All Posts By Michael Kahn

My 5 Favorite Narrators (Part 3)

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In my last post, I discussed the 2nd of my 5 favorite narrators, Raymond Chandler’s private eye, Philip Marlowe.

As I now turn to #3, it’s worth noting his surprising overlap with #2. In several important ways, Chandler’s The Big Sleep, set in the Los Angeles of the 1930s, is similar to Joseph Conrad’s brilliant novella, The Heart of Darkness, set in the Africa of the 1890s. Both are mysteries. In both, the protagonist sets out to find a missing person. In The Big Sleep, the missing person is the notorious ex-bootlegger RustyRegan. In The Heart of Darkness, the 252533-vic2header[1]missing person is the near mythical Mr. Kurtz, who runs an ivory trading company’s Central Station hundreds of miles up the Congo River. And in both works, our protagonist-narrator’s name is pronounced the same. In The Big Sleep, his name is Marlowe; in The Heart of Darkness his name is . . .


Technically, the narrator of Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness is the unnamed fifth man on the luxury sailboat Nellie, which is anchored on the Thames several miles east of London as the men wait for the turn of the tide. His is the voice that opens and closes the novella and occasionally provides a transition paragraph during the story. And his is also the voice of the polite gentlemen, which comes through as he introduces us to the others on board. He identifies three only by their professions: the Lawyer (“the best of old fellows”), the Accountant, and the Director of Companies (“our captain and our host”).

But our unnamed narrator is most intrigued by the fifth man. As he tells us,

“Marlow sat cross-legged right aft, leaning against the mizzen-mast. He had sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a straight back, an ascetic aspect, and, with his arms dropped, the palms of hands outwards, resembled an idol.”

The men aboard are quiet as “the sun set; the dusk fell on the stream, and lights began to appear along the shore.” They gaze out at the348_1[1] traffic on the river: “Lights of ships moved in the fairway—a great stir of lights going up and going down.” In the far distance, the lights of London were “marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars.”

And then our real narrator speaks:

“And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”

Soon, like the gentlemen aboard the Nellie, we are entranced by Marlow’s vivid narration of his journey up the Congo River in search of the mysterious Mr. Kurtz. The language is beautiful, the scenes are powerful, and Marlow is the perfect guide into that heart of darkness.

Whether this is your first or your fifth time reading the work, from the moment Marlow first speaks you, too, will be entranced. The prose is remarkable, and all the more so in that English was not Joseph Conrad’s first language. Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in the Russian part of what had once been Poland, he came to England as a young man.

Although Conrad apparently spoke with a Polish accent the rest of his life, his English prose still sparkles after more then a century. There are quotable sentences–and occasionally entire paragraphs–on every single page of the novella. Here is one of my favorite passages: Marlow’s description of traveling up the Congo River:

“Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sandbanks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off forever from everything you had known once -somewhere- far away in another existence perhaps. There were moments when one’s past came back to one, as it will sometimes when you have not a moment to spare to yourself; but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream, remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants, and water, and silence. And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect.”


My 5 Favorite Narrators (Part 2)

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In this series of posts I discuss my five favorite fictional narrators. My first narrator, discussed last time, was Huck Finn. On to number 2:


If, to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, the narrators of most modern American literature come from one narrator created by Mark Twain named Huck Finn, it’s fair to say that the narrators of most modern American detective fiction come from one narrator created by Raymond Chandler named Philip Marlowe.

2052[1]Marlowe is a fascinating collection of seemingly contradictory traits: he is a wise-cracking, hard-drinking, tough private eye who happens to enjoy poetry and chess. And he possesses a distinctive and captivating voice that is at the core a series of novels that include The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, and Farewell, My Lovely. Although the plots in many of Chandler’s novels could charitably be described as disjointed, our tour guide’s enchanting voice helps bridge the gaps. Here are some of my favorite examples of that voice:

  • “From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.” (The High Window)
  • “The girl gave him a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back.” (The Long Goodbye)
  • “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.” (Farewell, My Lovely)
  • “She lowered her lashes until they almost cuddled her cheeks and slowly raised them again, like a theater curtain. I was to get to know that trick. That was supposed to make me roll over on my back with all four paws in the air.” (The Big Sleep)

Raymond ChandlerAnd here is an opening paragraphs (from the short story “Red Wind”)–an opening paragraph to make an author kick a hole in a stained-glass window:: “There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Ana’s that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”

I end with this passage from Farewell, My Lovely, which perfectly captures our hero and his voice: “I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.”

