’s pointed on both ends.”

In order to sharpen his talent (which has dulled during his idyllic recuperation in the Florida Keys, an earthly paradise well sufficient to dull just about any talent nature ever shaped), Will Graham goes to prison to talk with Hannibal Lecter, and in those quick scenes, the heart of that enormous avalanche is born. Harris portrays Lecter as an eloquent and artistic individual, witty, insightful – a serial killer in a jumpsuit, but the antithesis of Charles Manson – and the scenes are amazingly effective.

Even more so a few years later in director Michael Mann’s surreally visionary adaptation of Red Dragon called Manhunter, in which the part of Hannibal Lecter is played in a deceptively fast scene by British actor Brian Cox (a scene whose magnetic effectiveness was first pointed out to me by Open Letters film critic Locke Peterseim).

There was something about the character, something that drew Harris to re-visit Hannibal Lecter in his next book, 1988’s The Silence of the Lambs and give him a much more prominent role. Every intelligent critic in the known universe praised the crystalline, pitch-perfect prose of the book, but such praises felt distinctly beside the point lucy reading red dragononce Jonathan Demme’s 1991 adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs hit theaters and introduced the world to Anthony Hopkins’ rendition of Hannibal Lecter. It was a landscape-flattening performance, and it made Harris’s character far, far more than a fictional bit-player. Millions of people who would never dream of reading a book will recognize at sight the famous mask-and-straightjacket get-up designed to neutralize Lecter during his interactions with potential dinners. Hopkins reprised the role, ten-pack-a-day young French actor Gaspard Ulliel played the character as a young man, and Mads Mikkelsen, in the ongoing TV series Hannibal, is crafting episode-by-episode a completely beguiling elaboration of Lecter subtly unlike anything in any previous book or movie.

Professionally underrated and almost preposterously attractive British actor Hugh Dancy plays Will Graham on the TV series, but his fine, nuanced performance is of course invisible, trampled underneath the Hannibal Lecter juggernaut, and that’s a shame. It’s a shame that can be rectified just a bit by re-reading Red Dragon, which is very much Will Graham’s book. It’s also a bravura performance by Thomas Harris, a hundred yards more expertly crafted than his previous book Black Sunday. In fact, all those famous movies actually serve to demonstrate how effective Red Dragon is – because the book is still gigantically compelling to read despite how familiar its contents are to so many of the people who might encounter it for the first time. If you’re one of those people, I highly recommend reading the book – there’s plenty of worthy stuff here that no film has yet captured.

March 17th, 2014

Celebrity Ashtrays in the Penny Press!


I vaguely understand the value of the celebrity endorsement, the eye-catching strategy of linking stars to products, but I swear, if I live to be thirty I’ll never understand the pursuit of that strategy in open contradiction of its own meaning. Yes, of course if you’re a health magazine, you’d want to find some nice attractive young celebrity to adorn your cover and give your photographers fifteen minutes out of their day, but even so, this latest double-feature from Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness caught me off guard. I mean, these two magazines are allegedly devoted to promoting, well, health and fitness … and yet the latest issues of both feature two Hollywood stars who couldn’t care less about health and only simulate fitness when they’re in training for a movie.

mens healthMen’s Health is fractionally the less irritating of the two, since it’s mild enough to be the less hypocritical of the two. Its cover-boy, Twilight star Kellan Lutz (whose Hercules movie sank like a stone but whose upcoming Tarzan movie may fare better) is on the cover fully clothed in T-shirt and jeans, and he’s slightly hunched over with his hands jammed in his pants pockets. The three inside shots (by Patrik Giardino) feature the actor – not exactly MENSA material, but a friend to dogs – either standing around visibly hung over or else caught in the split instant of doing a trick pushup, and some of the quotes in the accompanying article by David Morton are precious: “I had a full-body scan,” Lutz mentions at one point, “and it turns out I have dense bones.” Hee.

And then there’s the closest the piece skirts to noticing the elephant in the room:

If you’re not a natural in water, don’t force it. Likewise, if your trainers rack up more mould than miles the road’s not for you. “I’m not a fan of running,” says Lutz. “I burn fat with bodyweight moves in between gym sets.”

The reason Lutz isn’t a fan of running is because he smokes two packs of cigarettes a day. The ‘bodyweight’ moves he does between klthe entirely anaerobic gym sets he (and all other tobacco addicts) prefer are carefully chosen to avoid triggering the kind of heaving body-wracking cough-sessions that will seize a tobacco addict if they try to act like a normal person.

