Showing posts with label Lopresti. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lopresti. Show all posts

03 October 2018

Following in Marlowe's Footnotes

Courtesy Western Libraries
by Robert Lopresti

I don't review a lot of books but I would like to take a moment to recommend you read The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler.

Oh,  you already have?

I'm not surprised.  But I suggest you should read the new annotated version, edited by Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson, and Anthony Dean Rizzuto.  I have been having a heck of a good time with it.

One reason to pick it up is presented by Otto Penzler in a blurb: "What a great excuse to read this masterpiece again!"  That reminds me:  I should say that if you have not read this classic private eye novel, you should not start with this edition.  The editors, quite reasonably, are not shy about pointing out when something in Chapter 4 is foreshadowing an event in Chapter 14.


So what do the annotations bring to Chandler's text?

* Literary context. We tend to talk about Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler in the same breath, almost as if they shared an office.  Actually they only met once and at that point Hammett was the champeen and Chandler  (although six years older) was a rookie.  But more to the point, The Big Sleep was published in 1939, ten years after Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, and the annotated edition points out how much Chandler borrowed from it.  (More about that later.)  The book also has passages from Chandler's earlier stories which he "cannibilized" for the novel, showing how he modified them.

* Geographic context.  The book provides maps and photographs of the places detective Phillip Marlowe visits (and when they are fictional, points that out as well). At one point Marlowe arranges to meet someone at the Bullocks Wilshire.  The editors provide a photograph and explain that this was the first department store built with its main entrance in the back, facing the parking lot.  It was a "temple to the automobile."

* Language.  What is a pinseal wallet?  What is flash gambling?  Is it a good or bad thing to step off for it?  The editors explain these and many more.

* Symbolism.  In literary criticism one always has to wonder whether the interpreters are finding more than the author intended, but let me give you an example of what we find here.  In the opening chapter Carmen Sternwood asks the narrator his name and he replies "Doghouse Reilly."  Of course, this turns out to be false, but does it mean anything?  The editors point out that it is the sort of nickname given to Irish boxers (and Carmen then asks if he is a prizefighter.)  They also note that "Doghouse" suggests someone who is constantly in trouble, true enough of Marlowe.

But let's go deeper.  The Big Sleep is famous for its knight symbolism.  (A stained glass window featuring one appears on the first page, for example.)  The editors note that "In the great heroic epics, the hero's true name and character often remain hidden until revealed by a distinctive sign or work."  Is that what Chandler had in mind?

* Movie connection.  The editors point out how the book was changed for the Bogart classic.  And of course they discuss the famous issue of "Who killed the chauffeur?"

I'd like to point out one way in which the annotated book broadened my thinking about something quite removed from Chandler.  The editors compare Marlowe's violent encounter with the gay man Carol, to Sam Spade's reaction to gay Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon.  They suggest that both are examples of  "homosexual panic."

Well, I had heard that term before, but what does it mean exactly? The editors don't find it necessary to explain.

According to Wikipedia "Homosexual Panic Disorder" was a psychological condition coined in 1920 and no longer recognized by the APA.  It referred to "panic due to the pressure of uncontrollable perverse sexual cravings," and usually included passivity, not aggression.  This does not seem to apply to Marlowe or Spade.

There is a separate entry for "Homosexual Panic Defense," now usually called "Gay Panic Defense," in which an attacker claims he suffered temporary insanity after receiving unwanted approaches by a gay man.   That doesn't seem to apply to the two novels either; neither Carol nor Wilmer were putting the moves on the PIs.

A medical dictionary gives a definition closer to what I have always thought it meant, and what I think the editors had in mind: "an acute, severe attack of anxiety based on unconscious conflicts regarding homosexuality."  In other words, someone attacks a gay man because his very existence makes them question their own sexuality.

And you could well make the case that that is what happens with Marlowe and Carol.  But does it apply to Spade and Wilmer?  Here is Spade's outburst: "Keep that gunsel away from me while you make up your mind.  I'll kill him.  I don't like him.  He makes me nervous.  I'll kill him the first time he gets in my way."