Ah, Marlowe. You had me at hello.


Who Tells the Story? My 5 Favorite Narrators in Literature (Part 1)

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imagesCAAN4B19I came across a fun piece in Publishers Weekly by the author Antoine Wilson entitled “The 10 Best Narrators in Literature.” As he explains, the range of fictional narrators goes from the World Swallower to the Unreliable Narrator. The World Swallower is “the unhinged cousin of the old-school omniscient author-narrator (the one who used to say ‘dear reader’) . . . [who] stretches (or obliterates) the boundaries of what a character might be able to know.” At the other end for Wilson is the Unreliable Narrator, who can be comic or tragic, and “can tell just about any story while also reflecting our capacity for self-deception, our limited sliver of knowledge about the world, and the limits of language itself.”

Reading through Wilson’s Top 10 got me thinking about my own favorites. I’ve narrowed my list to five. Here’s my first one. Stay tuned for 2 through 5.


As Ernest Hemingway famously wrote in Green Hills of Africa, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” And it’s no stretch to claim that all narrators in modern American literature, or at least the most memorable ones,come from one narrator named Huckleberry Finn. The list of Huck’s progeny includes Holden Caulfield, Alex Portnoy, Augie March, “Scout” Finch, and dozens  of others.Mark-Twain-public-domain-e1353316357400[1]

Huck’s unique voice is there, in all its glory, from the very first sentence of the very first paragraph of the novel, which begins: “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.”

And it only gets better. If you haven’t spent time with Huck Finn, open to page 1, settle back in your easy chair, and prepare to be enchanted by the greatest narrator in American literature.

It’s a voice that stays vivid and stays true through the novel’s final paragraph:

Tom’s most well now, and got his bullet around his neck on a watch-guard for a watch, and is always seeing what time it is, and so there ain’t nothing more to write about, and I am rotten glad of it, because if I’d a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn’t a tackled it, and ain’t a-going to no more.  But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it.  I been there before.



Untold Tales of Wild and Crazy Love

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Falstaff_41[1]Love stories have generated mountains of literary analysis over the years. From Tristan & Isolde to Romeo & Juliet to Elizabeth Bennett & Mr. Darcy to Anastasia Steel & Christian Grey, the ins-and-outs (pun sort of intended) of the amorous relationships between fictional characters have been probed  (guilty again) from every angle (ok, enough) by scholars and literary critics.

Oddly, though, an especially passionate type of literary love–a love that apparently dares not speak its name among critics–is the love that every author experiences. I speak of that wild and crazy love between an author and a fictional character. Usually, however, that passion does not involve the main character, for whom the author tends to nurture a calm and mature relationship.

No, I speak of that other character–that marvelously vibrant one who originally may have been dropped into the story line for a limited purpose, perhaps to help bridge a plot line in one chapter, but who quickly takes on a life of his own. And yes, it’s usually a he. And in his most archetypal version, he is fat and vulgar and funny and gluttonous and fond of alcohol. And, most important, he is intensely loyal to the main character. In modern lingo, he is The Sidekick.

The best example–and one of the most vivid characters in all of literature–is Sir John Falstaff. The love affair between Shakespeare and Falstaff is apparent  to all who’ve seen or read the Henry IV plays. Indeed, Falstaff so obviously captivated his author that what probably had been envisioned as a single play telling that story of Henry IV ballooned into two plays with plenty of scenes devoted to Falstaff and young Prince Harry. And when the curtain came down on the final scene in Henry IV, Part II, Shakespeare’s passion for Falstaff had not died. And though Falstaff himself does die, offstage, in Henry V, Shakespeare resurrected him for the lead role in the comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor.

From that same era, we have the equally intense love affair between Miguel de Cervantes and his fat, vulgar, gluttonous fictional 154812-050-D4E47005[1]paramour, Sancho Panza. And, oh, what a magical novel those two produced. Just as young Prince Harry needs Falstaff to make those scenes snap, so, too, that eccentric Spanish gentlemen could not possibly have become our beloved Don Quixote without Sancho Panza at his side.

