Archive for ‘Books’

July 18, 2011

you never know what you will find

by Megan Abbott

A few weeks ago, I contributed guest column to Suzanne Beecher’s Dear Reader, the expansive online book club. Writing it, I ended up on a flight of nostalgia, recalling the library branch that meant the most to me when I was young, and a string of early reading memories. The day the column went out to Suzanne’s readers, my inbox filled all day, and the days following, with messages from hundreds of readers who shared reading memories far richer than my own.

In this era of “the book is dead” (isn’t that every era, since books began?) and at a time when I sometimes feel I’m too much in the “business of books” to enjoy them the same way ever again, I felt sharply humbled by the extent of book-love, library-love, reading-love that came through every email. And the extent to which everyone wanted to share that love: Ninety-year-old readers with Nooks in hand, young mothers trotting their children to the local library, one woman savoring her adolescent daughter’s love of classics like The Black Tulip and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Those who said they came to love reading out of loneliness, those who said they came to read as an escape from the noise of their crowed homes.

Others who recalled “illicit” reads, such as Max Ehrlich’s The Reincarnation of Peter Proud, Judy Blume’s Wifey, V.C. Andrews (of course), Lloyd Douglas’s Magnificent Obsession, Taylor Caldwell’s Captains and the Kings and quite a bit of Jacqueline Susann.

And so many tales of local libraries as second homes, and of, as one reader put it, struggling to steer her bike home because she had stacked so many books into the bag hanging from her handlebars.

Reading all of these emails stirred even more of my own early reading memories, and made me value doubly the encouragement and exuberance of my parents, many of my teachers and the folks at the Grosse Public Library-Woods Branch. But these emails also reminded me of the many ways readers find book love—through a friend, a grandfather with a home library, through movies or comics or those who grow up in non-reading households that find books utterly on their own.

Here’s a few letters from these readers (reprinted with their permission):

As a child in a Chicago grade school, one of favorite times was our school library.  The librarian put aside the newest Sue Barton book so I would be the first to read it.  She also chose me along with two other girls to attend the 80th birthday celebration for Laura Ingalls Wilder.  This was in connection with the radio program “Hobby Horse Presents” hosted by Hugh Downs, sponsored by Carson Pirie Scott store.  We were in attendance for the radio program which featured actors portraying Laura and Pa as he was taking her to her first teaching assignment.  After the radio show, we were in a large room for breakfast (orange juice and sweet rolls), and sang “Happy Birthday to Laura,” who had sent a taped message to us.

Years later, much later in fact, I found out that the birthday card which we signed that day was hanging in the Laura Ingalls Wilder house in Mansfield, Missouri.  In our moving travels from Chicago to Texas, we stopped there.  I can tell you—this brought tears to my eyes when I saw the framed card hanging in her home!

—    Janet Fricke, Ovalo, TX

My parents were readers and I was an only child. My father was in the Army until shortly before my tenth birthday in a time when television selections were limited. We resided for two years in Marquette, Michigan with the truly great Peter White Library; echoes of the high ceilings, ornate building and wood softened by decades of elbows resting on the rectangular tables.

No children were allowed unaccompanied into the Adult section but the Children’s Library was a haven with the complete Laura Ingalls Wilder, Frances Hodgson Burnett, the more obscure regional favorite DandelionCottage, the Bobbsey Twins, Cherry Ames, Betsy, Tacy and Tibb series, ah the joy of discovery of Nancy Drew and my childhood favorite, Walter Brooks’ Freddie the Pig series.

I won a blue ribbon in 4th grade for writing the most book reports during the school year…. (I, too, read somewhat age inappropriately—TheFountainhead at 13 is one glaring example.)

—Linda Hitchcock, Glasgow, KY 

When I was about 10 or so, my dad worked swing shift a great deal.  My mom’s friend Alda Mae lived between our house & the Safeway store, so we would often stop by there on the way to the store.  Some nights we never did quite make it there, other than Cathy (Alda Mae’s daughter who was my age & a good friend) & I being sent to pick up a couple of boxes of Chef Boyardee Spaghetti & some french bread for us all to share.  I was quite envious because Cathy had all the Nancy Drew books & her older brother Walt had all the Hardy Boys.  Sometimes when we would stop by, Cathy would not be home & I would settle in her room & read Nancy Drew.  But even better, sometimes Cathy & Walt were both gone & I would slip down to Walt’s basement room where no one would bother me to curl up & read his Hardy Boys.

