Saturday, January 10, 2004

Who cares whodunit? Read crime novels just for the fun of it

Sunday, May 11, 2003

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

"For years I have been hearing about detective stories. Almost everybody I know seems to read them, and they have long conversations about them in which I am unable to take part," wrote critic Edmund Wilson in 1944 in The New Yorker.

To bring himself up to speed, he decided that he "ought to take a look at some specimens of this kind of fiction which has grown so tremendously popular and which is now being produced on such a scale that the book departments of magazines have had to employ special editors to cope with it."

His findings raised such a stink (and this was during World War II) that they drew responses from no less than Jacques Barzun, Somerset Maugham, Raymond Chandler, Joseph Wood Krutch and Bernard DeVoto.

Clearly, "Bunny," as his friends called him, was not a fan.

His conclusion about detective stories was that they are "simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmlessness, ranks somewhere between smoking and crossword puzzles."

People don't smoke as much as they did in the 1940s, but the popularity of the mystery just goes on. I know this firsthand from the unbroken stream of them flowing month after month into the office.

Up to my knees in crime, I decided to retrace Bunny's steps to deal with four highly touted titles by using his comments as a map.

"No Second Chance" By Harlen Coben. Dutton ($24.95)

"Lost Light" By Michael Connelly. Little, Brown ($25.95)

"Shutter Island" By Dennis Lehane. Morrow ($25.95)

"Good Morning, Killer" By April Smith. Knopf ($24)

Wilson was careful to distinguish the English puzzle-style works of Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie -- works he despised -- with the hard-boiled school of Chandler, to whom he was more charitable but still not impressed.

My selections are drawn mostly from the progeny of Chandler, although "Shutter Island" takes a turn toward Christie.

Wilson calls such books novels "of adventure. It is not simply a question here of a puzzle that has been put together, but of a malaise conveyed to the reader, the horror of a hidden conspiracy that is continually turning up in the most varied and unlikely forms."

Wilson's real complaint, I believe, although he doesn't come out and say it, is that the crime novel is artificial in both character and story, hence not real literature at all, but entertainment.

I have no objection to entertainment. I go to adventure movies and watch a certain TV cliffhanger regularly. I also enjoy a skillfully crafted suspense story, and my quartet provides plenty.

The difficulty arises when the books are marketed with the "literature" label; for instance, April Smith "illuminates the human condition through the pain and complex lives -- and deaths -- of her compelling characters."

These creations -- chiefly, FBI agent Ana Grey, her bulked-up police officer boyfriend Andrew Berringer and wacko villain Ray Brennan (most fictional bad guys today are sired by Hannibal Lecter) -- are not real people.

The characters shed no light on genuine lives but are designed to keep the plot plodding along to its predictably gruesome conclusion. The relationship between Ana and Andrew is, well, boring, and clearly designed to go south at the appropriate time.

The supporting cast is a collection of stereotypes found in law enforcement and in rich Los Angeles neighborhoods. Even a transient who might "illuminate the human condition" of the homeless is just a plot device.

The L.A. setting is really a character as well, providing Smith with the opportunity to display her inside knowledge of its sprawling excess.

It's a city made for dirty deeds, portrayed so often in books and film that all a writer needs to do is invoke its name, and you can almost hear the notes from a lonely trumpet player hanging moodily in the smog.

Michael Connelly's publisher guarantees you'll hear that West Coast jazz with his new book by offering a companion CD heavy on Art Pepper, a favorite of his hero, Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch.

Now retired from the LAPD, Bosch spends his days listening to Pepper while he tries to reopen an unsolved murder case. Plus, he takes sax lessons from an elderly jazz man.

There are plenty of Wilson's malaise and conspiracy in Connelly, especially when he places Bosch in conflict with a Gestapo-like unit of the FBI that uses the excuse of Sept. 11 to trample on constitutional rights.

Connelly labels it the BAM (By Any Means) Squad.

Beaten, bound and held illegally, Bosch sees men of Middle Eastern appearance held under the same conditions in a secret jail.

