Ah, Lord Peter, I Hardly Knew Ye
You can’t sell Lord Peter Wimsey to a classroom full of millennials. I’m sorry. You. Just. Cannot. Even A.C. Doyle’s “Silver Blaze,” with which I begin my survey course on mystery fiction, is met with cries of “What’s in it for me?” and “It’s just not relatable” (the latter a neologism I cordially despise). Or as Edmund Wilson would have it, “Who Cares who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”
Teaching the Golden Age mystery – on which I cut my escapist teeth – is hard, for, as W.H. Auden demonstrated in “The Guilty Vicarage,” it is a socially, morally, and epistemologically normative genre policed by a detective who is an intellectual and social snob. (And Auden was a fan.) And when you think of it in those terms, why should students care? By the time I finally gave up and cut poor Dorothy Sayers from the syllabus, I found myself asking myself why I loved Gaudy Night so much after all.
So is the detective story nothing but a hopelessly nostalgic fantasy of a time and place of an epistemological and social certainty that never was? Well, yes. They wouldn’t call it a Golden Age if it were real, now would they? The entire point of an idyl, whether it sings of Theocritus’ nymphs and satyrs or Tennyson’s King Arthur, is to celebrate a lost state of perfection that never really existed. (Okay, I had to sneak that it. It's the first time in my life that I’ve ever been able to introduce one of my abstruse orals topics into polite conversation.) Still, it is no coincidence the Golden Age mystery flourished between the two World Wars – a time of considerable, social, moral, and epistemological upheaval. For the idyl is a profoundly conservative form, which offers the fantasy of a return to a vanished Eden from which we have fallen.
And yes, in the wrong hands, this quest to recover a lost state of grace rapidly turns into a quest to scapegoat the Other. Doyle's assumptions about class and race pop out like a missing stud on a starched shirt front; The Sign of Four is one of the very few texts I consider too racist to teach. However, the very fact that the Golden Age never existed in reality paradoxically opens up tremendous post-modernist literary possibilities for those who write from outside the closed society whose values the Golden Age detective story reinforces.
“Silver Blaze” met with grudging acceptance at best. But Sherlock’s “Empty Hearse” met with no such objections. Many would say (myself included) that Sherlock wound up hoist on the petard of its own cleverness. But “The Empty Hearse” is an elegant homage to fans and fan fiction. (For more on that see Emily Nussbaum’s article in The New Yorker.) The episode is also a slick post-modernist take on Lacan’s and Derrida’s seminal readings of “The Purloined Letter,” in which they demonstrate the inherent instability of the mystery’s central promise epistemological certainty – for (apologies for the ugly flashback to Lit Crit 101), any truth is inherently conditioned by the symbolic order of the subject that construes that meaning. (Okay, that was pretty painless, wasn’t it?)
Thus, according to Derrida (and Quentin Tarantino after him), the purpose of any search for the solution to a puzzle can only be to spin further narratives. Dare I introduce the term “absent referent” here? Or, as Hitchcock put it much more simply and elegantly, the MacGuffin. Manuel Ramos’ “The Skull of Pancho Villa” begins with a wonderful counter-narrative to the tale of how the titular MacGuffin was stolen by a mercenary in 1926 and wound up in the possession of Prescott Bush, “grandfather of you-know-who,” and now rests in Skull and Bones at Yale. Instead, Gus Corral, the narrator claims his Grandpa Alberto, the Chicano flunky who actually dug up the grave, kept it, and it remains in the possession of the Corral family, “stored in various containers like hat boxes, cardboard chests, and even a see-through case designed for a basketball.” The conflicting narratives are in themselves a wonderful commentary on the United States’ relationship with its Latin American neighbors, but the true joy of the story is that those narratives are as much of a MacGuffin as the skull, which has little role in the mystery itself beyond making a memorable return with a “lime-green sombrero with red dingle balls balanced on his slick, shiny head.”
Desideria Belen Ayute, the narrator of Carlos Hernandez’ “Los Simpaticos,” solves a classic Golden Age locked room puzzle halfway through the story, whereupon she breaks the fourth wall to deliver a lecture on why Latinos prefer judgement to puzzles – and why this makes the telenovela their art form of choice. She then goes on to deliver the criminal into the hands of the U.S. courts, not out of any abstract belief in justice, but rather because it makes a simpler and tidier instrument of revenge than picking up a weapon herself.