Homosexual panic?  Maybe.  But, you see, I don't believe Spade means it.  I realize now that I think everything Spade says to Guttman (and to most of the other characters) is an act.  Of course, we see Spade through a third person narration so, unlike Marlowe (or Hammett's own Continental Op), we never get inside his head.  One of the reason his speech at the end of the book is so moving is that for the first time, I think, he actually tells us why he is doing what he does.

Feel free to disagree.
Decatur Street Car Barn, now a bus barn.  Photo by Volcycle.

Speaking of which, one of the joys of a book like The Annotated Big Sleep is quarreling with the authors. especially about what they choose to annotate.  Why explain bacardi but not pony glass?  Why does jalopy require a footnote but car barn doesn't?   Since Marlowe is comparing the size of a house to a car barn, it is important that the reader knows he is talking about a building big enough to store street cars in.

I also wish they had commented on Chandler's frequent use of the adverbs savagely and viciously, most famously at the end of Chapter  24.

But those are minor gripes and, as I said, part of the fun.  The book is a job well done.

19 September 2018

Lost in the Stacks for 41 Years, Part 2

My published works.  Photo by Tamara Belts
by Robert Lopresti

This is my second column celebrating my retirement by reviewing high and lowlights of my career as a librarian.

My third professional job was at a university.  I was still a government documents librarian.  One day an older community member wandered into my department.

"So you get federal documents here."

"That's right."

"Do you have classified publications?"

I laughed.  "I can barely get them to send us tax forms."
                                                         


But let's talk about something they did send us.  One day David, my assistant,  placed one newly-arrived publication on my desk, as opposed to the usual location.

I figured out why pretty quickly.  A the bottom of the cover it said: FOR LAW ENFORCEMENT USE ONLY.  There are certain kind of publications that are not supposed to be sent to depositories, and that is one of them.

What's disturbing is that we are thousands of miles from the GPO.  Many libraries must have received that publication before we did, but David was the first to spot the problem.  Hmm.

The publication was about an organization that does not approve of certain activities and allegedly had a habit of blowing up buildings in which those activities took place.  This publication explained to law enforcement officials the methods these people had allegedly been using.

This was before email so I called the GPO.  "You didn't mean to send us that publication."

"Why not?"

"Because it's full of diagrams of explosive devices.  It's basically a manual for bombmakers."

"We'll get back to you."

Later that day they did.  "You're right.  Destroy it."  Now, I should explain that any publication the federal government sends for free to a depository library remains federal property.  They can demand it back or tell us to shred it if they want.  (What they can't do, minus a court order, is ask who has read it. Librarians are fussy about that.)

So  I destroyed the publication.

A few days later I got a letter from GPO, addressed to all depository libraries.  It said that the publication was sent by mistake and we should return it immediately.

Back to the phone.  "You told me to destroy it.  How am I supposed to return it?"

"We'll get back to you."

They did.  "Send us a letter explaining how you destroyed it."

I was sorely tempted to say "I used the method shown on page seven."  But who needs that kind of trouble?

               

I have lost track of how many offices I had in this library.  At least eight.  At one point my desk was in an open area.  A fellow employee told me that as a supervisor I needed an enclosed office.  "In case you need to yell at someone."

The view from my last office.

And speaking of moving, I supervised the shifting of the 200,000 government publications at least five times.  On the day we finished one move we had the windows open and a squirrel hopped in.  He went straight to the A 13's: the publications of the Forest Service.  "Boy," I thought, "if only the students could find their way as easily as you!"



I wish like hell I could tell you the exact day this happened.  It was one of the most significant dates in my career.  I was at the reference desk and a man asked "Do you have the German railroad timetables?"

"Wow," I said.  "No.  The best I can do is give you the phone number for the German consulate in Seattle.  But wait!  There's something brand new called the World Wide Web and we can access it from this computer."

Google didn't exist yet.  I think I went to Altavista.  He typed in the words German railroad timetables, in German.

And boom, there they were, your choice of English and German.  Up-to-date and free.