"It used to be a free country. That used to be enough standing," Bosch lectures a particularly odious "special agent."

However, Connelly has other, more touchy-feely plans for his aggrieved crusader, causing the book to take a sharp turn toward domestic bliss. Before Bosch has his epiphany, Connelly does allow him to hurt a few bad guys along the way.

Malaise and conspiracy fuel Dennis Lehane's follow-up to the popular "Mystic River," a murder tale with a literary flair and realistic surroundings.

This time, Lehane drops the realism for a creepy tale at a hospital for the criminally insane on an island near Boston.

Setting it in the 1950s, he tries to invoke the paranoia of the Cold War, with its history of mind games, brainwashing and drug treatments.

This is no adventure novel but a variation on the technique of "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd." In other words, a gimmick that knocks the air out of a promising story and lets the reader down.

Of course, I can't tell you how. One difficulty with crime fiction is reviewing it. It's against an unwritten rule to reveal the plot, but that's like leaving your shot of bourbon half finished.

Lately, Harlan Coben has been using young, idealistic doctors rather than world-weary cops as his heroes, but the effect is the same: The bad guys get theirs.

The struggle for the reader is to accept that a physician can have the same skills of detecting and toughness that are standard equipment for a detective.

Critically wounded, his wife dead and their daughter missing, plastic surgeon Marc Seidman must solve the crimes himself when kidnappers demand that no police be involved in getting the girl back. His foes are a pair of those Lecter offspring, the kind of pathological and sadistic folks found only in crime novels.

Coben's a skilled writer with a knack for a twist here and a turn there that impels his readers to cover the 338 pages to find the solution -- which, of course, I can't divulge.

But, for my summation, I turn to partner Edmund Wilson:

"The explanation of the mysteries ... is neither interesting nor plausible enough. It fails to justify the excitement produced by the elaborate build-up of picturesque and sinister happenings, and one cannot help feeling cheated."

I rest my case.

Bob Hoover can be reached at or 412-263-1634.

Who cares whodunit? Read crime novels just for the fun of it

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

The five Whitbread Book Awards winners are:

First Novel: Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre
Novel: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
Biography: Orwell: The Life by D. J. Taylor
Poetry: Landing Light by Don Paterson
Children's: The Fire-Eaters by David Almond

Press Clips
by Cynthia Cotts
Boy, Girl, Boy
Sexism at The NYT Book Review?
January 7 - 13, 2004

The New York Times Book Review overwhelmingly favors books and book reviews written by men, according to a new study from Brown University. Over the course of a year, the study reveals, 72 percent of all books reviewed in the NYTBR were written by men, and 66 percent of all reviews also carried a male byline. In other words, the most influential venue in the publishing world showcases male authors and reviewers by an average of two to one.

Book Review editor Charles McGrath finds the evidence of bias unconvincing, much to the chagrin of Brown adjunct professor Paula Caplan.

"We've known for a long time that if little girls just see books that show pictures of doctors as men, it doesn't occur to them that women can be doctors," Caplan told the Voice. "Similarly, when you see mostly men's names in the Times Book Review, even if you don't consciously count them, it creates a context. It narrows what occurs to girls and young women as possibilities for their lives."

The study was compiled by Caplan, a clinical psychologist and author who specializes in women's studies, and Mary Ann Palko, a psychotherapist in private practice. After analyzing 53 issues of the NYTBR published consecutively between 2002 and 2003, Caplan and Palko concluded that the Times' overreliance on male authors and reviewers is demoralizing to women's psychological development.

The Times profiled Caplan in 1985, after she wrote a book called The Myth of Women's Masochism. An NYTBR review of the book was favorable, though brief.

Before going public last week, Caplan contacted McGrath and Times public editor Daniel Okrent, hoping that once they learned of the situation, they would hasten to fix it. According to Caplan, Okrent deemed her inquiry "of interest" and said he would await McGrath's response.