I have so many fond memories of those evening at the Robbins’ home.  Some times, Alda Mae played the piano & we would gather around & sing.

—Liz Stamp

I grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvaniaand our library was in a community center. I remember being the top reader every year in the summer reading program. My favorite place to read was behind a tombstone in the cemetery behind our house. So peaceful and quiet. You could really get lost in your book there.

[Today] I work at a library and whenever we have route-ins to do; opening those gray plastic tubs they come in is like opening a treasure chest to me. You never know what you will find.

 —Patricia Corcoran

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June 29, 2011

black swans

by Megan Abbott

For a time, when I was a kid, I was obsessed with the book (and movie) Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber, which famously told tale tale of “Sybil,” the psyeudoynm of a young woman treated by Dr. Cornelia Wilbur for what the doctor came to feel was multiple personality disorder (now called dissociative identity disorder) .

At around age ten or eleven, the TV movie must have been re-run because I remember many conversations with girls at school, detailing with giddy horror, the terrible punishments Sybil underwent under her psychotic mother’s care, or so the movie relayed. It’s funny to think of it now–I’m embarrassed the palpable excitement we all seemed to feel in the particularly lurid details of the punishments. But it was the nervous laughter of coming upon something deeply secret, or a taboo, or something maybe like our own darkest Grimms-spun nightmares of abuse at the hands of our parents. (If you read Flowers in the Attic, consider the many titillating scenes of maternal and grandmaternal abuse and you will see this particular childhood fascination in full bloom.)

But I wonder if a key part of my interest in the book, as in many books like it (Three Faces of Eve, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden) that focused on women in mental health crises, was the notion that these books conveyed something about womanhood that I may have been uninterested in hearing through plainer vehicles (e.g., a book on a female hero, or even feminism!).

The reason I ask is that I recently read an advance copy of Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case by Debbie Nathan, which comes out in October. It is an utterly riveting, troubling and troubled book that traces the intertwined fates of the real Sybil (her identity was finally revealed in the 1990s), Dr. Wilbur and the author of the original Sybil, Flora Schreiber.  And it is a harsh exposé that calls into question nearly every aspect of the original book and certainly every aspect of Dr. Wilbur’s treatment of her patient (which apparently involved daily injections of “truth serum” to such a degree that her patient became a full-blown drug addict).

Without getting into the specific charges raised within, Sybil Exposed also stands as a fascinating study of what is was like to be a woman in the midcentury—in particular women who chose alternative paths, or for whom those paths chose them.  The book description notes:

Exposing Sybil combines fascinating, near mythic drama with serious journalism to reveal what really powered the legend: a trio of women—the willing patient, her devoted shrink, and the ambitious journalist who spun their story into bestseller gold.

That trio of women at the center of the book all suffered mightily under the professional and personal limitations that their era (1940s-60s). Sybil, struggling with mental health issues (mostly, obsessive compulsive disorder, as we might see it now) that were poorly understood in her small town and within her strict Adventist faith, fought the threat of poverty, a sense out outsiderness and strong stigma. Dr. Wilbur faced the challenges of being one of very few women psychiatrists, coming up at a time when female patients much less female doctors faced strong bias and sometimes abuse. And the book’s author Flora Schreiber spent decades trying to make her name in journalism, to move past the women’s magazine gossamer she was repeatedly hired to spin in favor of something meatier, more significant. Something big.  

One can see the crucible stirring. To Nathan, the result was Sybil, Inc., a multi-millionaire dollar business built on a foundation of lies. (Or, at the very least, well-meaning fabrications and half truths.)

