All Posts By Michael Kahn

Mystery #8 for Literary Snobs: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

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tumblr_lum0e8AGw91qew47w[1]As Terry Rafferty notes in “Cops and Rabbis,” his review of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon “has in recent years become a zealous proselytizer for a more genre-inflected and plot-friendly sort of literary fiction.” Detective fiction has been one such genre, which he first explored in The Final Solution, a mystery set in the English countryside during World War II and featuring a retired 89-year-old detective rumored to be Sherlock Holmes and a young German refugee. It is a lovely novel, even if the New York Times Book Review sniffed in surprise that a mystery novel would “appeal to the real writer.”michael-chabon-the-final-solution[1]

Fans of Chabon and of detective fiction will love The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, a bizarre and brilliant noir detective novel set in an alternative reality in contemporary Alaska, where Jewish refugees and their descendants have prospered for the past 60 years. Specifically, the novel is set in the Federal District of Sitka, a temporary “homeland” created in the wake of the Holocaust and the shocking 1948 collapse of the fledgling state of Israel.

The Jews of the Sitka District have created their own little world in the Alaskan panhandle, a vibrant and complex frontier city that moves to the music of Yiddish. But now the District is set to revert to Alaskan control, and their dream is coming to an end.

Michael ChabonOur protagonist is Meyer Landsman, a homicide detective with plenty of his own problems on top of the upcoming Reversion. His marriage is a wreck, his career a dead end. And in the cheap hotel where he lives, someone has just committed a murder. But as he begins to investigate the killing of his neighbor, a former chess prodigy, word comes down from on high that the case is to be dropped. Immediately. Landsman, the classic Jewish detective, must contend with the powerful forces of faith, obsession, evil, and salvation that are his heritage.

As Publishers Weekly wrote: “Should any other snobs mistake Chabon for anything less than a real writer, this book offers new evidence of his peerless storytelling and style. Characters have skin ‘as pale as a page of commentary’ and rough voices ‘like an onion rolling in a bucket.'”

Mystery #7 for Literary Snobs: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov

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The_Real_Life_of_Sebastian_Knight_1_300_462[1]Conrad Brenner, writing in The New Republic, describes this book as “the most perverse novel you are ever likely to encounter.” And John Updike wrote, “Nabokov writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically”

If that doesn’t whet your appetite, then go back to your annotated Finnegans Wake and leave us alone.

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is a spoof on literary biographies (which, of course, are themselves a form of detection). Our narrator’s mission is to ferret out the real story of his half-brother, Sebastian Knight, an obscure Russian emigre writer who died early in his career. Although V, our narrator, lost contact with his half-brother years before his death, he is determined to write the definitive book that will insure Sebastian Knight’s place in the literary world and, just as important, refute The Tragedy of Sebastian Knight, the second-rate biography written by Knight’s former secretary and V’s nemesis, Mr. Goodman, who’s “large soft pinkish face,” our seething narrator tells us, “was, and is, remarkably like a cow’s udder.”1101690523_400[1]

The plot itself sounds straightforward enough: an amateur biographer’s search for the real story of a minor 20th-century author. But this is Nabokov country, which means that we soon find ourselves within a hall of mirrors as baffling and beautiful and infuriating as a Pynchon novel — and all deliciously conducted by the maestro of English prose. The novel is a spoof of the very idea of the definitive biography, a parody of literary critics and their bag of tricks, and a surreal mystery within a mystery.

“Don’t be too certain of learning the past from the lips of the present,” our narrator warns us. “Remember that what you are told is really threefold: shaped by the teller, reshaped by the listener, concealed from both by the dead man of the tale.”

Mystery #6 for Literary Snobs: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

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Name-of-the-Rose[1]Umberto Eco is a literary snob’s dream date. A towering intellectual, he is the author of numerous scholarly articles and books in the fields of literary criticism, semiotics, anthropology, and mass culture. Indeed, his list of international literary and scholarly awards is matched only by the number of honorary degrees he has received from universities around the world.

And guess what? He’s also the author of The Name of the Rose, Mystery #6 for our literary snobs.