"Okay," I said.  "Right now, this moment, my job just changed completely."

And it had.  For example, my library no longer has a reference desk because people don't come with easy questions anymore, the kind Google can answer.  Now we specialize in helping with longer research projects.  But students still need help.



A student had been asked to find out everything she could about someone - anyone - who lived in our county in 1880.  I took her to the microfilm reels for the 1880 census, showed her how to use them and went back to my desk.

Soon she reappeared with a question: "What's a demimonde?"

I knew the answer but, following the old rule,  I took her to a dictionary to check that it indeed meant prostitute.

She had found an entire building full of demimondes: a brothel.  She was thrilled.

I told this to another librarian who nodded gravely.  "In Seattle they called them seamstresses."


Most of the librarians served as liaisons for academic departments.  Among other things, that meant teaching sessions on library resources.  I had recently taken that role for a new subject when I was strolling across campus and a professor saw me.  His eyes lit up.  "Rob!  Looking forward to your teaching my class tomorrow!"

"Me too!" I assured him.  Then I rushed back to my office and checked my calendar.  No mention of a class.  Had I reserved a classroom?  No.

So who was this professor who was expecting me?  I knew some of the profs in that department by sight, but not all.  This was before the time when you could find a picture of everyone in the world by going to the Web.  (I especially like LudditeHermitGallery.com)  I narrowed it down to about four.

I called the department secretary (if department secretaries ever went on strike at any university, the place would collapse within a day).  "You gotta help me," I begged.

Between us we figured out it had to be Professor X.  I sent him a grovelling apology.  Which class was I supposed to be teaching, and what did he want me to cover?

He wrote back with his own apology.  He had gotten me confused with a different Rob.

Whew.





In my city we only get measurable snow in about half the winters.  1996 was one of them.  Woke up one December morning to well over a foot of white stuff. My city didn't own a snowplow.

I normally bike to work; that wasn't going to happen. Driving was out and the buses weren't running.  So I walked the three miles.

All the way I had my headphones on and the disk jockey kept listing an ever longer list of closures.  I should explain that back then the university seemed to take a perverse pleasure in staying open whatever the conditions were.  They always sent out po-faced statements urging personnel to decide for themselves if it was safe to come to work, but they wouldn't close (so workers who didn't show up wouldn't get paid).

So I am almost finished with my two-hour trudge and am starting up the hill to the campus proper when the DJ says: "Here are the closings."  Dramatic pause.  "The university is open.  That's it.  Everything else in town is closed.  When the world ends the school paper will be the only place that reports it because the university will refuse to close."

The boss bought pizza for everyone who showed up.  (And someone actually drove out to pick it up.)  The next day the university closed and the DJ bragged that he shamed them into it.


                                                     

One day a young woman told me she was having trouble finding sources for a paper.  I had developed a quick technique for finding out how far a researcher had gotten and I applied it.

"Have you tried Database X?"

"No."

"Have you tried Database Y?"

"No."

"Have you tried Database Z?"

She burst into tears and ran out of the room.  I couldn't coax her back.

I never used that technique again.

                                          

One of our regular patrons was a Vietnam vet who was having trouble with the VA.  As he told the story he wanted to receive disability payments because his time over there drove him crazy.  The VA's defense was - again, according to him -- that he was already crazy when the army drafted him.  Not a great argument.

A member of the public is welcome to use our collection and anyone could borrow our federal publications, if they showed ID.  This veteran wanted to borrow some but he refused to show his ID because he thought the VA might be tracking what books he read.

I told him that didn't match my experience of reality but I respected his right to his own.  Nonetheless, he couldn't borrow the documents.

He used them, over several years.  I don't know how his case turned out but he started taking better care of himself and bringing in fellow vets whom he helped use the docs.  I counted that as a win.

                          

The worst and the best: someone stole more than 600 pages out of our old Congressional Serial Set volumes.  After more than a year and a half of sleuthing by various people at our university we got the evidence that led to the thief's conviction.  You can read all about it here and here.