Then there’s Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. I wrote in a previous post about how difficult I found it to write in the first person from any point of view other than my own. Haddon uses the equivalence of the reader and the detective, first pointed out by Tsvetan Todorov, to manage this feat. Christopher’s mindset may be very different from his reader’s, but they are connected by being in the same position as they both struggle to “read” the text of the central mystery. Even more importantly, the very nature of autism means that Christopher’s quest is a fictional demonstration of Lacan’s claims, for Christopher’s cognitive difficulties all stem from the fact that he has no symbolic order to condition his ordering of facts into a narrative that can create meaning.
Perhaps most fascinating of all of these counter-narratives is Randolph Fisher’s extraordinary The Conjure-Man Dies, written during Harlem’s own Golden Age, decades before post-modernism was a gleam in Derrida’s eye. But more on that next time.
Bringing Diversity to Your Characters: A Creative Jump Start
As I launch into my newest book, I am assailed by the usual crucial questions about my protagonist: Is she going to be a writer or an English professor this time? Should I go real wild and make her high school teacher? Educated at the Seven Sisters instead of the Ivy League? Have her take milk in her coffee instead of drinking it black? Maybe she even prefers red wine to white?
But wait! Write what you know, right? So, why, even though I am avowed feminist, am I able to write far more interesting, more complex male characters than female ones? Could it be that getting into a male character’s head requires enough of an imaginative leap that I don’t find myself bound by my own preconceptions, whereas I have a lot of trouble writing from the POV of a woman who is substantially different from me — especially when it comes to first person narration? (This is why I’m so completely in awe of Mark Haddon’s accomplishment in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. But more on that in a later post.) In this post I want to consider how making a self-conscious commitment to diversity in my novels also helped me expand my imagination.
I first grew interested in the topic of diversity simply because I was a college instructor trying to develop a balanced syllabus in a course on mystery fiction, but I rapidly grew interested in how diverse viewpoints could offer a post-modernist commentary on classic Golden Age texts. (Much more on that in a later post as well.) Eventually, my teacher self noodged my writer self, and I made a self-conscious decision to ask myself when approaching any given character whether s/he must share my “skin color/social class/gender/sexual ID/religion/ability/region/block association” (in Richie Narvaez’ far more articulate locution than my own).
Sometimes the only answer is yes — especially if you’re writing about a closed society, such as those that characterizes Golden Age fiction. And that’s perfectly fine. (Again, much more on this in a later post.) But making a self-conscious effort to open my fiction to diverse viewpoints opened up my imagination as well as my fiction. My researches on my current historical WIP led me to discover the fascinating history of 19th-century black jockeys, many of whom were former slaves, and were, according to Ed Hotaling, America’s first sports first superstars, despite often being only known by names such as One-Eyed Sewell. At the same time, what was meant to be a minor, throwaway character destined for a comic bromance in my urban fantasy WIP fell in love with his buddy when my back was turned, and the two of them walked off with the entire book.
So is this cultural appropriation, merely to serve my own needs? I don’t know, and I honestly prefer to leave that question to the political arena. When it comes to incorporating diversity into my novels, I am much more concerned about having a leaden ear for people and cultures other than my own. Deeply as I admire — and have successfully taught — Marvel’s Luke Cage, I am well aware I could never recreate the Harlem milieu in the wonderful detail it does. But historical and fantasy novels do not depend on a similar authenticity of lived experience. As Octavia Butler so brilliantly demonstrated in Kindred, African-Americans are in many ways as much bound by their own preconceptions when attempting to understand the lives of slaves as anyone else. As for serving my own needs – well, I’ll plead guilty. It’s a simple enough question to ask yourself: Do these characters need to be exactly like me? But, at least in my experience, it has opened up complex vistas in my work I couldn’t have possibly expected.
S.J. Rozan on Why Genre Matters, Next Week at Madison, N.J. Library
Sometimes genre fiction gets a bad rap for being "less than literary." Nothing could be further from the truth. But, believe it or not, as popular as crime fiction is, it still retains a certain stigma to many readers. Award-winning author and Mystery Writers of America, New York member S.J. Rozan, will endeavor to correct this misconception at the Madison Public Library in Madison, N.J., next week, on July 20, as part of the library's free Summer Seminar Series. For more than 30 years, Madison Public Library has provided a wildly popular series of free academic lectures each summer. Targeted at a local audience with a desire to learn more about history, politics, and culture, these free lectures offer something for everyone. Past topics have included Manhattan Bridges, New Jersey Gardens, and the music of Scott Joplin.