As hard as it may be to believe in hindsight, his novel was the sleeper of 1980 — a work of fiction set in the middle ages and written by a respected but, at least to the reading public, obscure Italian scholar who’d built his academic reputation in the field of semiotics. Published without fanfare, this first novel by Eco astounded the publishing world by selling millions of copies and receiving several of Europe’s most prestigious literary prizes.

The novel is a classic murder mystery. It’s set in 1327 in a Benedictine monastery in northern Italy. Enter our detective, an English Franciscan and master logician named William of Baskerville. Yes, Baskerville. And yes, William is accompanied by his own Dr. Watson, a disciple named Adso who–like Watson–serves as the story’s narrator. The two have come to the monastery as representatives of the Emperor Louis IV to debate the representatives of Pope John XXII on the subject of evangelical poverty.

Umberto Eco
But before you can say, “Elementary, my dear Adso,” the corpse of a young monk is discovered at the bottom of a cliff and our English detective is scrutinizing the clues. This novel is a deliciously intelligent treat.

As the critic Richard Ellman wrote in  The New York Review of Books (a periodical found on the coffee tables of every self-respecting literary snob): “The Name of the Rose succeeds in being amusing and ambitious at the same time. It can be regarded as a philosophical novel masked as a detective story, or as a detective story masked as a historical novel, or even better as a blend of all three.”

Mystery #5 for Literary Snobs: A Murder of Quality by John leCarre

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9780141196374[1]John leCarre toiled for years in the vineyards of another low-status genre, the spy thriller, before critics “discovered” that his potboilers happened to be, well, exceptional novels.

But way back in 1962 — the year before The Spy Who Came In From The Cold — LeCarre published a short mystery masterpiece, A Murder of Quality. The murder victim is the wife of the snooty dean of a British prep school. Better yet, the detective is none other than George Smiley, the dumpy hero of leCarre’s finest spy novels.lecarre[1]

In his only book set outside the espionage community, Smiley puts in a turn at detective that would have made Sherlock Holmes chuckle with admiration. The novel offers an exquisite, satirical look at an elite private school as it chronicles the early development of George Smiley.

Mystery #4 for Literary Snobs: Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner

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51MSG3WEXDL[1]Faulkner flirted with the mystery genre throughout his career — Knight’s Gambit and Intruder in the Dust, for example, along with the screenplay for The Big Sleep,which he wrote. But his finest mystery also happens to be his finest novel.  Absalom  Absalom is, quite simply, a superior detective story and a great work of literature.

The novel opens in 1909 on the eve of Quentin Compson’s departure for his freshman year at Harvard. He is summoned to the home of the elderly Miss Rosa Coldfield, who is convinced that someone is living in the ghostly mansion of Sutpen’s Hundred. She forces Quentin to listen to her story of her wicked brother-in-law, Thomas Sutpen — the Kurtz at the heart of this darkness. Thomas Sutpen arrived from parts unknown in the 1830s, deviously acquired one hundred square miles of uncleared land from the Chickasaws, and transformed it into Sutpen’s Hundred, a thriving plantation complete with splendid mansion and socially prominent wife. But his quest to forge a dynasty exploded in a gothic swirl of sex, madness, murder . . . and mystery.

William Faulkner
There are other versions of the tale, and Quentin hears them as well. The enigmatic figure of Thomas Sutpen haunts him. What was behind his grandiose scheme? Why did his son Henry kill his best friend, who was also his sister’s beau, at the entrance to Sutpen’s Hundred when they returned home from the Civil War? And who is that mysterious stranger living out at Sutpen’s Hundred?

Months later, Quentin and his good-natured Harvard roommate (in the role of Dr. Watson) sift through the clues in their icy dormitory room in the middle of the New England winter as they unravel the mystery of the fall of the House of Sutpen.

The critic Michael Millgate has described Quentin as “a detective of genius, collecting all the available evidence, and then, with the aid of his more matter-of-fact assistant, imaginatively reconstructing what ‘must’ have been the course of events and the pattern of motivation.”

This is one of my favorite novels. Enjoy!