One day I picked up the book on Occupations from the 1920 Census and read about "Peculiar occupations for women."  The introduction explained that census takers had reported women in a lot of occupations that women obviously could not have been working in, like masons and plasterers.  And so, the census bosses explained solemnly,  the records were carefully examined and if they could figure out what the mistake was they corrected it.  Or should I say if they figured out what the "mistake" was they "corrected" it.  And how many female pioneers in their fields were erased from history?

Years later, that led to my first nonfiction book.



One night I took my family to the best ice cream parlor in town.  The young man behind the counter said: "Last year you helped me with a research paper.  Not only did I get an A but the teacher kept it to use as an example.  Your ice cream is on me."

The super chocolate tasted particularly sweet that night.


 Back in January I taught a workshop on library resources and, as usual, handed out a quick feedback form.  One student wrote: "You introduced me to subjects I didn't even know to ask about."

My pleasure, friend. 


I would like to end by saying something I have not said in forty-one years on the job: Shhhhh!









05 September 2018

Lost in the Stacks for 41 Years


by Robert Lopresti

Gonna get a little off the main track here today.  I hope you forgive me.  You see, as of the first of September I am retired. I am going to tell you about some of my most memorable moments in forty-one years in the library mines.  Most have nothing to do with crime or writing.  So indulge me or go read something else.  I hear they have a lot of terrific stuff at MySpace.

                                                                         
When I was getting my Masters in Library Service degree the school urged us to call them as soon as we got our first jobs and tell them the salary.  So when I did I called them and gave them the big number: $10,300 a year.

"That's great," said the clerk.  "It will bring up the class average."



That first job was at a public library.   I was the government documents librarian but occasionally  I worked in the children's room.  I was at the desk there one day and two women walked in.  Obviously mother and grown daughter.  The mother marched up with a determined expression that said: I am going to get the answer if it takes all day.  Librarians love that look.

She fixed me with her steely gaze (why aren't gazes ever aluminumy?) and said "There's this book."

"Okay," I said.

"It's about a tree."  

 And that was clearly all she had.  No author, no title. Just a subject, a memory, and a burning desire to share it with her daughter.

I stood up.  "Follow me."  We marched to the Easy Readers.  I pulled out The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein.

Her eyes went wide.  "That's it!  How did you know?"

I shrugged.  "I'm a librarian."




My assistant was Sue.  Between us sat a file cabinet and by the time I left every drawer had been neatly labeled with a misspelling of my name she had clipped from an envelope received in the mail: Robert Lopreski, Roberta Lopresti, Robert LoPresti, Robert Loparesti...

When my first short story was published I brought the magazine in and plopped it down in front of her open to the right page and pointed to my name.  "That's by me."

She tossed it back on my desk.  "No, it isn't."

Oh ye of little faith.

                                           

One day at the reference desk I got a phone call from a woman who wanted to know if we had The Power of Positive Thinking by Phyllis Schaeffer.

Now, a librarian is supposed to rely on sources.  If you ask me to spell cat I am supposed to check the dictionary.  But in this case I said "The Power of Positive Thinking  is by Norman Vincent Peale."

"No," she said with complete confidence.  "Phyllis Schaeffer."

So I checked the card catalog.  (Yup, that's what we had back then.)  Peale, yes.  Schaeffer, no.

Then the penny dropped.  The Power of the Positive Woman, by Phyllis Schlafly.  Well, the woman had been positive, all right.

                                                     

One of the longest-running science fiction fan organizations in the country used to meet at that library.  They held a special event to celebrate an anniversary and I graciously volunteered to be the library's representative.  Possibly this was because the guest speaker was Isaac Asimov.

He was, naturally, great.  His subject was a recent editorial in the New York Times saying that setting up a system to watch out for asteroids was a waste of money because, as I recall, no huge meteor hit the earth for many thousands of years, and therefore another wouldn't hit for thousands more.  Follow that logic?

Asimov gleefully reported on past NYT editorials on science.  One was an announcement that rockets wouldn't work in outer space because there was a vacuum.

