Archive for ‘Raymond Chandler’

May 11, 2011

where time never starts: Rex Stout, Nero Wolfe, and Archie Goodwin; more books that inspired Claire DeWitt

by Sara Gran
Publicity photograph of Rex Stout, author of t...

Rex Stout via Wikipedia

Another series that really made me want to write my own detective series was Rex Stout‘s Nero Wolfe series. My father read these when I was growing up and they were kind of just always there–I don’t remember ever not having read them. There’s a lot that’s remarkable about this series, but one aspect that particularly inspired me when starting my owns series was how masterfully Stout pulls together strands from different types of mystery novels and sub-genres. Nero Wolfe, a big fat man from Montenegro who rarely leaves his house and cares about orchids and food more than people, is a classic Sherlock-Holmes-type Genius Detective. His sidekick and assistant (and narrator), Archie Goodwin, is a hardboiled, wisecracking Watson, a more cheerful (much more cheerful) Phillip Marlowe. The series takes place in New York and different clients and cases represent a range of types of mysteries: locked door mysteries, noir femme fatale stories, Agatha Christie-type puzzles. Stout’s (I keep writing “Wolfe’s”!) genius was to blend these different strands seamlessly, offering the reader the best of all worlds. There’s a grittiness to Archie and the way he lives, but there’s little actual violence or bloodshed in the books. There’s a lot of intellectual puzzles to work out and a lot of poisonings-of-the-duchess, but also plenty of noir-ish dialogue between Goodwin and his nemesis Inspector Cramer. And of course, Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are wonderful characters, or the whole thing wouldn’t work. Wolfe is basically a colossal asshole most of the time, which makes the times when he isn’t really stand out. And Goodwin is nearly always a good guy, which makes you sit up and notice when he isn’t. Formulas can be a good thing when the formula supports, rather than restrains–and of, course, when it’s a good formula!

Like with Vachss’ Burke series, one of Wolfe’s strength’s is building an entire world–Saul Panzer, Fritz, and Inspector Cramer were as real to me as people in my own home. I read the books out of order, and I didn’t read the first, Fer-de-Lance, until about eight years ago. I’d always wondered how Stout set the stage for this world–how Archie and Nero Wolfe met, how Wolfe came to live in the brownstone on 38th Street, how they got off on such a bad foot with Cramer. Here’s how he does it: he doesn’t. The first book in the series is just like every other book in the series. Stout just drops you down in his world and you never find out anything about how they came together (I mean anything more than you learn in the other books–you do get bits and pieces as time goes on). I think that’s such a brilliant solution to the problem of setting a scene, and in fact to a lot of problems we face in writing novels. Just don’t do it. There’s no easier solution!

May 7, 2011

Andrew Vachss & the end of the series: more books that inspired Claire DeWitt

by Sara Gran

Image via Wikipedia

One reason I wanted to write a detective series was the chance to stay with a character beyond one book. One of the joys of reading a detective novel is visiting not just the detective every year or so (or seven, in Chandler’s case), but checking in with all his friends, family, and enemies, who of course now are YOUR friends, family, and enemies too. And writing a series, the pleasure is even more so. It’s really fun for me to know that even the little characters I’m writing now I can visit with again whenever I want.

Of course, lots of writers are wonderful at this, but one, to me, stands out: Andrew Vachss with his Burke series. For those of you who don’t know–well, first of all, go buy a Burke book! But in the meantime I’ll tell you: Burke, aka Baby Boy Burke, is not exactly a PI. He’s a former foster child, abuse victim, and career criminal who was “adopted” during a turn in prison by the Prof, a street hustler, who may be the Professor or the Prophet. Burke sometimes solves mysteries and sometimes commits crimes and sometimes does both. Over the years their family-of-choice grows to include sister Michelle, a transsexual prostitute who, along with her partner the Mole (a Jewish tech genius/Israel supporter), adopts Terry, a child sold into prostitution by his biological father; Mama, owner of a Chinese restaurant/smuggling operation and her non-biological son Max the Silent, a martial artist who marries Lily, an advocate for abused children. Together they have Flower, who, along with Terry, is in college when the series ends (or so I think–I’ll get to that in a sec). As you can tell I know these characters well. The first of the eighteen books, Flood, came out in 1985; I probably started reading them in the early nineties and I think I’ve read every one at least once, most two or more times. No one I’ve read does as good a job as Vachss as making you feel like his characters are not only real, but that their world is your world. He manages to age them, and have them change for better and worse in all the ways people do change, without diminishing the intensity of the series or their conflicts. People change, people have children, people (well, animals) die, people move, people have long periods of time when you don’t really see them and you don’t know what they’re doing, and people do pretty much nothing sometimes. Just like life.