All of which, despite being a moral failure of the first water, is at least Lutz’s choice (all young tobacco addicts make the decision with their eyes completely open – there’s no ‘may’ in the modern equations, it’s “will” instead – smoking “will” cause lung and heart disease, you “will” die – soon and in agony – if you consume this product). What mystifies me is the decision of Men’s Health to put this guy on its cover when there are plenty of sports-world celebrities who actually are devoted to men’s health, rather than its complete opposite.

men's fitnessAnd of course far, far worse was the decision of the folks at Men’s Fitness to put Ashton Kutcher on their latest cover. Kutcher is shot against the exact same background as Lutz was, wearing the exact same clothes, in the exact same position: vaguely hunched, hands jammed in pants pockets, looking annoyed rather than energetic. And the inside article, by David Katz, is every bit as engagingly written as the Lutz piece – but instead of tactical omissions, it’s full of outright lies. It has to be: Kutcher is ten years older than Lutz and has been smoking five packs a day since he was 16 years old. Where Lutz feels a fuzzy hitch in his lungs if he tries to engage in aerobic exercise, Kutcher is now as incapable of such exercise as a 90-year-old emphysema patient would be. Where Lutz occasionally hawks up phlegm, Kutcher spends thirty minutes every morning blasting long green slabs of thick lung-matter into the nearest sink. Where Lutz lit up in the natural pauses between angles in his photo-shoot, Kutcher’s photo-shoot was entirely arranged around his addiction in order to take advantage of the tiny windows of time he can go without smoking. Katz mentions that Kutcher enjoys jiu-jitsu and hilariously works out on “his” home gym equipment

Kutcher first discovered jiu-jitsu while shooting an ad campaign for the fashion brand Colcci in Sao Paulo, Brazil, a few akyears ago, when one of his local security guys suggested it as an alternative to the actor’s morning run.

… which is the equivalent of a freelancer offhandedly mentioning former president George W. Bush’s “morning Latin studies.” Kutcher doesn’t need an alternative to his morning run, since he hasn’t been capable of running in years; and his ‘discovery’ of jiu-jitsu extends only to the few photos in this issue, in all of which his handsome face is wearing the vaguely panicked expression all tobacco addicts display when the minor physical exertions they’re forcing themselves to do make them wonder if they’re going to have a heart attack right there on the spot. The eyebrows peak; the mouth puckers; the skin turns slightly purple (hence the fact that these Men’s Fitness shots are all in black-and-white). Hollywood is admittedly a tougher venue to trawl for a young male star dedicated to fitness, but even in a generation of young stars absolutely dedicated to smoking, Kutcher (and Johnny Depp, who’s probably slated for next issue) stands out as the complete opposite of what the magazine purports to promote. A fitness-destroying addiction is a huge part of his existence – surely there was somebody else available?

At least Katz drops the whole jiu-jitsu nonsense for most of his article and instead focuses on Kutcher the tech-mogul. God help us all.

March 11th, 2014

Penguins on Parade: The Crusades!

penguin colophon

Some Penguin Classics achieve a new relevance for the worst of reasons, and surely the head of that list is this venerable volume from 1963, Chronicles of the Crusades, featuring M. R. B. Shaw’s piously serviceable translation of Geoffroy De Villehardouin’s The Conquest of Constantinople and Jean de Joinville’s Life of Saint Louis, two penguin crusadesof our most vivid Western sources to emerge from the centuries-long pitched conflict between Christians and Moslems in the Middle Ages – a pitched combat that has never really stopped for any significant length of time since Joinville’s day and that has always tried to cloak itself in a rhetoric elevated enough to avoid mentioning how neatly the so-called Holy Land sits athwart almost all major land and sea trade routes between the West and the hinterlands of the Orient. Instead, the rhetoric employed by brutes like de Villehardouin (a powerful nobleman of Champagne who “took the cross” on the Fourth Crusade) is always about liberating the Holy Land from the ravening Turk – although even in his dutiful account, the truth has a way of slipping out, as in the moment when the French delegation puts the case to wily Venetian Doge and his deep-pocketed counsellors and gets a satisfyingly fervent reaction:

By wish and consent of his companions Geoffroy de Villehardouin explained their errand. ‘Sirs,’ he said, ‘the noblest and most powerful barons of France have sent us to you. They earnestly appeal to you to take pity on Jerusalem, now in bondage to the Turks, and implore you, in God’s name, to be so good as to join with them in avenging the insult offered to our Lord. They have chosen to come to you because they know that no other people have such great power on the sea as you yourselves. They have, moreover, commanded us to kneel at your feet and not to rise till you consent to take pity on the Holy Land oversea.’

