19 June 2024

Mark Hochberg

Courtesy of Juniata College

I read recently that Dr. Mark Hochberg passed away in December. He was one of my favorite professors when I studied at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. He taught English there for an incredible forty-six years, retiring in 2017.

He was smart, dedicated, and funny. According to his obit one of the most popular courses he taught was Dirty Books, but that was not on offer while I was a student there. I took several classes from him, and even had dinner on occasion with him and his wonderful wife, Sue.

You probably won't be surprised that the course that made the biggest impression on me was The Mystery Story. I've been wracking my brains to remember which novels we read for the course. Unfortunately I'm only sure of a few:

Dorothy L. Sayers. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. Introducing us to Lord Peter Wimsey and the Golden Age mystery. I remember Mark delighting in a solicitor with the Dickensian name of Mr. Murbles. He pictured the lawyer sitting in his office murmuring "Murbles, Murbles, Murbles..."

Dashiell Hammett. The Maltese Falcon. Representing the hardboiled dick, of course. I have no memory of what we discussed about this book (I hope we covered the Flitcraft Parable) but I still have the copy I bought for the course.

James McClure. The Steam Pig. An introduction to both the police procedural and the mystery of social commentary. McClure's Kramer & Zondi novels focused on the awkward relationship between two South African cops, one White, one Black. Each novel exposed some horrible element of apartheid. This debut book for example, dealt with the laws again interracial sex.

I vividly recall Mark reveling in one sentence of the book in which the third person narrator described the detective's reaction to a murder victim's body: "This association of violent action with the violently inactive Miss Le Roux had the subtle obscenity of a warm lavatory seat." Yes, after fifty years I recalled enough of that line to find it with Google. (And can someone more familiar with formal literary terminology tell me whether the last half of the sentence is a metaphor?)

Surely we read other novels. but I don't remember which. I do, however, still have a textbook we used: Detective Fiction: Crime and Compromise, by Dick Allen and David Chacko. It featured some classic stories of the field by authors you could guess off the top of your head: Poe, Doyle, Chesterton, Christie, etc.

But there were some surprises, as well, including my introduction to Shirley Jackson ("The Possibility of Evil,") and Jorge Luis Borges ("Death and the Compass"). Both stories still rank among my top fifty.

The section of the book on Theory included several classic essays such as W.H. Auden's "The Guilty Vicarage" ("Murder is unique in that it abolishes the party it injures, so that society has to take the place of the victim...") and Raymond Chandler's "The Simple Art of Murder" (“[D]own these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.)

Conspicuously absent is the most famous attack on our genre, Edmund Wilson's "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?"

But getting back to Mark Hochberg, there is one more important debt I owe him and it involves an author his course did not cover. When I mentioned to him that Rex Stout was my favorite he noted that in creating Goodwin and Wolfe, Stout had taken a newly developing archetype, the hardboiled private eye (whose stories were usually told in first person) and made him the narrating Watson for an old archetype, the armchair detective.

What stunned me was not so much this insight but the realization that there was more to be gleaned from Stout's books than just great characters and plots. I don't think I had ever tried to analyze mystery fiction before. I had been content that the stories worked without wondering how and why they did.What stAnd thinking about that set me on the road to being a better, and eventually published, writer. So, thanks for that, Professor Hochberg.


  1. A wonderful eulogy, Rob, and quite the professor. I'm not sure how common it is to have an opportunity to thank our instructors, but I'm glad you made full use of it. Well done.

  2. Wish I had taken that course! Great insight into Rex Stout (whom I also love.) Melodie

  3. Great professors will change your world for you. Glad you had one of those.
    I love Rex Stout, and I am happy to discuss Hammett's Flitcraft Parable at any time!

  4. Perhaps many people will read his books again to remember him.


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