The controversy arises during a season when McGrath is shifting to a new job as Times writer-at-large. At press time, the paper continues to search for a new Book Review editor.

Alas, McGrath was unmoved by the boy-girl imbalance. In an e-mail exchange provided by Caplan, McGrath informed Caplan that "we don't have any plans at the moment for changing how we review books," adding, "I'm not convinced that we are guilty of a male bias—either consciously or un-."

In defense, McGrath wrote that "in the eight years I have been here we have been making a conscious effort to use more women reviewers and, more important, to use more women on the more prominent, attention-getting books." He added that women have long written the back-page essay (think Laura Miller, Judith Shulevitz), that the Times includes more female authors on its lists of recommended books than it used to, and that women outnumber men on the Book Review staff. No male bastion here!

Focusing on the power handed to male reviewers, Caplan suggested that one remedy would be to increase the number of female reviewers, and offered to supply the names of qualified candidates. McGrath replied that he would welcome suggestions, but "our standards are so high that a great many writers—even published writers—don't meet them." As for the attention to male authors, he explained, "more books are written by men than by women."

Men write more books than women? Caplan and her co-author searched for evidence to support that claim, but found none. When asked for a source, McGrath did not reply. Then Caplan appealed to Okrent, who had been cc'd the correspondence. The ombud wrote back, "If there's no continued progress, you may have reason for complaint. But as it stands, I think the fair-minded would have to agree that he's making every effort to move in the direction that you would like to see."

Caplan calls McGrath's response "patronizing," adding, "He didn't even try to make it look like they were working on it."

A Times spokesperson declined further comment.

The Village Voice: Nation: Press Clips: Boy, Girl, Boy by Cynthia Cotts

Scot's No 1 detective tales sell over 3m worldwide

William Lyons

Key points
• Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series soar past three million
• Sales top 1.7 million in United States
• First published in 1988 by small publisher after Canongate turned it down

Key quote "I am astonished by the whole thing, but really I am just delighted that so many people around the world are enjoying my books."

Story in full THE adventures of a large and likeable lady in Botswana might not seem like a particularly Scottish success story. But as worldwide sales of Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series soar past three million, that is exactly what they have become.

The books, which feature Mma Ramotswe, a Botswanan detective, who relies on good humour and common sense to solve her cases, provide a vivid, upbeat evocation of Africa.

Critics say that their popularity is due to McCall Smith’s charming, but uncomplicated, characters and his unhurried, gentle prose. Yesterday, McCall Smith told The Scotsman that he was surprised by the success of the series.

"It really is very encouraging, I am astonished by the whole thing, but really I am just delighted that so many people around the world are enjoying my books," he said.

"Judging from some of the letters I receive from my readers, they are encouraged by the positive vision Mma Ramotswe, my central character, has. There is also very little aggression in the books; they celebrate the small things in life, like having tea and cake. I think people are reacting against the destructive view of the world in favour of a view that is the opposite.

"So Mma Ramotswe is speaking to people in a fairly healing way. I’m sorry if that sounds terribly pretentious but that is the way I see it."

With sales topping 1.7 million in the United States and reaching one million over here, Mma Ramotswe is set to become to McCall Smith what Harry Potter is to JK Rowling and Inspector Rebus is to Ian Rankin.

McCall Smith initially had the idea for Mma Ramotswe when he was seconded to the University of Botswana in 1981. The series was first published in 1988 by Polygon, a small Edinburgh-based publisher, after Canongate - which had published some of his earlier work - overlooked the series. It is a loss which has been compared to EMI’s famous rejection of the Beatles.

McCall Smith added: "Canongate was originally going to publish the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, but they made suggestions about re-writing and the relationship gradually drifted apart and that is the point at which I approached Polygon."

His success in the United States, where he counts President George Bush’s wife, Laura, as a fan, has exploded in the past 18 months.

Initially his books were imported by Columbia University Press, principally an academic publishing house, with only a handful of books making it to the shelves. But a cult soon evolved in the Boston area after staff at an independent bookshop started recommending the series to customers.