Thereupon the six envoys, in floods of tears, knelt at the feet of the assembled people. The Doge and all the other Venetians present also burst out weeping, and holding up their hand towards heaven, cried out with one accord: ‘We consent! We consent!’ There was such an uproar and such a tumult that you might have thought the whole world was crumbling to pieces.

Joinville, also a powerful nobleman of Champagne, shares plenty of equally tell-tale moments in his The Life of Saint Louis, much of which is set during the Seventh Crusade. And much like his predecessor, Joinville is excellent at dramatic scene-setting take just one scene from the description of a battle just down-stream from Cairo:

The next to meet the enemy’s onset was Brother Guillaume de Sennac, Master of the Temple, with the few members of his Order left to him after the battle on Shrove Tuesday. He had had a barricade erected in front of his men made up of the machines we had taken from the Saracens. When the enemy came up to attack him they hurled Greek fire at the defences he had put up; these caught fire quickly, for the Templars had used a great quantity of deal planks in building them. The Turks, I must say, did not wait for the fire to burn itself out, but rushed in and attacked the Templars amid the flames. In his engagement the Master of the Temple lost an eye; he had lost the other on Shrove Tuesday. This accident resulted in his death – may God grant him mercy! Behind the Templars there was a tract of land, about as large as a labourer could till in a day, which was so thickly covered with Saracens’ darts that you could not see the ground beneath them.

All the Crusades-literature talking points are there, neatly lined up: the disfiguring heroism, the flying arrows, the Greek Fire, the Knights Templar, the homesick lucy reading jonvilleallusions to wool-clad day-laborers, and if a more jaundiced age sees a greater equivalence between that “may God grant him mercy” and “peace be upon him,” well, that’s not Joinville’s fault. Just as Margaret Shaw, doing her work in a time of fairly optimistic Church reform, can perhaps not be faulted too much for the mantle of tolerant moral equivocation she drapes over her church-burning baby-spiking authors – pious men like the Marshal:

A man of firm religious principles, Villehardouin’s duty to God, as he sees it, is to serve Him faithfully and devotedly as a good vassal serves his lord; and above and beyond all this to recognize all events, whether as indications of God’s pleasure or displeasure, are ordered by His will. Loyalty to God, moreover, entails complete integrity of conduct: all breaches of faith, all underhand dealings and acts of treachery, all covetousness and self-seeking, are not only contrary to the knightly code but violations of divine law. If the God Villehardouin serves is the ‘God of Battles’, if he accepts without question the legate’s sanction of war against Greek Christians as just and holy, though we may regret the little place that love and mercy have in his religion, we cannot doubt the sincerity of his faith.

But wherever we stand on the tired old subject, it’s possible, re-reading these gripping, bitterly contemporary accounts, to wonder if the entire region they discuss hasn’t had more sincerity of faith than is good for it.

March 10th, 2014

Mystery Monday: Judge Dee – Poets and Murder!

mystery monday logo

Our book today is Poets and Murder, the last of Robert Van Gulik’s mysteries starring the redoubtable (and semi-mythical) 7th-century Chinese magistrate Judge Dee. It’s a series famously born in a bookstore – a used bookshop in Tokyo where Van Gulik found an old Chinese manuscript containing some adventures of the Dee character. Van Gulik’s touching-up and translation of the old book came out in 1949 under the title Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, and it immediately attracted the interest of a small but very discriminating coterie of readers who clamored for more. poets and murderVan Gulik, who in addition to all his far more esoteric accomplishments was also a thousand-word-a-day hack of the first water, was only too happy to oblige: over the next twenty years, he produced (and charmingly illustrated) a dozen Judge Dee novels and another dozen short stories, all set in the world he’d found in the Celebrated Cases.

These novels were already extremely popular among the aforementioned discriminating coterie long before I first encountered them in the mid-1990s in the beautiful uniform blockish white paperbacks put out by the University of Chicago Press (originally individually shrink-wrapped in plastic) and couldn’t read through them all fast enough.

This is one of the things I’ve always loved most about murder mysteries: they’re just as concerned as mainstream literary fiction to transport the reader to a strange and often exotic setting, but they’re not precious or high-handed about it: we’re transported to Paris, yes, but right to the stews and precinct houses, not exclusively to the Senate House of ancient Rome but also to the back alleys of the Subura. Murder is the staple of the murder mystery, after all, and murder brings people – victims, suspects, investigators, readers – right down to the ground of first causes. It’s true that the China of the original Judge Dee manuscript was a kind of fantasy-amalgam of ‘olden days,’ and it’s true that Van Gulik whimsically kept that tone for most of his own Judge Dee mysteries, but he couldn’t help himself: he also worked in lots of accurate details about Dee’s world.

