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It Was Dark, It Was Stormy, It Was Paradise

Recently, and for no particular reason, I tried to remember the first crime or mystery book I ever read. Since I am a woman of a certain age, it was, of course, a Nancy Drew book. I couldn’t recall which book, but I did remember my childhood thrill at being on a dark and stormy adventure with the girl sleuth. Danger! Daring! Disobedience!

Disobedience. Yeah, that was the hook for me. Disobedience all the way around. Disobedient Nancy, doing daring and dangerous things a respectable, well behaved girl shouldn’t do, like pursuing criminals. And criminals by definition are disobedient, doing whatever they want, usually bad things like theft and murder, but hey, they didn’t ask Mommy or Daddy if they could go out and do it. For a straining-at-the-leash kid like me, Nancy Drew’s world of crime and crime solving was a paradise of disobedience, redeemed by good triumphing over evil.

Adulthood has taken the shine off the good-triumphing-over-evil part. We know — through horrifying headlines, even our own personal experiences and crushing disappointments — that good often loses the game. But for me, and perhaps for many crime fiction writers, the lure of disobedience lingers. It’s not only at the core of the criminals we create and the criminal acts we have them perform, disobedience can also power crime solvers: all those rule-breaking cops and PIs.

As crime and mystery writers, we must find empathy within us for all of our characters in order to give them full human dimension. That means understanding the criminal as well as the crime solver, burrowing inside their disobedience to get to the root of their acts. Like the little kid I once was, I still find that thrilling. I even find freedom. In our real lives, we are constrained by various rules, most of them necessary in order to maintain a functioning society. Many of society’s rules, though, are annoying, trapping us in bureaucratic red tape, computer intransigence, general injustice, and other irritating entanglements. Writing crime, writing about people who disobey society’s rules, provides a liberating relief. I don’t have to ask Mommy, Daddy, or the boss who signs my paycheck if I can vicariously rob a bank, kill someone, or disobey the rules in order to catch a killer. Freedom!

Well, that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it, as they say. If you’re a crime fiction writer or reader, I have a feeling it’s your story, too. We’re all grown up now, we won’t get our hands slapped or sent to bed without dessert for our attitude of disobedience. As writers, we’ll make art of it.

Long live crime fiction and the disobedient souls who write it and read it.

 —Ann Aptaker

•     •     •

Lambda and Goldie winner Ann Aptaker isn’t shy about telling you how much she loves her hometown, New York City. She swears she even feels its history; all those triumphs and tragedies of the famous and the forgotten. She’s now old enough to be part of that history, which she likes, except for the “old” part, which she’s iffy about. Aptaker is happy to bring you into that history in her Cantor Gold crime series.

Investigate Thyself: Patrick Modiano’s Missing Person

Patrick Modiano’s Missing Person focuses on a private detective, introduced as Guy Roland, who investigates himself. The location is Paris, the time period, the mid-1960s. I say “introduced as Guy Roland,” because from page one of this novel, we comprehend that we are dealing with a detective narrator with little sense of his own identity. “I am nothing,” is how the book starts. “Nothing but a pale shape, silhouetted that evening against the café terrace, waiting for the rain to stop…”

The head of the agency he works for, a man named Hutte, is retiring. The agency is closing. But Hutte is keeping the lease on the apartment where the agency operates, which means that all the “street-and-trade directories and year books of all kinds going back fifty years” will remain there. Hutte, who brought Roland into the agency eight years ago, who taught him how to be a private investigator, has described these volumes as “the essential tools of the trade,” objects he’d never discard. Roland asks about them, and when Hutte asks Roland what he intends to do with himself, Roland says that he’s following something up. You think that he’s talking about a case that needs closing and that he wants access to the volumes for his work, but then he tells Hutte what he’s really talking about: “My past.” Hutte understands – “I always thought that one day you’d try to find your past again.” – and gives him a key for free use of the premises while’s he off to retire in Nice. Though Hutte asks him whether finding his past will be worth it, he does nothing to dissuade Roland from beginning his stated quest; he, too, it seems, suffers from a strange amnesia.

At some point, both these men lost contact with a whole part of their lives, and as Roland will eventually suggest, the memory blur dates back to World War II. What happened then to trigger the amnesia? Beyond the fact of the war itself, was there a shared trauma? Why doesn’t Roland know his real name or anything about his life before Hutte took him under his wing and even secured a “legal identity record” for him? At that time, Roland was living in a fog, lost in his amnesia. Hutte gave him a direction and a job. But with the closing of the agency, Roland is on his own again, and, in essence, he has decided to hire himself to investigate the mystery of his own existence. Missing Person has the succinct prose, clipped dialogue, and moody first person narration of many a private eye novel, but from the first chapter, we get the impression that this book is not going to take us through the usual private eye environment.