Mystery #3 for Literary Snobs: Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

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8465_original[1]Any excuse to read this South American grandmaster is a good one. Luckily for us, mysteries were his favorite fiction. As fellow South American author Alberto Manguel reminisced about Jorge Luis Borges in his piece in the 2006 Criminal Content issue of Words Without Borders:

“He loved detective novels. He found in their formulae the ideal narrative structures that allow the fiction writer to set up his own borders and to concentrate on the efficiency of words and images made of words. He enjoyed significant details. He once observed, as we were reading the Sherlock Holmes story “The Red-Haired League,” that detective fiction was closer to the Aristotelian notion of a literary work than any other genre. According to Borges, Aristotle had stated that a poem about the labors of Hercules would not have the unity of the Iliad or the Odyssey, since the only uniting factor would be the single same hero undertaking the various labors, and that in the detective story, the unity is given by the mystery itself.”

Their influence — especially the works of Poe and Chesterton — are obvious in many of the stories in the extraordinary collection entitled Labyrinths.

Start with “Death and the Compass,” a seemingly familiar murder mystery in which the detective hero, Erik Lönnrot, a “pure reasoner” of the Sherlock Holmes variety, agrees to help find a serial killer whose victims are rabbis and Hebrew scholars. Lönnrot eventually traces the killer to an isolated villa, but the tale ends with a surprise denouement that is part mathematical puzzle, part philosophical conundrum, and all Borges.JorgeLuisBorges[1]

Other personal favorites in Labyrinths include “The Lottery of Babylon,” an unsettling riff on the role of chance that makes Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” seem crude by comparison, and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” where our detective tries to solve the mystery of an article on the strange country of Uqbar that appears at the end of apparently a rogue edition of Volume XLVI of The Anglo-American Cyclopedia. The solution to the riddle of Uqbar is straight out of “The Twilight Zone.”

Mystery #2 for Literary Snobs: The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

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9781101594605_p0_v1_s260x420[1]With our second mystery, we move from the surreal river running through the dark continent to the surreal freeways running through sunny California. Same themes, same structure.

In Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, our reluctant detective is Oedipa Mass, a California housewife whose name is our first hint at the crazy world we are entering. As the critic Jon Thompson writes in Fiction, Crime and Empire: Pynchon’s novel “offers a paradigm for understanding postmodern crime fiction.”

On her return from a party whose “hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue,” Oedipa learns that her former lover, an eccentric California mogul named Pierce Inverarity, has died and named her the executor of his estate. She travels to San Narciso (Pierce’s hometown), where she meets the lawyer assigned to help her. He is Metzger, formerly the child movie star known as Baby Igor.

The catalyst of Oedipa’s adventure is her discovery of a mysterious set of stamps in Inverarity’s estate which he has left to be auctioned off as one lot. Those stamps may or may not be tied to a worldwide conspiracy dating back centuries. Her efforts to determine whether the stamps are forgeries launch her on a wild journey into the California heart of darkness.

tumblr_lx8pcu033Y1r9upxeo1_400[1]Wending her way around drugged-out rock bands, right-wing crazies, a psychotherapist named Dr. Hilarius who is himself insane, and other outlandish characters, she begins to uncover what may indeed be  a clandestine international communication system operated since the 14th century by something known as the Tristero. In the bathroom of a bar, Oedipa sees a symbol that she later learns is a muted post horn, supposedly Tristero’s trademark. She begins spotting that symbol elsewhere, along with the secret postal system’s drop boxes, which are  labeled W.A.S.T.E. (“We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire).

Many critics view this short novel as Pynchon’s finest work. As Professor Richard Poirier wrote in his 1966 New York Times review of the novel:

The “crying of Lot 49” refers to an auction, but the phrase evokes the recurrent suspicion on Oedipa’s part that there is “revelation in progress all around her,” that the stamps, “thousands of little colored windows into deep vistas of space and time,” are themselves “crying” a message–not about Pierce Inverarity necessarily, or even about Oedipa, but about “their Republic,” about America, its inheritances and what we inherit from it, including things like used lots of stamps and used car lots.

This is classic Pynchon, where, as one critic wrote, “the more we think we know, the less we know we know.”And all set within the structure of the American detective story that Pynchon simultaneously copies and spoofs. To hear more, here is a link to a lecture on the novel by Yale professor Amy Hungerford.

