The amateur sleuth mystery offers a pleasure not available in private eye novels, police procedurals, and legal thrillers. In all of them, the sleuth's job is to investigate crime. The amateur sleuth has some other occupation.
Agatha Christie's Miss Marple does what elderly spinsters in English villages do: gardening, charity work, and so on. To our surprise this life has given her a dark view of human nature that enables her to solve crimes.
In the decades since Christie launched the genre, readers have enjoyed stories of crimes solved by clergymen, anthropologists, nurses, flight attendants, herbalists, jockeys . . . anything you can think of really. In each instance the sleuth's specialized knowledge proves critical to answering the question "Whodunnit?'
Teachers and scholars are well-represented in the genre, most famously by Jessica Fletcher of Murder, She Wrote, a retired English teacher who becomes a successful mystery writer. I had lots of good role models for creating Nicole Tang Noonan, art history professor.
I'm thrilled that some readers have written to say they enjoy learning from my novels about art history. In particular, some have commented on Nicole's discovery in Dark Mural, which is based on a discovery I published in Comparative Drama. If you look at the fourth article in the table of contents above, you'll see it's by Richard L. Homan.
If you want to know what the discovery is, you might find Dark Mural more entertaining than my scholarly article.
In Joyland, a narrator in his 60s tells about the year he turned twenty-one. It's a bitter-sweet story of innocence and experience made bearable by the knowledge that the young man obviously survived it all since he lived to tell the tale. It's full of the aches that come from foolish decisions and opportunities missed. As a guy in his 60s, I can relate.
It's tempting to think the narrator is Stephen King himself, especially when he reflects on his present circumstances, saying, "I make a pretty good living as a writer." That one made me laugh. But this is not a memoir. That becomes clear when the narrator clarifies that he is editor of an in-flight magazine.
Along with the ode to youth, there's a good murder mystery thrown in. Contrary to conventional wisdom it takes the main character a while to get around to asking whodunnit? He has other business to attend to first.
I didn't mind the delayed attention to solving the crime mostly because the genuine feel of a man telling his story was so engaging. In his book, On Writing, King stresses writing honestly about the world as you see it.
That narrator's voice makes Joyland a worthy reply to a line from a song that was popular in my youth. In "What Have They Done to My Song," the artist known as Melanie said, "Wish I could find a good book to live in." I kept coming back to Joyland, not for the suspense, but because it was a good place to live for a few days.
SPOILER ALERT: I will discuss one aspect of this very suspenseful book, leaving out as much detail as possible.
Stephen King’s The Outsider starts out as a heck of a murder mystery. He convinces us the murder suspect and the man who arrests him are bitter enemies and makes us care about both. We find ourselves pulling for both sides in a struggle for justice. This is a remarkable accomplishment.
In doing so, it seems to me, King demonstrates the power of focusing on situation rather than plot. This is an approach he describes in On Writing: a memoir of the craft. Rather than outlining, he suggests the writer develop a detailed description of the situation the characters are in at the beginning of the book.
As an example, he shows how a news story about a man getting out of prison can be turned into something more intriguing. What if it’s a woman getting out of prison? What if she escapes? What if her husband doesn’t know she has escaped?
Once the enhanced situation is in hand, King suggests the writer begin with what the main character would do to get out of a painful situation and then imagine what new obstacle the character would face as a result. The writer then repeats the process until the main issue set up at the beginning has been resolved.
Working this way lets the writer discover possibilities that are not obvious when developing a simple cause-and-effect outline. That’s what King has done in The Outsider. It is nothing like a routine police procedural.
This is as fine a piece of noir as you are likely to see. Four people check in at a motel in the mountains near Reno, Nevada. They and the desk clerk are the only people around, and none of them seems to have a good reason to be there.
From the start one asks, "What is going on here?" and throughout the movie the answer comes back, "Not what you think." I won't say anything else about what happens because I hope you will enjoy every revelation, large and small.
This movie fits Otto Penzler's definition of noir as well as anything I know: "The tone is generally bleak and nihilistic, with characters whose greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation lead them into a downward spiral as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry."
I've written several times in the "Reading" and "Writing" categories of this blog about Patricia Highsmith and Jim Thompson, giants of the noir tradition. Recently, I wrote about a short story by Cornell Woolrich, who, along with James M. Cain, invented American noir.
If you're not familiar with these earlier writers, you might know Gillian Flynn, whose Gone Girl exemplifies the tradition. As many have remarked, there's not a single likeable character in the book (or the movie version) .
It all sounds very grim, but for some reason I find this stuff entertaining, possibly because it is suspenseful and at its best includes humor. The Nicole Tang Noonan mysteries certainly are NOT noir. They have more in common with Agatha Christie. But I am working on a suspense novel that is noir. I hope to publish it sometime next year.