This library was the largest in our part of the county and when one of the small libraries had a reference question they couldn't answer they bounced it to us.  One of those smaller institutions had a director named Miss D.  Her main characteristic, as far as I could tell, was that she was terrified of the members of her library board.

One day she called up and asked for the government documents librarian.  It seemed one of her  board members was looking for some government statistics about drug abuse.

I wrote the questions down. "Some of these I can answer," I told her.  "Some of the data I don't think is available."

"Well, do what you can."

I did.  This was long before the Internet and I had to dig through a whole lot of books.  Finally, after several hours of toil I called her up.

"I was able to find most of your answers, but not all of them."

"Oh," she said.  "Then never mind."  And hung up.



One day a patron (that's what librarians call customers, by the way) wanted to know what the phrase "the beast with two backs" meant.  I knew but I damn well wasn't going to tell her off the top of my head.  Fortunately Shakespeare's Bawdy by the brilliant Eric Partridge was at hand.



My next job was at a college library.  It was there that I found a report from the government of New Jersey that mentioned that the name of a small community in the southern part of the state, Mauricetown, was pronounced the same as a larger city in the northern half, Morristown.

Hmm...  That's the sort of thing my Atlantic City private eye Marty Crow would definitely know.  The result was "The Federal Case," Marty's first appearance in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

                                                           

Each librarian worked as a liaison for an academic department.  The acquisitions librarian told me there were several openings.  Naturally I chose English.  An hour later she was back with a file the size of a phone book.  "Read it and tell me if you still want the English Department."

Turned out two professors had come almost to the point of suing each other over an argument that involved the library.  One had written to the school paper complaining about the library and his colleague had written back, as I recall:  "Pay no attention to him.  We in the department have all had to hear him banging his spoon on his high chair before."  They eventually signed a joint statement agreeing that academic disagreements should be settled out of court.

I did take on the responsibilities for the English Department.  Didn't get sued.


                                                   
One night a college student came up to the reference desk and asked: "Is Nicaragua in Europe?"  This was during the Reagan administration when it looked like we might be invading that country any day.

I think I kept a straight face.  "No, Nicaragua is in Central America."

"Oh," she said.  "Is Central America in Europe?"

                                            
It was my Sunday to work at the reference desk.  It was snowing like crazy.

I was thinking about the next day.  I was the head of the search committee and we had a candidate coming in for a job interview.  In fact she should be flying in around now.  I hoped that the driver sent to pick her up got to the airport on time.

Then I remembered who had been given the job of arranging her transport.  Uh oh.
 
                                           
Speaking of search committees, I once went to lunch with a candidate.  He asked who was paying for the meal.  When I told him it was the college he ordered the most expensive thing on the menu.

I told the search committee: "Don't offer him the job.  He won't take it."

They did.  He turned it down.  We lost the position.

Nobody likes Cassandra.



One day the boss called me and another librarian into his office.  "I've been thinking about that meeting we had on Monday," he said.  "I want you two to run the project."  And then he spoke for several minutes about what he wanted, while we nodded solemnly.

Outside his office I turned to my colleague.  "Boy, I hope you were at that meeting on Monday, because I have no idea what he was talking about."

She said: "I was hoping you knew."

We went to the assistant boss who was outraged.  We soon got an apology for the confusion.  I never did find out what the project was about. 
                                                          

This was the time when computerized databases were first trickling into libraries.  One of the first we got (on a free-standing computer) was a list of all doctorate dissertations.  Another librarian, Barbara, and I both wanted to check out our father's PhDs.

"My father always insisted on people calling him 'doctor,'" I said.

Barbara is African-American.  "My father never cared whether people called him 'doctor' as long as they called him 'mister.'"

Which rather  put things in perspective.

                                                          


Most computer databases were expensive and you paid by the search.  Therefore only librarians were allowed to do the searches.  I remember one student asking me to search PsycInfo for peer-reviewed research articles that tested the theory that mental illness was caused by demonic possession.

I didn't have much luck.                            