While Falstaff and Sancho Panza are among the most beloved characters in all of literature–beloved by their creators and by their readers–the sidekick concept expanded into the realm of crime and mystery fiction. Not all sidekicks are fat and jolly, though. To name just a few, Sherlock Holmes has Dr. Watson,  Nero Wolfe has Archie Goodwin, Spenser has Hawk, Batman has Robin, and even the Lone Ranger has Tonto. But my favorite of the sidekicks–and the one closest to the Falstaff model–is Dave Robicheaux’s fat and ferocious pal Clete Purcell. While I don’t know Clete’s origins in the mind of Jame Lee Burke, I’m willing to bet that the Mr. Burke fell in love with Clete within a few paragraphs of his first appearance.

images[11]Long before I figured out this Falstaff sidekick thing, I fell in love with my own fat, vulgar, gluttonous sidekick. Way back when I wrote, Grave Designsmy first Rachel Gold novel–and certainly before I ever realized it might become a series–I needed, purely for a plot bridge, a pal for Rachel who was still at the large law firm where she had once worked. Thus arrived Benny Goldberg. And like Falstaff and perhaps Clete Purcell, Benny had far more ambitious plans for himself than his creator did.

My best example of Benny’s progress–and my crazy love affair with him–occurred late one night as I was seated at the kitchen table writing a scene for one of the novels. I was apparently laughing loud enough to attract the attention of my wife Margi, who came into the kitchen from our bedroom.

“What’s so funny?” she asked.

“Oh, my God, you won’t believe what Benny just said.”

Margi gave me an odd look as she backed out of the kitchen.

As I recall that moment all these years later, I can’t help but think of that line from the rock song “Cupid’s Chokehold”: If that ain’t love, then I don’t know what love is.


The Joy Of The Dead

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DEAD[1]Sometimes we revisit a beloved book or movie many years later only to discover that what had once seemed so magnificent now seems, well, kind of meh. Such was the case for me with the novel Catcher in the Rye and the movie Bringing Up Baby. Oh, there were wonderful moments in each, but nothing that came close to matching my glorious memories of them.

Sometimes, though, the opposite occurs: we revisit a work of art that had once seemed, well, pretty good but now, years later, has become a masterpiece. Such is the case with James Joyce’s story, “The Dead,” which I revisited via audio book on our annual summer vacation drive from St. Louis to the Michigan shoreline.  If you haven’t read it recently, I urge you to do so. First published in 1914 as the final story in Joyce’s The Dubliners, and now generally recognized as a great, if not the greatest, story of the 20th century, you can download it for free in various places, including here.

For those who don’t recall or haven’t read it, the story takes place in Dublin in 1904 at a holiday party given by two elderly sisters, Kate and Julia Morkan, and their unmarried niece, Mary Jane. The guests arrive, we observe them as they observe one another and we listen to them talk. Among the guests are the aunts’ favorite nephew, Gabriel Conroy, and his wife, Gretta. At the end of the long evening, after Gabriel has given his annual holiday toast to the gathering, he and Gretta go to the hotel where they will spend the night before going home to a far suburb in the morning.James_Joyce[1]

I warn you that up until they reach their hotel, the story will seem almost mundane. Indeed, by then you may be asking yourself what the hell was Kahn smoking when he recommended this?

Trust me. Read on.

As they approach the hotel, all Gabriel can think about is making love to Gretta. But in the hotel room he grows irritated by her distant demeanor. She clearly has no interest in sex, and in fact bursts into tears. She confesses that she has been thinking of the final song from the party because a former lover had sung it to her in her youth in Galway. Gretta recounts the sad story of her first love, a boy named Michael Furey, who died of an illness after waiting outside of her window in the cold.


Gretta eventually falls asleep, but Gabriel remains awake, deeply disturbed by what he has learned about his wife–and, more important, about himself.

The final paragraphs of the story are among the most profound and poignant paragraphs in all of literature. I will resist the temptation to quote them here because you won’t feel their magic without first reading all that comes before them.

Next on my bucket list is to re-watch the movie version, directed by the great John Huston just before his death. Indeed, Huston apparently said on many occasions that “The Dead” was the one work of literature he wanted to film before he died. He cast his daughter Angelica in the role of Gretta, and she is magnificent.