,I knew it would be fun to see Tea with the Dames (British title: Nothing Like a Dame), but I didn't know how much it would mean to me.
In this documentary film, four great actresses spend an afternoon talking about their lives and careers. They are: Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins, Maggie Smith, and Judi Dench.
It was fun because they and the actors, directors, and playwrights they worked with were the artists I learned about when I took courses in British drama in college and grad school. They were the artists we saw on stage when we visited London.
So it was wonderful to hear them swap backstage gossip and reflect upon the roles they played. It was intriguing to hear them talk about their friendships, rivalries, and husbands.
But the part that mean the most to me began when Eileen Atkins recalled riding to a theater for a performance and feeling so afraid she wanted to die in a crash rather than go on stage. In the conversation that followed, all the others spoke of feeling terrified every time they went on stage, or in front of a camera for a scene in a film or TV show.
These are the greatest British actresses of their generation, trained in some of the greatest theater schools in the world. If they could feel insecure about their work, I thought, no wonder I've been skittish about putting my first two books out for the world to see.
By the way, it helped that we could see the film in the Clay Theater (1910), a lovely old neighborhood movie house.
A few years back I went on a binge reading Cornell Woolrich. I can't remember exactly what got me started. Maybe it was noticing Alfred Hitchcock's classic film, Rear Window (1954), was based on a story by him.
I focused on reading his novels and was disappointed. For instance The Bride Wore Black is written in four parts, each part a complete story. The stories are linked (the bride goes from one adventure to the next), but I wasn't learning much about the structure of a novel.
Recently at the library I ran across a nice old collection of short stories entitled Ten Faces of Cornell Woolrich, edited by Ellery Queen (1965), and decided to give them a try. I've really enjoyed them and have learned a lot about what Woolrich is most famous for, suspense.
More than any writing I can think of, these stories make me want to know what happens next. They do it by saying, in effect, "He set out to do this. Then this happened." So now what will he do? And as soon as he works around the problem, something else happens or someone else shows up.
In some instances, a story almost becomes a technical exercise in multiplying twists and turns while remaining credible. "Steps Going Up" is one such, in my opinion. But mostly the stories also make us care about the protagonist, by making him an underdog, or by making her a righteous avenger. "The Man Upstairs," I think, is especially good in this regard.
Woolrich is also famous for inventing and adopting motifs that made him "the Poe of the twentieth century" according to his biographer, Francis M. Nevins: "the noir cop story, the clock race story, the waking nightmare, the oscillation thriller, the headlong through the night story, the annihilation story, the last hours story,"
So I have to conclude that, like Flannery O'Connor, his genius was for the short story. He was lucky to live through a time when that's where the money was.
SPOILER ALERT: this blog post gives a general indication of how the film ends.
I loved this movie, and I'm afraid it will be misunderstood.
It's a suspense flick with a story Alfred Hitchcock might have admired. A normal guy--actually gal, played by Anna Kendrick--crosses paths with the wrong person and gets in over her head. She has to investigate and ultimately do some double-crossing of her own to undo the villain and return to her good life.
We could be talking about Strangers on a Train or North by Northwest, only funnier.
It might be misunderstood because some critics are describing it as neo-noir, and it is not noir. It may have some things in common with classic noir novels and films, including a life-insurance scam. But the main character is not a loser ultimately done in by her own greed and stupidity.
So go and see it, and enjoy the chemistry between Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, and Henry Golding.
And don't confuse it with another movie that has a similar title, A Simple Plan. That one really is noir.
I just finished my third novel by Bill Crider, and I enjoyed it as much as the first two. This one features Sheriff Dan Rhodes.
Between 1986 and 2017, Crider wrote 25 novels about this character. Booked for a Hanging is the sixth, published in 1992. In his long career, Crider created four other series but wrote no more than five novels for any of them. Clearly Rhodes was the character he knew best.
Being a small-town sheriff, Rhodes has the same settled-in quality as Carl Burns, the English professor who solves the crime in Dead Soldiers. As he goes about his business, he's always conscious of being a member of the community.
Like Ted Stephens, the hero of Mississippi Vivian, Rhodes is a man of action. He'll fight if he has to. It's part of the job. But he's not "badass" the way Stephens is. After all, Stephens is a private investigator, and Rhodes is a law man.
In all three of these novels, Crider renders life in small Southern towns with imagination and authenticity. Crider himself was an English professor in a small town in Texas.
There are no stereotypes here. Every character is a wonderful blend of quirks. With each, I think, "I've never met anyone quite like that."