One day I was at the reference desk and the president of the college walked in.  I had never seen him in the library.  He looked around, spotted me at the desk, and walked over.

I sat up straight, ready for action.

"Do you have a waste basket?"  By gosh, I knew the answer to that one.


The first computerized databases (i.e. periodical indexes) we got came from a company called Silver Platter and were literally on shiny discs, larger than LP records.  One day I was showing them to a group of adults (i.e. not college students) who seemed quite awed by the new technology.

The database froze.  I knew what that meant; a static electricity build up.  I also knew how to fix it.

While they watched I opened the case, took out the disc (by the edges!) and shook it vigorously.

"Do you know why I am doing this?"  Head shakes.

"I'm chasing off the evil spirits."  Nods.




The director of that library was Dr. Robert L. Goldberg.  He could be insanely frustrating but I learned more from him than any other boss.  For example, he told me approximately this:

"A good manager shares credit and hoards blame.  If the college president tells me he likes something in the library I always tell him who  did it, because it's important he doesn't think  this is a one-man operation.  But if he hates something and wants to know who is responsible, the only answer he gets is: me.  Because whoever did it, I am responsible."
                   

And that was the first ten years of my career. Tune in on September 19th when we will cover the remaining thirty-one years.

In the mean time, please save your files as the computers turn off automatically.  Please bring material to the circulation desk to borrow.  Safe travels.

29 August 2018

Coming Down With Something

by Robert Lopresti

I have to apologize.  This is not going to be the long masterpiece you have every right to expect, based on my past performance.  I seem to be coming down with something.

You know how it is.  You stroll blithely along, minding your own business, looking both ways before crossing the street, washing your hands regularly, buttoning up when you feel a chill.  Then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, it hits you like a tsunami and leaves you wondering what the hell happened.

Lawrence Block said that he wrote even when he wasn't feeling well and afterwards he could never tell the sick-day pages from the healthy ones.  But we aren't all Larry Block or there would be a lot more Matt Scudder novels. would there not?

Too bad, because I was prepared to write something brilliant for you today.  I had the theme for my essay worked out, had done some research, come up with a couple of bon mots.  The mots were bon by my standard, anyway.

And what I had written, well, I don't like to brag, but Charlie, my writing partner, was mightily impressed.  And he is a tough customer, I'll tell you.  Just look at him.

But all that is gone now, put aside for another day.  There's no way I can concentrate on that now. I've definitely got a bug.

I'm showing all the symptoms: plot outlines, character sketches, a few experimental snatches of dialog.

Damn it.  It looks like I'm coming down with a novel.

15 August 2018

Time Warp

by Robert Lopresti

Stephen King has a new novel out, which will no doubt make a lot of people happy, and probably terrify them as well.  But what inspired this column was a review of the book by Karin Slaughter in the Washington Post.

She liked the book a lot but she spoke of "the underlying fugue of displacement.  Readers should take warning: The characters in the mirror are younger than they appear."

What she means is that King's people, although by no means old, never text and don't seem to realize that their phones have cameras.  "A woman in her early 40s wonders whether John Lennon, who was murdered 38 years ago, was still alive when she started living with her husband."

It is an easy trap for writers to fall into: Making characters of different ages think/speak/act like people you are familiar with, rather than people they would be familiar with.

And it's more than just whatever age the writer happens to be.  It has to do with the time period the writer thinks is his.  John Knowles wrote in his novel A Separate Peace: "Everyone has a moment in history which belongs particularly to him.  It is the moment when his emotions achieve their most powerful sway over him, and afterward when you say to this person 'the world today' or 'life' or 'reality' he will assume that you mean this moment, even if it is fifty years past.  The world, through his unleashed emotions, imprinted itself upon him, and he carries the stamp of that passing moment forever."

Quick!  Answer this off the top of your head: Twenty-five years ago was what year?

If you had the right answer, good for you.  But many of us would guess further back, lost between the present and the moment "that belongs particularly to" us.