Tracing these women’s paths and their crossing—the way their lives interlocked as they became enmeshed (and enmeshed themselves) in something far beyond their dreams or their capacity to control—it is spellbinding. But the response to the original book and movie is perhaps the best part of the story. Thousands of mostly female readers writing letters to all three women for years about how Sybil spoke to them, about how they too felt they were divided into two, three, four or more women. How they too felt split, divided. Lacking a center, a self.

Much like the women in the 1950s, facing that era’s constructions, made Three Faces of Eve a best-seller, the women of the 1970s, living amid a time of dramatic social tumult and changing gender expectations, Sybil struck a nerve. (And while, according to Nathan, the vast majority of those who wrote to Schreber were women, one can see the appeal across many populations, all of whom face constricting social expectations, the pain of feeling you must wear different masks through life.)

Maybe (probably) this is a massive justification for my own dark childhood reading habits, but I wonder now about we school girls tearing through Sybil’s pages behind locker doors. I wonder if it wasn’t just the sharp horror of tales of abuse (though those of you who remember the book have likely never forgotten these scenes, which are rendered vividly and endlessly) that haunted and drew us in. (And perhaps which most of us read the same way we read V.C. Andrews, missing the point entirely.)  I wonder if, somehow, the book was a our preadolescent way of trying to understand the way we, all of us, must prepare to leave childhood behind and take up the various roles we feel are demanded of us, prescribed for us. We must start donning the mask, and then another, and then another. And we want to see how it’s done.


June 20, 2011

a bell in every tooth

by Megan Abbott

“I don’t want to be that much in love ever again.”                                —Elizabeth Taylor

I’m reading Furious Love (not to be confused with Furious Love), which recounts the tumultuous romance of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Prior to reading it, I had no burning interest in the pair but was drawn to it because it’s co-written by Sam Kashner, author of the vivid, gossipy Bad and the Beautiful: Hollywood in the Fifties, one of my favorite tinseltown books.

As I began, I suppose I expected the Liz-and-Dick relationship to be some kind of amalgam of Frank and Ava and Albee’s George and Martha. Both analogies have significant weight, but the depth of their connection to each other is woundingly touching, and the giddy, intense bond they had is kind of a heartbreaker as you see the increasing damage done by mind-numbing drink and other excess, career disappointments, Burton’s depression, family sorrows.

I have always loved Richard Burton and he shimmers in these pages. I think one of my favorite cinematic moments is a fleeting moment from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. After a night of epic drinking the beleaguered George, watching his wife tantalize another man on the dance floor with some ribald hip shakes, announces wearily—but with distinct admiration, “You have ugly talents, Martha.”

One of the gifts of Furious Love is the rich sense of Burton’s Welsh upbringing, which, to me, feels terrifically exotic and dramatic, with rich descriptions of the life of miners (Burton was the son and brother of miners), Burton’s love of “lava bread,” a Welsh concoction of a “froth of boiled seaweed “plunked down on the plate like a cow pat,” the way his brother’s face was “pocked with little blue marks,” from his years in the mines.

But my favorite part of the book might be the words offered up by Richard Burton himself, both from his various writings, diary entries and from his love letters to Taylor, which she permitted use of for the first time. Many are hopelessly romantic. Some are deliciously dirty, with Burton telling Taylor how he longs for  her “divine little money-box,” the “exquisite softness of the inside of [her] thighs,” and for the “half-hostile” look in her eyes when the pair is “deep in rut.”  That “half-hostile,” to me, is the mark of writerly (and perceptual) brilliance.

While Kashner and his coauthor Nancy Schoenberger are careful not to push the point, there’s a piece of Burton’s stormy past that seems to whisper in our ear constantly as we understand his connection to Taylor. His mother dead when he was only two, Burton was raised mostly by his sister, Cis, whom he viewed in saintly proportions and about whom he wrote lovingly:

I shone in the reflection of her green-eyed, black- haired, gypsy beauty. She sang at her work in a voice so pure that the local men said she had a bell in every tooth… She was naïve to the point of saintliness and wept a lot at the misery of others. She felt all tragedies except her own. I had read of the Knights of Chivalry and I knew that I had a bounden duty to protect her above all creatures. It wasn’t until 30 years later, when I saw her in another woman that I realized I had been searching for her all my life.