The world of Poets and Murder (published, if I recall correctly, after its author’s death) is doubly rarefied: not only is Judge Dee not in his own home district of Poo-yang but rather in the neighboring district of Chin-hwa (bailiwick of his friend and colleague Magistrate Lo), but he’s there to attend the Mid-Autumn Festival along with a distinguished group of poets and composers – a mighty esoteric company for the shrewd but down-to-earth Judge Dee.

Once installed in Lo’s residence, Dee is free to enjoy the festivities – for the approximately three seconds before murder and mayhem come looking for him, as they always do. It’s long enough for him to walk around Lo’s compound and give Van Gulik some opportunities for the exposition he adds so smoothly:

Walking along the broad corridor of the chancery facing Lo’s residence, Judge Dee bestowed a casual look upon the dozen or so clerks who were busily wielding their writing-brushes at high desks, piled with dossiers and papers. Since the tribunal is the administrative centre of the entire district, it is not only the seat of criminal jurisdiction but also the registration office of births, marriages and deaths, and of sales and purchases of landed property; moreover, the tribunal is responsible for the collection of taxes, including land tax.

But such peaceful observations don’t last long – soon a student at the festival is murdered, and shortly after that Judge Dee is consoling his friend Lo in wonderfully typical stoic fashion:

“It can hardly be as bad as all that,” he said soothingly. “It’s never pleasant to have a murder in your own residence, of course, but such things happen.”

The festival provides a ready-made assortment of eccentric suspects, from a sultry poet with secrets of her own to the book’s most arresting character,lucy reads judge dee Sexton Loo, an outspoken Zen monk who irately defends the region’s idiosyncratic ancient shrine to Dee:

“Why shouldn’t Magistrate Lo maintain a fox shrine, pray?” the sexton asked belligerently. “Foxes are an integral part of universal life, Dee. Their world is as important or unimportant as ours. And just as there exist special affinities between two human beings, so some human beings are linked to a special animal. Don’t forget that the signs of the zodiac that influence our destinies consist of animals, Judge!”

“I consider human justice a paltry makeshift, and I shan’t lift a finger to catch a murderer!” Sexton Loo tells our hero at one point. “Murderers catch themselves. Run around in circles even narrower than those of others. Never escape.”

But where would mystery novels be if murderers really did catch themselves? The prospect is, as our hero would say, too dismaying to contemplate! Instead, for the genre’s sake – and for the happiness of that discriminating coterie (which I urge you to join) – it’s a good thing that Judge Dee is on the case.


March 8th, 2014

Penguins on Parade: Clark Ashton Smith!


Some Penguin Classics will feel like a very long time coming, especially to their fervent adherents. When it comes to the work of pioneering 20th century fantasist Clark Ashton Smith, surely one of those fervent adherents is S. T. Joshi, the editor behind the Penguin Classics editions of H. P. Lovecraft, who in the early years of the 20th century joined a small but intense chorus of admirers who considered the shy, retiring Smith to be a literary genius. This new Penguin Classic volume, The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies, edited and exhaustively annotated by Joshi, brings together an excellent collection of Smith’s fantasy stories, prose poems, and poetry and, under the revered Penguin banner, readers are invited to re-examine all this work, most of which Smith produced in industrious bursts in order to stave off bill collectors.

penguin clark ashton smith coverSmith was born in California in 1893 and grew up in the Sierra foothills in a book-friendly household but, due to recurring health problems, only sporadically formally educated. He read voraciously, including the fiction and verse of Edgar Allen Poe, the Edward FitzGerald translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and, more tellingly, the fantasy verse of San Francisco poet George Sterling, whose 1907 poem “A Wine of Wizardry” helped to set the vocabulary for an entire genre. Smith himself expressed his own art first in long works of verse, but the care he undertook of his aging parents imposed financial obligations that couldn’t be met by publishing slender volumes of poetry.

He turned to prose, and to the booming pulp marketplace fed by publications like Farnsworth Wright’s Weird Tales and Hugo Gernsback’s Wonder Stories, submitting story after story in pursuit of the paltry sums they might bring in (when his editors paid him on time, that is). “The sad fact,” Joshi writes in his generous Introduction, “is that his two ailing parents required more and more care on Smith’s part, and he was compelled to generate – and, more significantly, sell – fiction at a brisk pace in order to support his family.”