The New York Times was quick to pick up on the story and wrote an article on the series, which in turn was spotted by Random House, the largest English-language publisher in the world, which subsequently bought the series.

When McCall Smith travelled to New York in 2002, he was astonished to learn that the publishing house there was proposing a print-run in excess of 100,000.

Since then, McCall Smith has undertaken promotional tours as far afield as Australia, New Zealand and Alaska as his books have been translated into 26 languages.

Although literary success has come late for McCall Smith, he is a highly respected academic in his own right. As well as teaching at Edinburgh University where he is professor of medical law, he occupies a variety of public positions including vice-chairman of the Human Genetics Commission for the UK, chairman of the British Medical Journal Ethics Committee, and a member of the International Bioethics Commission of UNESCO.

Until 12 months ago his colleagues knew little about his writing, yet he had in fact written more than 50 titles, ranging from a textbook on the criminal law of Botswana to a children’s novel called The Perfect Hamburger.

Another series of novels now being sought by eager readers is Portuguese Irregular Verbs, one of three with Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, a punctilious and fastidious German professor, in the leading role.

He is currently working on a series, The Sunday Philosophy Club, with a new protagonist, Elizabeth Dalhousie, an Edinburgh moral philosopher preoccupied with people’s personal problems and ethics. Television rights have already been sold to the BBC.

Later this month, McCall Smith embarks on something without any equivalent in the history of British journalism, a "daily novel". The serial, set in Edinburgh, will run five days a week for six months in The Scotsman and each instalment will be 850 words long.

His books have also found favour in Botswana, where they have spawned a minor tourist boom in the capital, Gaborone, where a local firm, Africa Insight, has set up Mma Ramotswe tours of places in the books.

"Botswanans like the books because they show the country in a positive light," he said. "And I think that is a reasonably fair portrayal."

This article:

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

The case of the overrated mystery novel
Robert Parker, Dennis Lehane, Lawrence Block, Michael Connelly -- I've read them all. Amid the logrolling and endless hype, one thing gets obscured: Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald did it first, and did it a lot better.

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By Ben Yagoda

Jan. 6, 2004 | Edmund Wilson's 1945 New Yorker essay "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" (the title referred to Agatha Christie's 1926 novel "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd") more or less demolished the "classical" country-house murder mysteries of Christie and her school. The series detective novel took its place, and today it rules the realm of crime fiction. These books provide pleasure to many loyal fans, which is all to the good. What's not so good is the inflated critical reputation of the better writers, and of the genre as a whole. The American detective novel may be commercially viable, but it is devoid of creative or artistic interest.

It took me a long time to realize this. I got started in this genre in 1969, after reading Eudora Welty's rave review of Ross Macdonald's "The Goodbye Look" on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. I got my parents to drive me to the library, where I took out the novel. I found myself in agreement with Welty, and went on to read nearly all of the rest of Macdonald's novels, which featured and were narrated by private detective Lew Archer. The books worked on multiple levels. As I learned when I later read the greatest worker in this field, Raymond Chandler -- who was at his artistic peak at the time of the Wilson essay -- Macdonald kept the sense of the private eye as a flawed knight patrolling the mean streets, but toned down the emotional volume and the verbal extravagance: Chandler averages one simile a paragraph, Macdonald one a chapter. What the latter writer offered, more than his literary mentor, was, first, coherent plots; second, an almost journalistic interest in the social and economic strata of contemporary Los Angeles; and, third, a consistent and compelling theme: the power of the past to influence the present.

I can't prove this, but it seems to me that the Welty review started a trend: taking a detective writer and anointing him or her as not just a pulp writer (not just a Mickey Spillane) but a purveyor of literature (a Chandler). Such claims were made every year or two, and I dutifully tried each one out. I think the first was Robert Parker. His Spenser books -- I read three or four of them -- were pleasant enough. But they weren't in Macdonald's ballpark, and not in Chandler's sports complex. Some of the observation of behavior and relationships was OK, but what I seem to remember most was a lot of posturing. I went on to the next writer. And then -- like Charlie Brown kicking the football -- to the next.