We’re always, in our relationships, looking to repeat, recapture past ones, aren’t we? And it isn’t always (or even mostly) a bad thing. Burton and Taylor saved each other for a while, until they couldn’t any longer. As Taylor wrote to Kashner, when releasing Burton’s letters to the biographer, “We had more time but not enough.”

June 6, 2011

hurry up please it’s time

by Megan Abbott

Sunday’s New York Times ran an interesting piece that speculated about why Hollywood seems to have so few (and even fewer successful) movies with preadolescent girls (roughly ages nine to 14) at the center. While the book market for this age group is booming, the carryover to film has been far less reliable. While movies like 13 certainly depict the perils (in a way that reminded me mostly of the best art-directed after-school special ever) of the age, this article focuses instead on movies targeting preadolescent girl viewers.

The author, Pamela Paul, speculates as one of the reasons these movies struggle is that  “The tween occupies a shifting space between the girl who has carefree adventures and the sexy teenager who angsts. It’s a phase that makes both parents and Hollywood executives uncomfortable.”

I’m sure this is true. My new book, The End of Everything, is from the point of view of a 13-year-old girl and I guess I picked that age because there is hardly a time of more “cuspiness.” It’s a time when the world still seems (at least, in my generation) mysterious. Even when your days are mostly filled with the tedium of school and killing time and searching desperately for moments of unsupervised anything, you are old enough to peer into a world infinitely more exotic, substantial and intoxicating than your own. To get a taste of it. It’s such an eye to the key-hole age. But, of course, you usually don’t know what to do once those doors creak—or fling—open.

One of the films mentioned in the piece as a rare positive example is The Man in the Moon (1991), which I remember getting it pretty right. The main character, Dani (Reese Witherspoon), is 14 and develops a crush on her 17-year-old neighbor.  The two begin a flirtation but once the neighbor meets Dani’s more age appropriate sister, everything feels taken from her.  There are some dark plot turns, but they are not sordid ones. And they feel very real.

The Man in the Moon is set in the 50s, and, thinking too of 14-year-old Matty Ross in True Grit, I wonder if period films manage this better, or we manage them better. They feel less close to us. Less close to home. And the social mores, more conservative, seem to assure us we won’t be confronted with what we face today. Because we always feel everything is more dangerous now, and young girls—we still invest so much in their purity, their goodness.

When I was nine the “teen sex comedy” Little Darlings came out. I still remember the tagline distinctly: “Don’t Let the Title Fool You.” The stars were Kristy McNichol and Tatum O’Neal, who my favorite child actress as a kid (Bad News Bears, now that’s a preadolescent girl character you can write home about).

With its summer camp-virginity-loss-bet, I was too young to see it, but I remember being so tantalized and so terrified of it at the same time. I think I was fairly fascinated by it and when I eventually did see it, years later, I was surprised. For all its trying-too-hard raunch, at heart it’s a movie eager to, intermittently, show something real—about the thorny relationships girls can have with each other (including as complicated by class issues) and most of all about the ways curiosity and competition can push you into some pretty hard corners.  Kristy McNichol in particular gives her part so much subtlety, digging into the rawest parts of the story. And the outcome of the “bet” felt utterly, painfully real.

The girls in the movie are 15, and I think most girls like movies/books where the female leads are a couple of years older. And had I seen it as young girl, I think it would have been a complicated gift, but a gift nonetheless.

June 4, 2011

we will return!

by Megan Abbott

The Ladies Gran and Abbott apologies for the delay in our programming.  Sara is embarking on the tour for the extraordinary Claire De Witt and the City of the Dead—do not miss her! I myself will be catching her at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn on Monday, June 13.

I sadly have no excuse other than finding myself in a black hole of deadlines.  But I plan to claw my way to daylight, Buffy-style, this week!

May 19, 2011

Holy shit, my book is in stores!

by Sara Gran

Holy shit, my book is in stores!

