Archive for ‘Detectives’

May 24, 2011

More about Columbo-as-trickster

by Sara Gran
Columbo's warrant card and badge in the episod...

Image via Wikipedia

Megan left a comment on my last post that blew my mind a little bit; Columbo as trickster. Especially because I’ve listened a few times now lately–and will probably listen a few times again–to this interview between writer/amateur anthropologist Erik Davis and astrologer/writer/activist Caroyln Casey. In the interview they talk a lot about how the trickster relates to power–how the trickster doesn’t try to generate her own power to force her way through a situation, instead she playfully offers herself as a conduit to power to be used for the good of all (or something like that–listen to the interview!). Carolyn offers as one example, the idea of “fighting” global warming. Fighting, she points out, is what got us into this mess. Instead, why not use the language of the compassionate trickster? She mentions a friend who was trying to convince an Evangelical group why clean energy was important: do you want to run your cars on this black gunk that comes from very close to Hell? Or do you want your life powered by the pure wind and sun from above? To me, that sounds much more likely to work than trying to bully your way through. After all, everyone who has an opinion has tried bullying other people into agreeing with them–how well has that worked for you? Another way we often try to bring people to what we understand as “truth” relies on rational argument. But of course, such arguments only work if we agree on our premises, which we often don’t. Using metaphor, language, and other unexpected ways into people’s psyches might be a far more effective way to open closed doors. I was just reminded of this by something I saw on Twitter–someone who’s twitter-name was something like @teabaggersuck lamented that as the Tea Party wanes in influence he was losing his identity. A healthier scheme might be to not define your identity as “against” something but instead as “pro” what you DO like: maybe @ilovetruth would be a more sustainable, effective, and trickster-like online identity. Who would argue with @ilovetruth? Who would be in better position to speak with a member of a political party they didn’t agree with; @yourpartyblows or @ilovetruth?

As I think I mentioned before, the figure of the trickster is very related to that of the court jester in mythology (who may or may not have ever existed, but is now a part our cultural landscape nonetheless): the jester, they say, was able to speak the truth under the auspices of “humor” in a way that would have gotten others killed. His powerlessness was exactly the source of his power. Another element of the trickster is that he doesn’t always give us what we want, but he tends to give us what we need. Which of course, is exactly what Columbo delivers to his murderers.

I would argue that in a TV show (or book or movie), each character is an aspect of a whole self. Maybe while each of us has a “murderer” (ie, a part of ourselves so enslaved to appearances and material comforts and societal approval that it will literally or metaphorically kill another piece of ourselves to maintain that appearance), each us also has a trickster-y “detective” who has the ability to make us aware of our murderous ways, to ferret out the truth of who we really are, to kick the murderer to the side and leave us with a clean state for displaying a better, more moral, more interesting self.

Megan pointed out another tricksterish aspect of Columbo–Peter Falk’s role as mediator between the world of art-house cinema (Cassavetes) and the world of “trashy” (I say that with love!) television. Not many people would be able to contain all of these qualities in one vessel. But you bet your ass Peter Falk can! And this adds, I think, to his role on TV as not just a detective, but the detective we seem to remember above so many others.

Anyway, I’m babbling a bit, but I thought it was a such neat idea! Megan, is this at all what you had in mind or did I (as I so often do!) destroy your lovely idea?!

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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

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?

May 3, 2011

female PIs and the class of 82: Sue Grafton and Julie Smith; the books that inspired Claire DeWitt

by Sara Gran
The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963).

Image via Wikipedia

As many of you know I went to MALICE DOMESTIC for the first time this past weekend, the big detective fiction conference in Bethesda–Claire DeWittis my first detective novel and it’s introducing me to a bunch of new people, which is always one of many treats of a new book–each book opens whole new doors for you into crowds of cool and interesting people. One of the highlights of the weekend was watching the wonderful Julie Smith interview Sue Grafton, two major inspirations for me. You can’t write a female PI novel without giving credit to these two, who started publishing female PI novels in the early eighties along with Margaret Maron, Sara Paretsky, and a few other trailblazers.  Of course, before this rash of ladies in 1980–83 there had been isolated female dicks here and there, but I don’t know of any long-running series featuring female detectives before these guys came along, and certainly none that reached a mass audience. So it was a real thrill and, honestly, an honor to spend a little time with Julie and Sue this weekend, and watching their interview was like a master class on writing fiction.