Crider's books weigh in at about 200 pages or a little more, just right so far as I'm concerned. I do not understand the current taste for crime novels upwards of 350 pages.
I think I'll be spending a lot of time with Sheriff Dan.
I tried another novel by Bill Crider and liked it even better than the first one I tried. This one is about Ted Stephens, a private investigator hired by an insurance company to look into fraudulent claims.
Mississippi Vivian has all the things I liked about Dead Soldiers---the transparent prose, the straight-ahead, logical plot---but the main character is quite different. Ted Stephens has a quality that is highly desirable, according to Matt Bird in his book, The Secrets of Story. Stephens is "badass."
By contrast, Carl Burns, the hero of Dead Soldiers, is humble and has a sense of humor about himself. This is appropriate for an English professor forced into service as an amateur sleuth on his campus.
Ultimately Carl Burns is just as heroic as Ted Stephens. He's willing match wits with reluctant witnesses and suspects, and he risks life and limb when the need arises. But he always seems surprised when he prevails, whereas Stephens sets his sights and gets it done.
By the way, Clyde Wilson, the other name on the book jacket, was a private investigator who apparently consulted on the writing of this novel. For Crider to name him as co-author was generous.
This was typical of Crider according to Susan C. Shea who had the pleasure of knowing him. When I spoke with her recently and mentioned I was reading Crider for the first time, she smiled, and said, "Oh, wonderful Bill."
A good writer and a good man. I'm sorry I didn't meet him before he passed in February.
I first heard of Bill Crider last April when I read his article on paperback originals. Since then I've seen his name mentioned several times, including, sadly, in his obituary. He died in February of this year.
Crider was one of those English teachers who also had a career writing popular fiction. Another, Jack M. Bickham, wrote some excellent how-to books for the aspiring novelist. And then there's Stephen King.
Upon learning he was a crime writer along with being a scholar of crime fiction, I decided to try Crider's novels. Though best known for his series about Sheriff Dan Rhodes, I chose one that features Carl Burns, an English professor at a small college in Texas.
Since I used to be a professor, and my forthcoming mystery series is about a professor, this seemed the best place to start.
After only a few pages, it was clear Crider's books have two qualities that make me stay with a book. First, the words don't get in the way of the story. The prose is transparent. I see through it and focus on what happens next without pausing to think about how the author uses language.
Second, the story goes in a straight line. There is no prologue. Chapter Two does not jump back weeks or months before Chapter One. Rather, each scene proceeds logically from the scene before it.
Also it helps that I share Crider's sense of humor about what odd ducks college professors are.
I've been reading a lot of Jim Thompson lately. Perhaps I should be worried. Most people I know say his books are too dark.
Which brings us to the subject of noir. In the 1930s the French word for black was used to describe black-and-white films in which there's more black on the screen than white. Since then noir has come to describe a type of story, as Otto Penzler explains in his Foreword to Best American Noir of the Century:
"Noir works, whether films, novels, or short stories are existential, pessimistic tales about people . . . who are seriously flawed and morally questionable. The tone is generally bleak and nihilistic, with characters whose greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation lead them into a downward spiral as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry."
Noir comes out of the early twentieth century, which also saw the rise of the social sciences: anthropology, psychology, sociology, political science, etc. These sciences said, "If you want to understand human beings, study their circumstances."
The early twentieth century also saw the rise of the naturalistic novel in which characters struggle with their circumstances as well as with each other. Jack London's stories aren't so much man against nature as man subject to nature. In The Jungle, Upton Sinclair writes about working conditions in the meat-packing industry. In Native Son, Richard Wright shows how crime grows out social conditions.
The naturalistic novel asks the reader, "How well would you fare in these circumstances?" I see noir as a sub-species in which the answer is, "Not very well." This prompts compassion.
A lot of people don't like the idea that we are a product of our circumstances, but to some degree we are. To think otherwise is false pride, the kind that goeth before a fall.
Thompson's books are noir but reading them does not depress me. I feel compassion for his characters.
Taking a break from crime fiction, I picked up Stephen King's Carrie, his first novel, the one that transformed him from an English teacher sending short stories to men's magazines into a novelist with a brilliant career ahead.
I missed Carrie and Brian de Palma's film version when they came out because in 1974 I was transforming myself from a graduate student into an assistant professor. The job market was brutal and I had no time for pop culture.
I really enjoyed Carrie. Mostly, I think, because King is writing about real people in real situations as he observed them (he describes this process in On Writing, pp. 77-82). I cared about the characters, what they did, and what happened to them.
I was also fascinated by his narrative technique. His use of scenes told in the third person from different characters' points of view is conventional, but he interrupts the flow of scenes with texts from reports written after the climactic event: an academic study, a memoir, news accounts, letters.