Each time I'd prowl bookstores and libraries and pick the detective books with the best blurbs. And some have amazing blurbs -- five or six pages of them in the front of the paperbacks, declaring that the book is brilliant or unforgettable or a classic. Sometimes I'd have a slip of paper in my wallet with a recommendation from Janet Maslin, who's inherited Christopher Lehmann-Haupt's habit of devoting a few New York Times columns a year to surveying the best of the best detective novels. In this way I made my way through Sue Grafton, Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, Lawrence Block, Tony Hillerman, Jonathan Kellerman and a half-dozen others. Sometimes, as in Leonard's case, I truly admired the writer's skill. (I list him as a series writer even though his lead characters have different names. But they are the same guy.) But whether I stayed with the writer for two or three books (Block and Kellerman, who with his sympathetic child shrink, Alex Delaware, follows Macdonald just as Macdonald followed Chandler) or barely was able to finish the first, I always ended up disappointed.

The problem, I came to realize, is that all detective series seem to require two items that run counter to literary values and that, no matter what the author's skills (clean prose, social or psychological observation, plot construction), will artistically doom it. The first is the main character, who is invariably romanticized or sentimentalized and who is always a combination of three not especially interesting things: toughness, efficacy and sensitivity. (When the writer resists applying any or all of these traits, the character ends up being bland.) The second is the very formulaic quality that lets a book be part of a series. Similar things happen in similar ways, which is probably as apt a definition as you'll ever find of how not to make good literature. Chandler -- not to mention Arthur Conan Doyle -- got away with it because he was a genius and an original, Macdonald because he was gifted and started early in the day. Their successors have no such luck.

I've generally been able to resist football-kicking lately, but earlier this year, I was in an airport with nothing to read. So I bought the book with the best blurbs -- "City of Bones" by Michael Connelly, whom Maslin had recently hailed. For another long plane ride a bit later, I picked up S.J. Rozan's "Winter and Night," on the cover of which was a quote from Dennis Lehane: "To read S.J. Rozan is to experience the kind of pure pleasure only a master can deliver." Inside I found the following from another much-praised writer, Robert Crais: "S.J. Rozan paints with the full palette of the human heart, using depth, detail and nuance of character that I haven't seen since Raymond Chandler. (Yes, I mean it.)" One thing that characterizes the current valorized crop -- which also includes George P. Pelecanos and Harlan Coben -- is a lot of logrolling in the blurb department.

It turned out that the admiration for these books went beyond blurbs. Unbeknownst to me, "Winter and Night" had already won the Edgar Award (given by the Mystery Writers of America) as the year's best novel. Then, this past fall, at the Bouchercon convention for fans, writers and editors of mystery books, "City of Bones" won both the Anthony and the Barry awards as best novel of the year, and "Winter and Night" won the Macavity Award for best mystery novel.

These two books' sweep of the accolades seals the case. To start with "City of Bones," the best way I can characterize it is with an oxymoron: amazingly ordinary. The detective, Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch of the Los Angeles Police Department, is a knight of the Chandler-Macdonald school, without any notable individuality or insight. He tries to do the right thing, despite roadblocks of various kinds in his path. In a perfunctory way, he gets the girl, despite being twice her age. He solves the mystery, which turns out to be neither surprising nor interesting. The girl dies, gratuitously. Harry broods over that, and also whether to quit the LAPD because it is a dehumanizing bureaucracy. He does. End of book. It was a competent piece of craft and a painless enough way to kill a few hours, but nothing more.

Connelly has since published another Bosch book, "Lost Light," and the first few sentences of the (glowing) Publishers Weekly review tell me all I need to know: "Even though this marks the ninth outing for Harry, the principled, incorruptible investigator shows little sign of slowing in his unrelenting pursuit of justice for all. Disillusioned by his constant battle with police hypocrisy and bureaucracy, Harry quits the department after 28 years on the job. Like so many ex-cops before him, he finds retirement boring: 'I was staying up late, staring at the walls and drinking too much red wine.' He decides to take advantage of his newly minted private-eye license and get back to work."