This is my fourth book and I admit, it isn’t as big of a roller-coaster ride as the first. Thank God. Those of you have published books before know what I mean. When you have a new book out, every day is an endless spectrum of opportunities for terrible and wonderful things to happen. It’s a bit much to take. Bad reviews. No reviews. Good reviews that don’t get it. Too much attention. Not enough attention. Too much to do. Nothing to do (much worse!). Your book is in bookstores and everyone will see it and know how dumb it is. Your book isn’t in bookstores and no one will see it and know how fucking brilliant you are! Your old boyfriends are going to read it. Or, worse, your old boyfriends will see the book in the bookstore, look at the jacket, put it down, and not read it. And they will do this in front of people you know. Thousands of them. And they will laugh and laugh and their laughter will be heard around the world and reported in every single blog everyone has ever read since the beginning of time.

So it’s better to take a broad view, and not get wrapped up in the little details. I think. You can’t get too excited about the good stuff without getting too wrapped up in the bad stuff. True, it doesn’t bring as much pleasure this way, but it also doesn’t bring as much pain. It’s one of many books, and whether a success or a failure, it won’t be the last. And even the good stuff–the good reviews, the praise, the events where people actually come–can feed your ego in a way that is necessarily healthy or advantageous. Careers are not, contrary to what many say, built the sales or lack thereof of one book. Careers are built pretty much on one thing only: not giving up. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll work like hell to sell this book. But if it doesn’t sell, on to the next one.

Still, though, all that being said: HOLY SHIT MY BOOK IS IN STORES!

May 18, 2011

remembering, repeating

by Megan Abbott

Almost back to back this morning, I heard the news that Philip Roth had just been awarded the Man Booker International prize and that one of the judges—author and publisher Carmen Callil—had withdrawn in protest. According to The Guardian, Callil said that Roth “goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.”

I think Philip Roth takes up more shelf space in my apartment than almost any other author. I have a complicated love for both him and his work that seems to mirror my feelings for Sinatra and Freud, except I never grow weary of Sinatra and Freud and never, ever feel the need to defend my complicated love.

With Roth, however, I am sometimes frustrated, even bored. I have, after reading some of his books, said things similar to Callil’s comments. How many times, Mr. Roth, must I read about the older intellectual in sexual thrall with the beautiful, brilliant young woman a fraction of his age?

There is a wonderful quote that I am going to butcher by a writer whom I can’t recall now. It says something to the effect of every writer has one story to tell and he tells it over and over. And I have to admit, it feels true to me. But maybe that’s the kind of writer I am drawn to.  But the authors I love The other authors on my shelves that take up similar amounts of space are Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Ellroy, Salinger. And certainly the same could be said of them.  The plots may change, the time period, the arc of the tale. But something at the core remains, some irresolvable issue or obsession that can’t help but sneak it.

I’m distinguishing here from authors who recycle plots, etc. Instead, I’m talking about recurring themes, dynamics, obsessions, fixations that seem to form the spine of many of their books and other times just seem to push their way in as if the writer can’t control it.

The risk of an artist returning to touchstones is an insularity of world which I sometimes find in Roth (that suffocating quality Callil cites does resonate with me; Roth’s Manhattan, for instance, seems trapped in amber at times). But when these authors discover a new way into their obsession, a new vantage point, or a new subject that may ultimately lead us back to their recurring story—it can be their greatest achievement.

Because, after all,  we are drawn to these authors to begin with because something about their story feels like ours.

James M. Cain may have written a half-dozen books dealing with the unstoppable lure of sex and money and the dark corners it drops us down, but, as discussed here before, when he becomes fascinated with the restaurant business (Mildred Pierce), or insurance (Double Indemnity), or taps his own love of opera (Serenade), the tale is reinvigorated even as it may follow the same deep treads he’s set down before.

Roth’s fascination with the glove industry or diamond business have produced some of his most exquisite prose ever. The vitalizing energy of American Pastoral seems to come from him wanting to use his alter ego, Zuckerman, to tunnel us into a very un-Roth-like pair of characters, an all-American straight-arrow and his beauty queen wife and what happens when their lives unfurl. His hero, Swede Levov, simply wouldn’t do the things Zuckerman and so many of his other heroes would. As a result, everything changes, and yet feels too like we’re returning to many of his fascinations—American success models, the family romance, Jewish identity and Roth’s own, often-blinding nostalgia for post-WWII-pre-counterculture moment—but from a new place. Which changes everything for us. And it’s thrilling.