At first, without question, Roland proceeds like a typical detective. Pursuing information, he sets up a meeting with a man he feels can help him. But when Roland tells us that he needs a cognac to calm himself merely to make a phone call, that the phone call has brought sweat pouring out of his temples, we know we’re not dealing with an investigator who exudes the strength of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. It's evident also that absurdity will mark an aspect of his quest; he’s a detective who doesn’t know himself.

Roland is a man in search of a history, and his nebulous sense of self leads him to keep changing his thoughts on who he is and where he comes from. Early in his investigation, he has reason to believe he was once Howard de Luz, a Frenchman from a rich family, and he learns that this De Luz lived an idle life, becoming associated with a silent film star. He likes the idea:

Howard de Luz. It might be my own name. Howard de Luz. Yes, the sound of it stirred something in me, something as fleeting as moonlight passing over some object. If I was this Howard de Luz, I had shown a certain originality in my life style, since among so many more reputable and absorbing professions, I had chosen that of being John Gilbert’s confidant.

What's fascinating is how Modiano plays with the concept of detective work as an act of imagination. From Holmes, through Maigret, to hardboiled characters like Lew Archer, detectives have always solved cases by making connections others don’t see.  From these connections come narratives the detectives build. In a book filled with contradictory narratives, many of them false, incomplete, or incorrectly remembered, the detective is the person who constructs the final and dominant narrative. But what if the detective, try as he might, cannot find the “real” narrative?

Missing Person won the Prix Goncourt, France’s highest literary prize, in 1978. For his body of work, Modiano won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014. Now 70, he has written about 30 books over a nearly 50-year career, and if one thing can be said about his writing, it’s that he’s exhibited a remarkable thematic consistency over those decades. Indeed, you might call his concerns an obsession. I’ve read a handful of his novels, but each one explores the same areas. They wrestle with the question of identity and the murkiness of the past. Or as James McAuley writes in a recent New Republic article about him: “...nearly all of them are variations on the theme of missing persons, either murdered in the German Occupation of France or adrift in its uncertain aftermath.”

Luckily, because of the Nobel Prize, Modiano’s books are now easier to find in the United States than the traces of a beach man’s footsteps. He’s easy to read, but thought-provoking, contemplative, and frequently humorous. His literary credentials need no burnishing, but the crime lit aficionado will appreciate his inventiveness with genre. You can admire how he articulates an idiosyncratic and personal vision through the lens, albeit a skewed one, of detective fiction.

—Scott Adlerberg

Excerpted from a longer version published in Criminal Element.

•     •     •

Scott Adlerberg lives in New York City. He co-hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series each summer at the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival in Manhattan. He blogs about books, movies, and writing at Scott Adlerberg’s Mysterious Island. His most recent book is the psychological thriller Graveyard Love.

I Can’t Say Goodbye to Ross Macdonald

Some writers keep drawing you back to them. Among crime writers, one who does this to me is Ross Macdonald. I first read him when I was 13 – the novel was The Goodbye Look, a Lew Archer mystery from 1969. At the time I read it, the mid-'70s, the book was contemporary, and I remember the enjoyment I felt reading a hard-boiled private eye story that was not Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler – in other words, that type of mystery story but not set in the past. I liked Hammett courtesy of Red Harvest and the Continental Op short tales I’d read, and I adored Chandler from reading Farewell, My Lovely (that cool, cynical voice!), but Macdonald felt different. I recall thinking that Macdonald’s characters were people I might actually meet.

The Southern California suburbs he described were different than the suburb I lived in north of New York City, but the problems and issues he explored seemed familiar: parents and children who struggle to communicate, husbands and wives arguing, unhappiness despite comfortable surroundings, families with secrets, the importance of psychology and psychologists in apparently everybody’s worldview.

I recall, too, from that particular read, that the complicated plot held me enthralled. I’ve read a number of Archer books since adolescence, of course, and The Goodbye Look twice more, and I have to say that the pleasure of sifting through Macdonald’s plots is one that has never diminished. Nor has the emotional satisfaction I get reading Macdonald at his best. In his full maturity, Lew Archer has got to be as compassionate a private eye as ever existed, and the people he investigates have a psychological richness that draws you into their stories. Through Archer, you feel their pain.