But a few years ago, Vachss decided to end the series. I’m sure he had his reasons, and if that sounds bitter, it is. And I can’t bring myself to read the last book, Another Life. I bought it when it came out and got about a quarter of the way through when I put it away and, without meaning to, haven’t opened it again. And I don’t think I will. I think that some part of me wants to keep thinking a new one might come along–that Burke, the Prof, Michelle, Mama, et al, will continue to be a part of my life. I also feel–unfairly and irrationally–angry and kind of betrayed that Vachss isn’t writing any more about Burke. Believe me, I don’t think that position is defensible at all–I think it’s terrible! But it’s how I feel, and when I started to read Another Life I couldn’t put those feelings aside and enjoy it. I think once every year or so now I’ll reread one of the old Burkes, though. I’m obviously not at all ready to say goodbye.

Oddly, as much as I love the Burke books, my favorite Vachss book is a stand-alone, Shella, haunting narrative of a pretty demented guy and his demented girl. Isn’t that just about every story we love in a nutshell?

March 9, 2011

he feels them, but he has to quell them

by Megan Abbott

Ian Fleming Talks to Raymond Chandler 1958 from 33hirtz on Vimeo.

I posted this delightful and fascinating conversation between Raymond Chandler and Ian Fleming on Facebook this morning and had so many fun interactions with folks I wanted to put it here too.

I’d never heard the exchange before it makes me love them both even more (Fleming such the adoring protegee, Chandler such the kind mentor). In it, Chandler speaks of beginning to write the eighth Marlowe novel, Poodle Springs, which had Marlowe marrying Linda Loring (the love interest from The Long Goodbye, if you don’t count Terry Lennox, which I do)  would go unfinished (later “finished” by Robert B. Parker). Chandler died the following year.

There are some real gems in here–Chandler asking Fleming why he always has to have a torture scene, and Fleming’s response; Chandler’s comment that he never felt any of his characters were villains.

But of special interest to me was Chandler’s utterly charming response when Fleming suggests, about 20 minutes in, that if the book isn’t going well, he could always kill off Linda.

“Kill her?” Chandler says. “Oh no, she’s too nice …. Much too nice to kill off.”

And the way he says it, with such warmth. Well. It’s wonderful.

December 11, 2010

fearful symmetry

by Megan Abbott

The murder of Hollywood publicist Ronni Chasen is the kind of story I always feel drawn to. While the conspiracy theories, which are always my favorite theories (why even call them “theories”? and what isn’t a “conspiracy” really?), continue to fly, the case actually seems to have settled itself, after a fashion: The gun of the “person of interest” who took his own life “appears ” to be a match with the one used to kill Chasen.

My response to this news was a keen disappointment of which I’m slightly embarrassed. First, the resolution (if it is that…) violates my crime writer/reader sense narrative dictates, or even justice. It can’t be the lone robber who kills himself before he’s caught. That’s always the red herring. It’d be like Owen Taylor, the chauffeur in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, being responsible for everything that transpires in the novel, including the disappearance of Rusty Regan, which launches the tale. It’s just not good enough. It doesn’t sing.

I remember, for all my complicated feelings about the Jon Benet Ramsey case, experiencing a secret, a sneaking disappointment — a narrative disappointment — when it became clear that the murderer was likely an intruder and not one of the family members. What an awful personality feature, I know, but there it is….

Sometimes, of course, the solution, the resolution is simpler than we’d like. But isn’t simplicity sometimes a trick? A phrase from Chandler’s novel that I’ve never forgotten kept ringing in my head this week:

”It seemed a little too pat,” Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe reflects. “‘It had the austere simplicity of fiction rather than the tangled woof of fact.”

P.S. This last quote particularly apt, given that famously sneaky fact about the chauffeur The Big Sleep. We never do definitively find out who kills him, in the book or the movie.

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