Mystery #1 for Literary Snobs: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

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348_1[1]The topic of my last post on the Poisoned Pen Press blog was about the challenge of convincing literary snobs that there are indeed great works of literature that meet all criteria of that lowly genre known as Mystery. The 3 basic requirements of the genre (as more fully explained in the original post) are:

  • (1)  A mysterious murder or missing person or thing of value (such as a Maltese Falcon);

(2) A lone protagonist; and

(3) A single point of view (either that of our protagonist or of a sidekick, such as Dr. Watson).

Applying those three criteria, my first mystery that our snob can locate in the Literature section of the bookstore: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.

Trust me.  Not only is this short novel one of the great works of modern literature, it’s also the prototype of the 20th-century American detective novel — even though it was written at the end of the 19th century, its theme is European imperialism in Africa, and its author was a Polish immigrant writing in England.  Go figure.

The story, stripped to its basics, is immediately familiar: the search for a powerful missing person, narrated in the first person by a cynical loner who in the end turns out to be a grudging romantic.  And two women, of course — the lovely fiance that the vanished man left behind and the exotic beauty who may now be his illicit companion.  Sounds almost like, well, The Big Sleep, doesn’t it?  And guess what?  The hero’s name is Marlow.  (Raymond Chandler added an “e” to his detective’s name.)  And no first name, either.  Just Marlow.  (Sound familiar to you fans of Robert Parker’s Spenser series?)

The missing man is Mr. Kurtz, formerly the star Congo agent of a Belgium trading company, last seen delivering a huge load of ivory down the Congo River, only to turn back at the end, vanishing up the river in a canoe with just four paddlers, leaving in his wake a swirl of rumors.  Where has he gone?  What has he become?  Why?

And what will happen when Marlow finally tracks him down?conrad[1]

There’s no better introduction to the great American detective novel than this Polish immigrant’s short masterpiece. And given that the novella was first published in 1902, I am pleased to report, in my dual capacity as author and copyright attorney, that it is now in the public domain and thus available for free downloads here and here and here.


Mysteries for Literary Snobs

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Courtesy of Flickr
Courtesy of Flickr

Once upon a time, novels were just, well, novels.

Pride and Prejudice was once just a novel, as were The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and The Woman in White. If first published this year, however, each would be slotted into one of the genre ghettos constructed by the literary snobs. Beginning with Pride and Prejudice, you would find those novels in the following aisles at your bookstore: Romance, Young Adult,  Science Fiction, and Mystery.

Of course, they were all published well before the modern era of genre ghettos, and thus have long been deemed “Literature.” They can be safely read at even the most pretentious of coffeehouses without fear of derisive smirks.

I happen to toil within the Mystery ghetto. Thus it was fun, in my latest Poisoned Pen Press post, to begin a dialogue on Mysteries for Literary Snobs. I will continue that dialogue here for the next few weeks as I discuss several mysteries for literary snobs.

Enjoy! And please share your thoughts.

Great Opening Lines: Thoughts from Other Fans

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A few months back, I did a post on the greatest opening lines in literature.

rebecca11[1]Since then, I’ve had a chance to sample through the thoughts of others on the subject. Below are some of my favorite pieces:

Let’s start with a fun post by Guy Dammann of the Times Literary Supplement and The Guardian.  Atop his list of favorite first lines is this one from Samuel Beckett’s Murphy: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on nothing new.”

For another take, check out this guest column in Writers Digest by the mystery author Merry Jones entitled “How to Write a Great Opening Line.” Her top eight include the magical opening of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca: “Last night I dreamt I was in Manderley again.”

And here’s a Top Ten list on Litreactor by Meredith Borders, along with her explanation of what makes each of her picks work. Her list includes, along with several of the usual suspects (Pride and Prejudice, Lolita, Fahrenheit 451), a few surprises, including this one from Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex: “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” That certainly achieves the primary goal of an opening line: it makes you want to keep reading.middlesex[2]

And finally, here is Mark Nichol’s “20 Great Opening Lines to Inspire the Start of Your Story.” He categorizes each of his 20 opening lines into one of 20 categories, from “Absurd” to “Unexpected.” For Unexpected, his choice is from Waiting by Ha Jin: “Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.” My favorite, though, is one that Nichol files under the category Expository: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”  The source: Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It.