The first six Archer books are enjoyable. Macdonald writes classic, terse Southern California mysteries in the Chandler tradition.  That’s a key point: from The Moving Target (1949) through The Barbarous Coast (1956), Macdonald’s talent is obvious but so are his influences. In The Moving Target, for example, Archer’s narrative voice has a self-conscious toughness barely present in the later works, and the dialogue often works too hard. Macdonald pushes to be witty in the literary street patter style of the day. Take this stilted exchange:

“The name is Archer,” I said. “Do you use bluing when you wash your hair? I had an aunt who said it was very effective.” His face didn’t change. He showed his anger by speaking more precisely. “I dislike superfluous violence. Please don’t make it necessary.” I could look down on the top of his head, see the scalp shining through the carefully parted hair. “You terrify me,” I said. “An Italianate Englishman is a devil incarnate.”

A little farther on, Archer says that he hates being touched by a man because “his hands were epicene.” There’s no way the Archer of the '60s and '70s would express this contemptuous and macho a sentiment, and more than once in The Moving Target, Archer suddenly finds himself kissing a seductive young woman whose “lips were hot on my face.” You could get this kind of stuff in any private eye tale of the day.

By the third book, The Way Some People Die (1951), Macdonald as a hard-boiled craftsman is working on all cylinders. I'd even say that this novel is among my favorites in the series. It has a relentless quality and an overall sense of nastiness. In a case with a high body count, Archer has to outmaneuver the police and the mob while moving from one seamy location to another, and it's here that we first get a glimpse of the Archer to come – a thoughtful man who keeps his composure amid deception and dysfunction, familial and otherwise, of the worst sort.

The Doomsters (1958) and The Galton Case (1959) mark the turning point. In these books, the Archer voice changes into something unique, and for the remaining 10 books, the full-fledged Macdonald conception of a private eye appears. Hammett, non-romantic to his core, had created the tough existentialist protagonist. Chandler’s version was more romantic, the ever popular tarnished knight. Both write stories with sociological overtones, but the emphasis remains on catching the wrongdoer. Motivation is considered insofar as it will help in nailing the culprit. Empathy is not a quality that comes to mind when you think of the Op or Spade or even Marlowe. But for Archer, product of a creator who went to therapy for his own issues (a childhood shadowed by the early separation of his parents, an absent father, and a lot of moving around growing up), trying to get at the why of crime, the root causes, becomes the investigative touchstone.

As Macdonald wrote in his 1965 essay “The Writer as Detective Hero,” Archer “is less a doer than a questioner, a consciousness in which the meanings of other lives emerge.” He comes across sometimes as a therapist as much as he is a detective, a role he acknowledges. And what psychiatric school does he follow? Well, Macdonald is nothing if not a Freudian, and with Freud, for better or worse, the key to psychological problems usually lies in childhood. From The Galton Case on, Macdonald’s plots follow one pattern: trouble in the present, usually involving family tensions, stems from murder and other traumas in the past.

The generations are at odds, the relationships between younger adults and their parents are strained, and the arrogance and hypocrisies of the parents cause no end of damage to their children. People try to cover up and repress past experience, but as every respectable Freudian knows, repression is merely the mother of neuroses. Archer does his probing through these intergenerational webs of conflict, and though he tends to sympathize with the young against the old, he casts few judgments. He knows that repression solves nothing, that what’s buried will bubble up in the present, causing calamity. He explains his view of time's weave in The Chill (1962) – “History is always connected with the present” – and expounds on it in The Far Side of the Dollar (1965), “Life hangs together in one piece.  Everything is connected with everything else. The problem is to find the connections.”

How Macdonald creates a fabric where the past is present and connections are pervasive is through his intricate plots, which are things of beauty. His ideas on plot are essential to understanding him as a writer, and he expresses them best himself in the essay noted earlier.

Here he puts his ideas in context, explaining how he differs from the giant looking over his shoulder – Chandler: "I learned a great deal from Chandler — any writer can — but there had always been basic differences between us. One was in our attitude to plot. Chandler described a good plot as one that made for good scenes, as if the parts were greater than the whole. I see plot as a vehicle of meaning. It should be as complex as contemporary life, but balanced enough to say true things about it. The surprise with which a detective novel concludes should set up tragic vibrations which run backward through the entire structure. Which means that the structure must be single, and intended."

The argument against Macdonald’s plots is that he had only one (from The Galton Case on) and used it again and again. That’s not completely untrue. But it’s a great plot, and what he does in each book is work variations on it. That Macdonald likes jazz is obvious from the jazz player references he makes in his books – people such as Lux Lewis and Mary Lou Williams are mentioned in The Moving Target, JC Higginbotham in The Far Side of the Dollar – and I wonder whether Macdonald saw himself doing something a jazz musician would do, riffing on a theme and continually reworking it, trying in his mind to get it just perfect.

