All Posts By Michael Kahn

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.


“If You Build It, Hollywood Will Come”: More Thoughts on Movie Adaptations

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991828[1]It’s simple Hollywood math: the most popular novel of the year–or even of the decade–has been read by just a fraction of the number of people who’ve seen the movie version of the novel. The subject of my last post was Mario Puzo’s novel, The Godfather, and the Francis Ford Coppola film adaptation of the novel. As stated in that post, Puzo’s novel stands as one of the most popular American novels of the century, having sold more than 20 million copies since its publication in 1969.

Twenty million! Trust me, that’s a number to make even a Grisham or a King take notice. But the movie version? According to the Godfather Trilogy website, more than 132 million people saw the movie version during the first three years after its release. In other words, in just 3 years more than six times as many people saw the movie as have read the book over the past 44 years.

Which brings me to Shoeless Joe, the 1982 magic realist novel by W.P. Kinsella that was made into the 1989 motion picture Field of Dreams. Although I could not find sales numbers for the novel or viewer stats for the movie, it’s safe to assume that the ratio of movie viewers to book readers is, at the very least, twice that for The Godfather. All of which means that far more of you have seen the movie than read the book.

As the readers of Kinsella’s novel know, the movie version differs in several material respects from the novel, beginning with one of the central figures, the reclusive novelist that the protagonist Ray Kinsella sets out to find and bring back to his Iowa farm. In the movie, James Earl Jones plays the role of  the reclusive novelist, an African-American named Terrence Mann who once wrote about the golden era of baseball and is now living in seclusion in Boston. In the novel, however, the role of the reclusive novelist is played by the real reclusive novelist himself, J.D. Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye and, in the novel, a devout baseball fan who once  gave an interview to an obscure literary magazine about his love of the game.

In the novel and the movie, Ray travels to New England, finds the author, takes him to a Red Sox game in Fenway Park, and then brings him back to Iowa, where he has built a baseball field in his cornfield in response to a mysterious godlike voice that told him, “If you build it, he will come.”

The “he” is Shoeless Joe Jackson, the legendary Chicago White Sox ballplayer who was one of eight men–the Black Sox–banned from baseball after allegedly fixing the 1919 World Series. Jackson was the hero of Ray’s father Johnny. Johnny Kinsella had been a minor league catcher who told his son the Black Sox tale the way other fathers told their children fairy tales. Shoeless Joe and Ray’s father have been dead for decades.

If you haven’t read the book or if you haven’t seen the movie, prepare yourself for a magical trip to an enchanted baseball field in the middle of an Iowa cornfield where long-dead ballplayers return to life, stepping through the cornstalks that ring the outfield and onto the field to play baseball. At the end of each day, the players head back into the cornstalks and disappear.images[6]

The novel ends with J.D. Salinger–known as Jerry to Ray–joining Shoeless Joe and the other ballplayers as they head back into the cornstalks. “Take care of my friend,” Ray calls to Shoeless Joe, who salutes and claps a hand on Salinger’s shoulder. As the ballplayers disappear, Ray walks back to the farmhouse with his wife Annie. The novel ends:

On the porch, we turn to look at the silent, satiny green of the field. I press the switch and, like a candle going out, the scar of light disappears. Above the farm, a moon bright as butter silvers the night as Annie holds the door open for me.

As beautiful and poignant as that ending is, it can’t compare to the ending of the movie. In the final scene, just before the ballplayers head off toward the cornstalks, Shoeless Joe tells Ray, “If you build it, HE will come”, and glances toward a player near home plate in catcher’s equipment. The player removes his mask, and Ray recognizes his father Johnny, magically returned as a young man. At his wife’s urging, Ray introduces Johnny to his granddaughter Karin, catching himself before telling Karin who the man is, simply introducing him as “John.” And then, well, here is the rest of that final scene. Before you click on the link, I’d suggest getting yourself a Kleenex.1412[1]

And here’s one final nice overlay between the novel and the movie. According to Wikipedia, the original working title of the novel was Dream Field, which the publisher changed before publication to Shoeless Joe.  The working title of the movie was Shoeless Joe, which the producer changed before its release to Field of Dreams.

Some More Thoughts on Hollywood and the Novel

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Godfather001[1]As I work on my next post for Poisoned Pen Press–“Mysteries for Literary Snobs”–I pause to return to our consideration of Hollywood adaptations of novels.

While authors have long been happy to sell the motion picture rights in their novel, they tend to strike a condescending pose when asked about Hollywood. Ernest Hemingway wrote that when “you see what happens to [your book in Hollywood], it’s like pissing in your father’s beer.” Raymond Chandler, while happy to sell the motion picture rights to The Big Sleep and other novels, wrote, the “strangling limitations” of Hollywood make it “a blind wonder if it ever achieves anything beyond the purely mechanical slickness of a glass and chromium bathroom.” And Ben Hecht, the respected literary figure and legendary screenwriter, with a dazzling array of credits from original screenplays and masterful adaptations of serious novels. wrote: “I’m a Hollywood writer, so I put on my sports jacket and take off my brain.”

Nevertheless, we can all think of motion picture adaptations that are actually superior to the novels on which they are based. One such example is Francis Ford Coppola’s extraordinary adaptation of Mario Puzo’s novel, The Godfather.

In fairness to Puzo, he wrote the novel with no literary pretensions. A 2009 Wall Street Journal article by Allen Barra on the 40th anniversary of the original publication opens:

In 1969, an obscure middle-aged novelist and pulp magazine journalist named ­Mario Gianluigi Puzo hit the literary jackpot. He wrote “The Godfather,” he later told Larry King, “to make money.” By his own admission, it wasn’t well written. “If I’d known so many people were going to read it,” he famously said, “I’d have written it better.”

The novel was, by any measure, a blockbuster. It spent more than a year on the bestseller list. It has sold more than 20 million copies, making it one of the biggest selling American novels of all time. But, alas, it won no awards, as the early reviews predicted.

By contrast, the movie version, which won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor (Marlon Brando), and Best Screenplay, finishes near the top of virtually every film critic and film society ranking of best movies. For example, it occupies the #3 slot on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time, right behind Citizen Kane and Casablanca. And by any measure, including, I would bet, even Mario Puzo’s, the movie adaptation is superior to the novel. Here’s the final scene, which resonates on so many levels. Enjoy.