These parallel texts do many things: foreshadowing, backstory, commentary. They do lots of things that are often hard to write and hard to read when they come from the principal narrator. King wisely keeps each inserted text brief.
Another novel that does this brilliantly is Dracula by Bram Stoker, also of course a horror story. The first page describes the novel as a collection of documents. Later in the book one of the characters sits down to transcribe a collection of letters, telegrams, diary entries, and news reports and thus we learn how the novel we are reading came to be . . . supposedly.
Dashiell Hammett wrote five novels. In 1975 Picador published a paperback collection of Hammett's work entitled, The Four Great Novels. The Thin Man was not one of them. Perhaps the editors did not consider it great because the tone is light. Comedy always gets less respect than tragedy. Otherwise, in The Thin Man, the crime is as weighty, the puzzle is as perplexing, and the solution is as brilliant as in the other four.
And The Thin Man has something else in common with perhaps the greatest of Hammett's novels. About one-third of the way through The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade tells Brigid O'Shaughnessy about one of his past cases in which a Mrs. Flitcraft hired him to find her husband. The case has no apparent connection to the plot of the novel. Numerous critics have struggled to explain the presence of this story, which has come to be called the Flitcraft Parable. My favorite of these discussions is Jim Nelson's.
Similarly, In The Thin Man, also about one-third of the way through, Nick Charles gets out his copy of Celebrated Criminal Cases of America, and opens it to the entry on "Alfred G. Packer, the 'Maneater.'" He gives the book to Gilbert Wynant, a young man who wants to learn about investigating crimes, and who, for no apparent reason, has asked about cannibalism in the United States. Hammett inserts the full text of the article in the novel. It runs a bit longer than the Flitcraft Parable, about 1750 words.
So far I have not found any commentary about why Hammett included this seemingly irrelevant story in The Thin Man. If you are aware of any, please mention them in the comments below. At the very least, I think this article on Packer, should be considered alongside the Flitcraft Parable when trying to determine what Hammett was up to with these digressions.
Gold Medal was one of the publishers offering paperback originals in the 1950s. A Trio of Gold Medals from Stark House Press contains three short novels of that era. Reading them has been an eye-opener.
It's easy to see these authors were writing for the same market as Jim Thompson. The world in which their stories are set is dark. Law enforcement is corrupt. The hero is a criminal. Women are just as likely to be greedy and cruel as men. There's a lot of drinking.
And yet, these books were not as satisfying as Thompson's. I know from Robert Polito's biography of Thompson, Savage Art, that the first 30 years of his life were dark, violent, full of cruel desperate people, and there was a lot of drinking. When Thompson wrote a novel with those elements, he was writing about his life.
I don't know the backgrounds of these authors, but their books read as if they are writing about things they have only read about in other books. They write very well, but they seem to be telling someone else's story.
However, this is my first glimpse of the other paperback original authors, Stark House press has more than sixty of them on their list of crime writers, and some of them may be well worth reading alongside Thompson. The quest continues.
When a body is found in the library in the home of Colonel and Mrs Bantry, the investigation is initially conducted by Colonel Melchett, chief constable of the county and a personal friend of Colonel Bantry. The impression of the gentry investigating itself is confirmed when Melchett says things like, "Dash it all, I'm not suggesting you strangled the girl---not the sort of thing you'd do. I know that."
Melchett is accompanied by Inspector Slack, "an energetic man who belied his name and who accompanied his bustling manner with a good deal of disregard for the feelings of anyone he did not consider important." Throughout the novel Slack takes the investigation very seriously.
This combination---investigator chummy with the upper classes accompanied by an underling focused only on finding the truth---also occurs in "Gosford Park," Robert Altman's multi-award-winning film from 2001. And, since the name of Colonel Bantry's house in The Body in the Library is "Gossington Hall," this book would seem to be a source for the film.
There are other similarities. People from the film industry turn up as suspects in both, much to the disapproval of the gentry. And in the film, as in the book, the body is found in the library.
There are differences as well, chiefly in the treatment of English social classes. Altman's film startled viewers in 2001 by taking the servants as seriously as the aristocrats. Agatha Christie keeps the servants in their places.
Strictly speaking, Altman was not the first to give servants their due. "Upstairs, Downstairs" a British television series of the 1970s divided its time between upper and lower classes.
And Altman was not the last. More recently, "Downton Abbey" was a transatlantic hit. Watching "Gosford Park," it's hard to miss Maggie Smith in the role of a disapproving dowager if you were a fan of that series. And, if you look carefully in the credits of the film, you'll see a screenwriting credit for Julian Fellowes, creator of "Downton Abbey."