Reading him now, you go into each of the last 11 Archer novels knowing what he’s going to explore in that book and how more or less he’s structured it, yet it doesn’t matter. You still admire the construction, the suspense, and the mastery of language.  You still live with the anguished, striving characters. His characters kill for any number of reasons, but nobody is what you'd call an evil person. He would agree with what the crime writer Ruth Rendell said about criminal motivation, that "Crimes are more often committed out of fear than wickedness. People lead frightened, desperate lives." Macdonald's characters fit this description to a tee, and his understanding of the human weaknesses that lie behind the monstrous acts is what leaves you finishing his books feeling, above all else, as in Greek tragedy, pity.

Macdonald fused plot, character, style, and psychology in the private eye novel like nobody had before him. He used genre fiction to explore his deepest personal concerns and obsessions. As a writer (and I don't even write PI novels), I've come to regard him as one of those novelists you can keep learning from, and as I said, he’s a writer I keep coming back to, reading and re-reading.

Who among crime writers do you keep returning to?

–Scott Adlerberg

Originally posted at Do Some Damage.

•     •     •

Scott Adlerberg lives in New York City. He co-hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series each summer at the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival in Manhattan. He blogs about books, movies, and writing at Scott Adlerberg’s Mysterious Island. His most recent book is the psychological thriller Graveyard Love.

Breaking Formula: The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn

In the late 1960s, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, the most popular science fiction writers in Russia, decided to write a mystery novel. The Dead Mountaineer's Inn was published in 1970, and its creation may have been motivated in part by the weariness they felt struggling with the Soviet authorities. Once writers of optimistic science fiction that the authorities backed, they had changed with time, and so had their relation to the authorities.

Their work over the years turned more dystopian and satiric, obliquely critical of a system that, in the wake of the post Stalin era thaw, had not delivered on its promises. The brothers liked the mystery genre, and Arkady in particular, who spoke English well, had read such writers as Rex Stout, Erle Stanley Gardner, John LeCarre, and Dashiell Hammett. None of these writers were well-known to the Russian public at the time; since the 1930s, the government had all but banished detective fiction. As Boris wrote in his 1999 memoir, Comments on the Way Left Behind, they meant to write a light-hearted, commercial novel that would be fun to write and raise no alarm bells with the censors.

What they actually concocted was a mystery with a classical set-up. There’s a bizarre murder that takes place at an isolated inn, a detective on vacation, and a cast of oddball suspects. The idea seemed straightforward enough, but of course, being who they were — masters of the weird and the speculative — their novel came out as a genre-masher, something decidedly non-formulaic.

As the novel starts, police inspector Peter Glebsky has left his job and the city behind. He’s also left his wife and kid at home to spend two weeks by himself at a ski chalet called The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn. The inn sits in a remote valley near a place called Bottleneck Pass, and Glebsky intends to enjoy the isolation. He just wants to lounge around, sip port, and ski.

The inn has some odd things about it. To begin with, its name — derived from a mountaineer who died nearby when he fell from a cliff and set off an avalanche. The inn’s owner, Alex Snevar, is an eccentric designer of wind turbines he builds himself, and his dog, a Saint Bernard named Lel, seems to have preternatural intelligence. Indeed, Snevar describes his pet as “Sapient,” saying that he “Understands three European languages.” Though the mountaineer died six years ago, Snevar talks about him often, and the place seems imbued with the dead mountaineer’s presence.

Glebsky doesn’t want riddles and complications on his vacation, but the unanswered questions are just beginning. And then, there are Glebsky’s fellow guests, who he views as irritants. There’s a traveling salesman named Albert Moses and his gorgeous wife. Mr. Moses is never without a mug in his hand, and though he drinks from it constantly, it always looks full. There’s the famous hypnotist and magician, Du Barnstoker, staying with his adolescent relative Brun —because Glebsky can’t tell the young person’s gender, he refers to the youth as “it” — and there’s Simone, a scientist recovering from a nervous breakdown. Soon, during a snowstorm one night, two new men arrive; one is Hinkus, an enigmatic youth counselor on sick leave, and the other is Olaf Andvarafors, a guy so big and powerful looking, Glebsky calls him a Viking.

With all the major players in place, more oddness ensues —  slapstick even; a person or force is apparently moving hotel objects around and making guests’ personal items disappear. It becomes clear, this is the last place Glebsky should have come to find peace and relaxation. The pacing and overall strangeness of everything keeps the reader both intrigued and laughing.