"Winter and Night" turned out to be as negligible as "City of Bones," but more annoying. Although the setting is New York rather than L.A., and the main character a classical-piano-playing private eye (Bill Smith) rather than a cop with a saxophone, it's driven by the same warmed-over angst: It's just that Rozan's pathetic fallacy involves cold overcast days instead of Connelly's smog and Santa Ana winds. (The Boston Globe called the book "very well-written, displaying Rozan's ability to describe place and weather." I don't know about you, but I'm always in the market for a good weather novel.) The book is overlong (388 small-print pages), overwritten and overly dependent on the convention of moving the plot by means of cellphone calls, and on bits of business involving preparing and drinking coffee and lighting and smoking cigarettes.

Unusually for this genre, the novel, much of which is set in the all- or mostly male worlds of high school football teams and police departments, has an agenda, or at least a thesis, having to do with the burden of violence that all men must confront and deal with. This is at least arguable, but Rozan, who is female, has no clue how males talk among themselves. She seems to have gotten her ideas about this from observing the conversations of 10-year-old boys. That is, her guys swear at roughly the rate of every fourth word and always address each other by their last names.

Here's what one character says after Smith points out the Harvard diploma on his wall:

"Harvard fucking Law. Rutgers undergrad, where I worked my fucking ass off to get into fucking Harvard. Because I was going to goddamn be somebody, Smith."

We can be thankful that Chandler and Macdonald are not alive to read that nonsense. I am, however, and it has strengthened my current resolution that even if the blurbs glow with the intensity of the midday sun, I am off these books for good.

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About the writer
Ben Yagoda is the author of "About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made" and the forthcoming "The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing." He directs the journalism program at the University of Delaware.

Monday, January 05, 2004

Know what books qualify as Literature

Statesman Journal
January 4, 2004

What is Literature?

Yes, Literature is a purposefully capitalized word. That capital “L” sets it aside from other meanings of the word. You have, for example, the literature of quarks. And you have English Literature.

So Literature is the written heritage of a language or an ethnic group, right? Well — here’s a good question to help you begin to understand: Is J. K. Rowling Literature?


Literature is the complex, meaningful writing of a language or of an ethnic group. While it entertains and instructs, its primary purpose is to enrich lives, to foster and encourage speculation and thought. It reveals the truth about an era in the history of its creators. Its primary purpose is artistry.

By that standard, Raymond Chandler’s mystery stories are Literature — they make a statement about American society in his time. But the roughly contemporaneous mysteries of Ellery Queen aren’t literature because they do not make such an analysis or statement.

This is not to say you cannot read Chandler for fun — but you will get something more from Chandler than you will from Mickey Spillane. Spillane is fun — probably much more fun than Chandler (as is Queen). But he does not have anything much to say about American society and doesn’t claim he ever did.

Queen and Spillane have a place in the literature of America’s 20th century, but they are not Literature.

Neither is Rowling. “Harry Potter” has nothing to say about England or the rest of the world in the end of the 20th century or the first of the 21st century.

Now look at Stephen King.

Recently, a lot of people resented the fact that he received a lifetime achievement award at the National Book Awards. They know those awards are reserved for Literature, not popular literature.

King felt receiving the award was important enough to risk his health. He went and gave his speech even though he was getting pneumonia. He was that determined to let people know that Literature sometimes is something different than they think it is.

When the analysis of King’s work is made after he no longer is with us, there are several of his books that will make the Literature list — even though they made a lot of money. A couple of those include “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” and “Bag of Bones.” Their depth of expression and classic themes put them in the Literature class.

Being literature instead of Literature is not a bad thing. It’s just a different thing.

Let’s face it: Danielle Steele and Anne Rice never will be the likes of Joyce Carol Oates or Margaret Atwood. They outsell them, but they will not outlast them. Because Literature lasts.

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