It’s funny how once someone is so freaking successful, like Sue Grafton, it seems inevitable. So I was surprised to learn that this didn’t come easily for Sue. She wrote seven or eight books before A is For Alibi (she said one, I think unfinished, was about a boy who lived with a pack of wild dogs–I would have liked to read that!). Even after she finally got a deal for A, it only sold 6300 copies (which is among the reasons it’s so collectible as a first edition now). She didn’t quit her day job until something like G. It’s reassuring to know she had struggles like we all do–and also a little scary to think how she would fare in today’s publishing climate, which is more and more focused on instant success.

One thing I’ve noticed about more experienced writers, whether best-sellers like Sue or some guy who’s been writing in his garage, is that they have a lot of insight to share. (Another treat this weekend was to spend a few minutes talking to Raymond Buckland, best-known as a writer on the occult since 1970, selling bajillions of books, who’s now written a few thriller/PI novels–he had that same air of comfortable knowing that many of the experienced, dedicated writers I’ve met have).  Sue’s been writing these books since 1982, and she’s stayed true to herself and her vision of the series. She had some really interesting thoughts on the Shadow versus the Ego–in their interview she said that during one book (T, maybe?) she’d felt like she needed help and a friend hooked her up with a Jungian therapist who she worked with a bit. The therapist helped her understand that we need to write from our Shadow–our darker, stranger, more intuitive self–and put our Ego–our judge-y, eager to please, what-will-my-mom-think self–aside. We need to set it all up so the Ego serves the Shadow, not the other way around. One corollary of this was what she called “eating the death cookie,” a neat phrase I’d never heard before. if I understood right, eating the death cookie is when Ego takes one for the Shadow. The example Sue used was convincing her publisher (Henry Holt at the time) that she couldn’t keep up the pace of one book a year, and had to bring it down to a book every two years (a topic I have a lot of thoughts on myself, which I will spare you for the moment!). She sat in her publisher’s office and just told them she couldn’t do it. That wasn’t what they wanted to hear, and it hurt her ego to displease them, but she let the Ego take one for the Shadow. The Shadow needs to understand that the Ego will eat that death cookie for it to feel safe. I think that’s fantastic. I was really happy to find out that Sue has a kind of semi-mystical view of writing similar to my own, as so many writers I meet these days seem to view it as a business (to me, writing is a mystical practice; publishing is a job).

One a related note, in their interview Sue said, “It does not serve us as writers to envy other writers…focus on your own work, and do it as well as you can.” She said there’s always someone selling more and someone selling less, always someone making more money and someone making less. Don’t waste your time worrying about it. No one can write what you write and you can’t write what they write. I also thought it was neat that she keeps a notebook for every book she writes, where she jots down not only ideas, dialog, et cetera but also her fears about the book. When she encounters those same fears again, she can go back and see well, yeah, she THAT book also would be a bomb, but it all turned out fine.

Another interesting topic was how Sue came up with the titles. She said at the time A was published a lot of writers were doing series with related titles, and Sue’s father was a writer who began a series based around a nursery rhyme:  THE RAT BEGAN TO GNAW THE ROPE and THE ROPE BEGAN TO HANG THE BUTCHER, which sound strange and fascinating. But I was really overjoyed to hear the idea for the alphabet came from Edward Gorey‘s the Gashlycrumb Tinies, one of my favorite things ever!

Unrelated, but speaking of good advice from older writers: when I worked at Housing Works Bookstore  Alan Furst once came in for a reading (who according to the never-wrong internet first started publishing in 1976). We had readings two or three days a week there, and I already knew dozens of writers on my own (I’d published one or two books), but Furst stands out for his kindness, professionalism, and good advice (if you want to know what writers are REALLY like, work in a bookstore with lots of events!). We were making small talk and he mentioned to me that when you’re doing a reading from your book, 13 or 14 minutes is about as long as you want to read. After that the audience starts to get restless. He was of course entirely correct (you can talk longer than that, just not read from your book uninterrupted) , and I’ve abided by the Alan Furst Rule ever since.