The storytelling inThe Dead Mountaineer’s Inn is fast-paced, hilarious, and filled with character detail, and the build-up to the inevitable murder is as entertaining as the investigation afterwards. Of all the puzzling happenings, Glebsky thinks, “Damn, I can’t figure it out…Not enough experience. I’m not Hercule Poirot…”

Maybe not, but for a police inspector who describes himself more than once as a mere bureaucrat, he does like to engage in what his by the book superiors back in the city would have to consider unusual speculations. While drinking port, he and Snevar discuss a number of questions that vary in the broadness of their scope:

Is mankind doomed to extinction (Yes, doomed, but we won’t be around when it happens). Is there a force in nature that the human mind cannot fathom (Yes, there is, but we’ll never know anything about it); Is Lel the St. Bernard capable of sentient thought (Yes, he is, though convincing scientific dolts of this is impossible); Is the universe in danger of succumbing to so-called “heat death” (No, it is not in danger, due to the existence of perpetual motion machines of both the first and second type in the owner’s barn); Was Brun a boy or a girl (Here I was unable to come to any conclusion, but the owner put forward the odd idea that Brun was a zombie, that is, a sexless creature animated by magic)…

Besides showing us that Glebsky isn’t as mundane in his thinking as he might have us believe, this passage balances tones in a way the Strugatsky brothers excel at. The Dead Mountaineer's Inn continually alternates in presenting what you might call metaphysical questions with absurdly inane ones.

A funny scene in which Glebsky waits in line with the other guests to take a shower captures this. The guests bicker, argue, and question each other, all the while trying to figure out who is in the common shower singing and mumbling. If everyone thought to be in the hotel is in view, who could be behind the closed door, washing himself? Is it the ghost of the dead mountaineer? Meanwhile, as they wait in line to use the shower, Du Barnstoker entertains them “with the multiplication and division of multidigit numbers.”

The mysteries inside the inn multiply until the worst happens. Olaf Andvarafors is found murdered in his room. The Viking’s door is locked from the inside, and though the window is open, no footprints are found on the sill or in the snow anywhere near it. The huge guy is lying on the floor face down, but his head is “turned one hundred eighty degrees in a brutal and unnatural fashion,” so that his face is turned toward the ceiling.

A locked room, an impossible crime, intimations of something at work beyond the natural — the Strugatskys give us a scenario that mysteries have mined since their beginning. The thing is, with The Dead Mountaineer's Inn — considering the science fiction background of its creators, that the novel up to the murder has been so irreverent, and that the book is subtitled One More Last Rite for the Detective Genre — the reader does wonder whether the Strugatskys will stick to the conventional rules.

His vacation ruined, Glebsky decides to investigate. No help will be coming from outside for a while because an avalanche in Bottleneck Pass has sealed the inn off. As others tell Glebsky that the victim, as well as some of the guests, may not even be human, he feels that he is getting out of his depth. He does have a philosophical streak, but the case is extending beyond his mental scope.

What is a 20-year veteran of the bureaucratic machinery to do? As he says, “I’m just a police officer. I don’t have the clearance to carry on conversations with ghouls and aliens.” That is, if the solution to the mystery lies in the realm of ghouls and aliens?

A great thing about this novel is that it starts weird and develops into something even weirder after the murder—and yet ambiguity remains. At the conclusion, Glebsky himself cannot be sure what happened, cannot settle on a definitive interpretation of the events he lived through.

After the avalanche snow is cleared, the police arrive. There are reports and commissions; whatever may have happened, however odd and potentially dramatic for the human race, the bureaucracy rolls on.

Still, Glebsky is not that much of a functionary. In the case’s aftermath, he never is able to come to terms with how Simone, the scientist, came to regard him with contempt. Simone is convinced that Glebsky misread everything, with tragic consequences, and a part of Glebsky can’t shake the thought that maybe, just maybe, the scientist is right.

Was he, police inspector Glebsky, too small-minded to see the big picture? Should he at least have tried a different approach when examining the unfamiliar phenomena facing him? It’s possible he was, and remains, too narrow in his thinking, and in the end, after all the high jinks and laughs they give the reader, the Strugatsky Brothers leave us with a sense of Glebsky’s frustration.

A last rite for the detective genre? Sort of. There’s no affirmation of the powers of ratiocination here. The only thing to triumph is the idea of indeterminacy.

—Scott Adlerberg

Originally published in Criminal Element 

•     •     •

Scott Adlerberg lives in New York City. He co-hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series each summer at the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival in Manhattan. He blogs about books, movies, and writing at Scott Adlerberg’s Mysterious Island. His most recent book is the psychological thriller Graveyard Love.

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