Rozan's lecture, “Categorization and Its Discontents: Why Genre Matters,” will be held Thursday, July 20, at 10:30 a.m., in the library's Chase Auditorium, 39 Keep Street, Madison, N.J. The event is free and open to the public. Further details and contact information can be found by clicking here.
This year Jeffrey Payton, the library’s program coordinator, decided to offer a lecture on the mystery genre and he reached out to the Mystery Writers of America for input. "Now that we are in our 33rd year of our summer seminars, I found that there really hadn't been any seminars focusing on literature, much less books, fiction, reading, or mysteries," says Payton. "So this year I wanted to rectify that slight and end the fiction drought. We decided to focus on mystery." Mysteries are very popular with the local community as proven by regular attendance at the library's Wednesday Film Nights, which often feature mystery and film noir, and its annual cozy mystery reading series, Bones & Scones.
Recently selected by Mystery Tribune as one of the 25 best female crime fiction authors of the past 50 years, Rozan is the perfect choice for this presentation. Fortunately for the library, she accepted the invitation and will be able to offer her very passionate perspective on this issue. "To be able to get S.J.Rozan, a multi-award winner and an articulate speaker, to present a seminar, well, we feel very fortunate, and we look forward to a successful and popular addition to the seminar series," says Payton. "I would like to see this open the door to more literary and publishing opportunities for seminars and other programs."
—Robert J. Daniher
Robert J. Daniher lives in New Jersey where he works as an IT Support Technician for Madison Public Library and Library of The Chathams. He has been a member of MWA since 2009 and assists the MWA-NY Library Committee with planning author events at North Jersey libraries. His short fiction has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine for the Mysterious Photograph Contest and in the annual Deadly Ink Short Story Collections of 2007 and 2008.
Mug Shot: Deb Pines
Deb Pines, an award-winning New York Post headline writer and former reporter, is the author of three Chautauqua-based mystery novels, one novelette, and a stand-alone short story. A mother of two, SoulCycle fanatic and lover of Scrabble, cooking, hiking and show tunes, she lives in New York City with her husband, Dave. "If you enjoy an old-fashioned whodunit, it's perfect," The Jamestown Post-Journal said of Pines' 2013 debut novel In the Shadow of Death.
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Tell us about your latest work.
Beside Still Waters: A Chautauqua Murder Mystery is the third novel in a series of old-school whodunits set in Chautauqua, a quirky, churchy, lakeside summer arts community in western New York State. This time, series heroine Mimi Goldman, a small-town newspaper reporter — who's sort of me but younger, braver, and prettier — is asked to find a missing person: Jenny Van Alstine, a feminist artist who is her dear friend's granddaughter. Instead, Mimi finds a surprising number of Jenn-emies: haters, lovers, secret-keepers and one killer determined to stop Mimi before she stops them.
When and how do you find time to write?
Since I left full-time reporting for a three-evening-a-week job on the New York Post copy desk, it's easier but not easy. Now I write on my days off. On workdays before my 3:30 p.m. shift. And at work where we typically start with downtime, waiting for stories to chop, edit, and top with snarky tabloid headlines before we finish with frenzied, can't-even-get-up-to-pee editing up to our 9 p.m. early deadline.
How much and what kinds of marketing do you personally do?
I'm self-published, so any marketing is done by me. Mostly, I target my niche audience: the 100,000 people who visit Chautauqua each summer for some or all of a nine-week season of concerts, lectures, church services and other events. There, I run modestly-priced local newspaper ads, speak to any group who will have me — the Jewish Center, Women’s Club, day-camp teens, book clubs — teach classes, sign books, solicit reviews and keep writing. Combined, the efforts + good luck = more book sales each year. I’ve had less success reaching an audience beyond Chautauqua. But I keep trying with Amazon and Goodreads book giveaways, guest-blogging, twice-a-year MailChimp newsletters, radio shows, etc.
What fictional detective would you like to be and why?
I admire fearless, badass private eyes and cops like Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski, Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone, and Law & Order: SVU's Olivia Benson. But they'd be tough to be. So I'd rather be an underestimated, in-over-her-head amateur sleuth, especially a funny one like Rosie Meyers, Susan Isaacs' suburban English teacher sleuth in After All These Years. Rosie not only figures out who killed her estranged husband, she also has two love interests, a boy toy and a more suitably-aged partner. And Rosie gets the great lines like when she praises the conciseness of art over real life. "In English-country-house murder mysteries, for instance," Rosie notes, "someone finds the body and says, 'Egad, the vicar!' No slogging through sixty more pages while you wait for the police to show up."
In five words or less, what advice would you give to aspiring writers?