But I guess I’m not really writing this post to talk about Roth. I guess I’m wondering how universal this feels. Are all writers writing variations on the same story? (Story, not plot–though I know there are writers who do that too!).  Is in fact what sparks writing is the desire to work through something? If so, it’s likely he or she doesn’t really want to work through it because then it would be over, and they don’t want it ever to be over.

For myself, I have trouble stepping back and looking at my books in concert. I don’t think I’d want to see what elements, obsessions keep returning across the books. Because once you see it, then what might happen? What would be left?

May 14, 2011

all will be revealed

by Megan Abbott

Periodically, my parents go through spring-cleanings, finding odds and ends from my childhood. I live in a small apartment by midwestern standards (by almost any standards other than New York City standards), so I have scant space.

Nearly seventeen years ago, I packed a bunch of boxes in a car with two dear friends and we drove from Detroit to New York City. Ever since, through all manner of life changes, through moves from Brooklyn to Hell’s Kitchen to Queens, I have made promises to my parents that I will collect some of these childhood belongings, if they please-please-please keep them for me.

And my parents are very understanding and occasionally just send me manageable boxes of the various detritus of my upbringing—usually charming madeleines: drawings, much-loved books, odd little miniatures and strange collections I don’t even remember starting, or ending (how did I end up with all those miniature ceramic animals? the boxing monkey figurine?).

A few weeks back, one of these boxes contained a slender volume I had no memory of for a moment. Until I did. It is entitled, The Clue Armchair Detective by Lawrence Treat and illustrated by Georgie Hardie, with the subheading: Can You Solve the Mysteries of Tudor Close? 

Essentially, it’s a game/activity book or, as the cover rather awkwardly poses it, “A Packed File of Mystery Puzzles for All the Family.” And it is one of many tie-in books related to the game Clue, which I’m sure is why my parents bought it for me originally, circa 1983.

It opens with a letter to the reader,telling us we are “cordially invited to help solve the mysterious death of Humphrey Black, found brutally murdered in his house, Tudor Close.”

What follows is a series of more than 25 separate “suspect files,” which are really individual mystery pages where, if you look closely enough, you should be able to solve these individual crimes (theft, vandalism, murder) and, ultimately, the central mystery of who killed Humphrey Black. The answers lie on the last pages.

And as I turned the pages I remembered staring at those puzzles, had this sense memory of which pages captivated me most. It lacks the hauteur of my memories of Clue, and the whole Clue/Agatha Christie/murder at the estate vibe. Not that that’s absent (or that Agatha Christie is all hauteur) but the book is so much weirder than that.

Sheeted corpses, bathtub deaths, yes, but also a mounted fish stuffed with “chips.” Eerie blank-eyed twin brothers. A kidnapped boy who looks stunningly like Bobby Franks. A man in drag with the uncanny stiltedness that sings: Brian De Palma movie. (In fact, an overhead surveillance shot that also recalls De Palma!) Witchcraft. Voodoo. A particularly unnerving scene of a raucous pub brawl, where one lipsticked woman sits, staring fixedly at the ceiling…at what?


It’s funny, touching something your memory effectively erased. I can’t imagine ever remembering this book any other way than touching it. And yet it’s an access point, another tunnel in.

It’s surprising when we are sure we know the touchstones that were important to us as children—the books that stunned and enthralled us, the movies that flutter in our brain.

But I wonder if it’s the things that made less a clear mark, whose connection is more tentative, whose role is less transparent—might they matter more? Might these lost memories or totems—unedited by the parts of ourselves that insist we know ourselves so well—be the things that tell us the most?”

As the letter to the reader closes:

All will be revealed once you read the last answer. If you’ve solved the mystery correctly, give yourself a pat on the back. If not, resolve to do better next time. Then move onto the next case.

Good Luck!

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

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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?