I have wonderful memories of the film, which I was glad to see confirmed by the late Roger Ebert in this review and by the New York Times’ Vincent Canby in this review. I can’t wait to see it again.

Sex, Torture, and Montaigne

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michel-de-montaigne-006[1]As I skim through my various posts this year, I’ve noticed a pattern: a fascination with literary evidence that confirms the prophecy of Ecclesiastes: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Or, stated differently, all those literary devices you think are so cool and au couranthave actually been around for hundreds and hundreds of years.

As I discussed in one post, the most celebrated works of meta-fiction–that quintessential post-modern form of literature–pale in comparison to what Miguel de Cervantes accomplished five centuries ago in his meta-fiction masterpiece, Don Quixote. So, too, as I explored in another post, the concept of the “unreliable narrator” predates its contemporary hipster practitioners by at least seven hundred years, as exemplified by two of the narrators in The Canterbury Tales.

Thus it should come as no surprise that Michel de Montaigne (1553 – 1592), the inventor of the “personal essay, fills his pages with observations about himself, his neighbors, and society that are as relevant today as when he wrote them back before Shakespeare’s time. I have been happily working my way through those essays. Along the way I have dog-eared so many pages that I can no longer find my way back to a specific observation or quote that made me want to fold over the corner of that particular page. For example, here is one I used as the introductory quote for a section of my novel The Mourning Sexton: “On the highest throne in the world, we still sit only on our own bottom.”

Pick your topic, and Montaigne will offer insights and observations that will make you smile or nod in agreement or both.

On the topic of sex, Montaigne’s many witty observations includes this one on his own penis: “We are right to note the license and disobedience of this member which thrusts itself forward too inopportunely when we do not want it to, and which so inopportunely lets us down when we most need it; it imperiously contests for authority with our will: it stubbornly and proudly refuses all our incitements, both of the mind and hand.”

Somewhat more profound thoughts on marriage, women and sexual pleasure can be found in this oddly titled essay, “Upon Some Verses of Virgil.” Here is a link to it.

Just as intriguing to me were his thoughts on the use of torture to obtain information from prisoners of war. Given the debate in our country over water boarding and other methods of interrogation by torture, Montaigne’s musings on the subject (in the essay “On Conscience”) seem as relevant today as they did when he wrote them back in the 1500s.

“Tortures are a dangerous invention,” he writes, “and seem to be a test of endurance rather than of truth. Both the man who can endure them and the man who cannot endure them conceal the truth.”

“Torture,” he continues, “is a means full of uncertainty and danger. What would a man not say, what would a man not do, to escape such grievous pains. Pain forces even the innocent to lie.”

Indeed, you could literally copy and paste excerpts from that essay into an op-ed piece for your town’s newspaper. Not too shabby for a guy who died in 1592.

A Review and Interview in Kings River Life Magazine

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I had a delightful “sit down” interview via the Internet with Cynthia Chow for Kings River Life Magazine. Cynthia asked fun and interesting questions about reading, writing and the law. Here is a link to that interview.

The magazine was also kind enough to give my new novel, The Flinch Factor, a thumbs-up review. That review appears directly above the interview.

Two More Wise Men on Immortality

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62069-004-0F8FD48C[1]Following up on my last post on immortality, I wanted to share some deep thoughts on the topic from two wise men–one dead for nearly two millennia, the other still hanging in there.

First, Marcus Aurelius, who died in the year 180 A.D. He wrote in his Meditations:

“He who has a vehement desire for posthumous fame does not consider that every one of those who remember him will himself also die very soon; then again also they who have succeeded them, until the whole remembrance shall have been extinguished as it is transmitted through men who foolishly admire and perish.”

The irony, of course, is that Marcus Aurelius died more than 1,900 years ago, but we still remember him and still read his book.

But on to our second wise man, St. Louis native  and Baseball Hall of Famer 220px-Antoninus_Pius_Glyptothek_Munich_337_cropped[1]Yogi Berra, who is quoted almost as often as Marcus Aurelius. Yogi’s thoughts on the topic are right to the point and infused with that unique brand of Yogi absurdity:

“You should always go to other people’s funerals; otherwise, they won’t come to yours.”