Regardless of his poetic disposition, Clark Ashton Smith, when faced with his filial duty, buckled down to earn money in the only reliable way he knew. And although the often brutal and sometimes sweeping edits he got back from the hard-headed men running the pulps outraged his friends, Smith accepted those edits like a lamb, placating editors by making the changes they demanded and placating his friends and supporters by assuring them that he’d restore his stories to their original forms someday down the road, when he collected them all into books (and it’s interesting to notice even from the brief quotations Joshi gives of Smith’s letters, it’s clear that he often found himself agreeing with the directives of his editors).

Smith lived until 1961 – long enough, in other words, to have enjoyed a much greater extent of personal and financial freedom than he did during the pulp era – and yet he virtually never actually got around to authorizing those definitive unexpurgated versions of his work. So Joshi’s labors sifting through caches of Clark Ashton Smith papers in such places as the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkley and Brown University’s John Hay Library are all the more to be commended, and his comprehensive sympathies for his author make his prose on Smith’s world and work all the more enjoyable:

Smith’s cultivation of a prose and poetic idiom of richness, depths, and luxuriance – reminiscent of Sir Thomas Browne, Thomas De Quincey, Oscar Wilde, Lafadio Hearn, Lord Dunsany, and others – was avowed and deliberate, as he wrote to Lovecraft: “My own conscious ideal has been to delude the reader into accepting an impossibility, or series of impossibilities, by means of a sort of verbal black magic, and in the achievement of which I make use of prose-rhythm, metaphor, simile, tone-color, counter-point, and other stylistic resources, like a sort of incantation.” Such a style may not have been in favor in the heyday of Hemingway, but a more expansive understanding of the effectiveness of prose for the purposes for which it is designed may help us to appreciate Smith’s idiom as an essential element in the exotic fantasy he was seeking to create. His devotion to “lands forgotten and unfound” was unremitting, and out of his unbridled imagination he created realms of beauty and terror that have permanently enriched the literature of fantasy.

It’s even forgivable when Joshi’s enthusiasm carries him away – as in that excerpt, where not only is there not a peep of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s name among Smith’s possible influences but also we get that bit about “unbridled imagination” when Joshi’s own Introductory essay makes it clear that Smith during the period of these stories had plenty of bridles on his imagination. And the bridled bits might end up being the best we’ll ever get; in the priceless annotations Joshi appends to each story, he often reports the depressing fact that the only manuscripts we still have for many of these stories are the doctored, heavily customized versions finalized for Weird Tales and the like. Most of what we find in The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies are the compromises Clark Ashton Smith made with lesser visionaries who had fiction budgets.

Which makes it all the more remarkable how great so many of them are. Joshi hasn’t just been an indefatigable editor here; he’s also been an extremely sensitive one. He’s picked Smith’s best work here in the three styles represented, including prose poems like “The Flower-Devil” and “From the Crypts of Memory,” short stories like “The Holiness of Azedarac,” “Mother of Toads,” and “The Maze of the Enchanter,” and over three dozen poems. It’s as generous and discerning an assemblage of Smith’s lucy reading clark ashton smithwork as any single volume has yet offered; readers who are unfamiliar with Clark’s work will be, as it were, enchanted.

Certainly many of the short stories display Clark’s conscious efforts to mimic the voice of his era’s commercial wonder-fiction, from Lord Dunsany to Jack London – and, as in the case of the great 1931 story “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” (about a doomed expedition on Mars), where narrator Rodney Severn forlornly tells his story:

I shall contrive to tell the story; since there is no one else to do it. But the telling will be toilsome and broken; and after I am done, the madness will recur, and several men will restrain me, lest I should leave the hospital and return across many desert leagues to those abominable vaults beneath the compulsion of the malignant and malevolent virus which is permeating my brain.

Almost every one of these stories brims with professional skill, and it’s tremendously enheartening how many of them still retain the ability to captivate. All praise is due to S. T. Joshi for crafting this volume, and praise to the editors at Penguin for adding Clark Ashton Smith to the Classics line. Science fiction and fantasy readers who’ve encountered Smith’s stories in various anthologies over the last few decades might be especially pleased at the inclusion here of so much of Smith’s poetry, which has been harder to find – and which is, some of it, as evocative as fantasy-verse gets, as in “The Star-Treader”:


Where colored suns of systems triplicate

Bestow on planets weird, ineffable,

Green light that orbs them like an outer sea,

And large auroral noons that alternate

With skies like sunset held without ablate,

Life’s touch renewed incomprehensibly

The strains of mirth and grief’s harmonious spell.

Dead passions like to stars relit

Shone in the gloom of ways forgot;

Where crownless gods in darkness sit

The day was full on altars hot.