Back in the eighties a friend told me about a woman in her writing group whose contemporary novel-in-progress featured a young veteran just back from Vietnam.  In the 1980s.  I suspect that she had been thinking about the plot for a decade and hadn't remembered that the real world had drifted by while her soldier boy hadn't aged a day.

When I created my character Shanks I was 40 and he was 50.  I am some 20 years older but through the Miracle of Author's Convenience, Shanks remains in his early fifties.  The problem is that in some ways his attitudes are those of a man born in the forties instead of the sixties.  I have to fight that but how much can I change such things without changing the character?

It is a constant fight to stay out of the sweet land of anachronism... 

09 August 2018

Early Early EARLY Mysteries

by Robert Lopresti

If I asked you what was the first mystery story, what would you say?

Edgar Allan Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue?"  Sorry.  Published in 1841, that's practically current events.

How about Shakespeare?  There was that whiny prince trying to figure out who killed his father.  Uh uh.  Hamlet only goes back to 1600.

Well, there was the story of Susannah, which appears in some editions of the Book of Daniel.  The prophet solves a crime by using a technique known to every modern police force.  But that only dates back to around 200 BC.

How about Sophocles' play about a king interrogating various witnesses to discover the murderer of his predecessor?  Nice guess, but no.  At 400 BC, he's still an Oedipus-come-lately.

Enough suspense.  Here is the true answer, courtesy of those brilliant British comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb.


18 July 2018

The Big Neurotic meets the Big Easy

O'Neil De Noux and I at the Cafe Abyssinia for lunch
by Robert Lopresti

In June my wife and I visited New Orleans for the first time.  It was great fun and quite a change from  my Northwest home where we were still celebrating what we call Juneuary.  (As I write this it is Febjuly.  The temperature is 64 degrees and it is drizzling.)

One of the highlights was meeting O'Neil De Noux in person for the first time after years of digital friendship.  O'Neil was kind enough to take us on a tour of the city where his family has lived for hundreds of years.  Boy, was that great.  He is quite a raconteur.

But here was the best part.  O'Neil stopped the car in front of one building and announced that this is where Lucien Caye had his office.  Caye is one of O'Neil's series characters, a post-war private eye.

Just beyond the building there is a park and I immediately remembered the beginning of O'Neil's Shamus-winning short story "The Heart Has Reasons."  Lucien Caye looks out his window and spots a girl sitting in the park.  And that was the  park.

I actually shivered.  It is weird how fiction can do that to us.  It explains why fans have put up marking locations of Baker Street, West 35th Street, and the Reichenbach Falls.

Several friends assured us that the best thing about New Orleans was the music so when my wife and I had a free  evening we decided to see what was on offer.  I'm not a big fan of jazz or Cajun (sorry) but there was one performer listed as folk.  Through the miracle of Youtube we were able to check her out and I would say she was more Bonnie Raitt than folk, but that was fine.

So we strolled over to the French Quarter to the bar where she was playing.  There was nobody and nothing on the stage.  Not so much as a piccolo.  We were greeted by a man at the end of the bar who appeared to be the owner.

"When is the music supposed to start?" I asked.

He smiled.  "Eight thirty."

"And what time is it?"

"Eight thirty."

"But she's not here yet, huh?"

"Nope."

So we strolled about the Quarter for half an hour.  No sacrifice, I assure you.  Coming back at 9 PM we found the stage was still empty.

I looked up the singer's Facebook page and found a notice to her fans that the gig had been cancelled.  I showed it to the apparent-bar-owner who was quite astonished by the news.

So, on the whole, I was not that impressed by the music in New Orleans.

Resident of the Audubon Zoo
I have to get serious now.  That weekend was the 45th anniversary of a famous crime in the city: the UpStairs Lounge arson.  A gay bar was burned and thirty-two people died horribly.  While no one was ever convicted, it is considered pretty certain the culprit was a gay man who had been thrown out of the bar earlier.  (He killed himself a year later.)

A tragedy without doubt.  But the main reason it might be of interest today to those who knew no one involved was the response.  The news media generally ignored that it was a gay bar.  Radio shows made jokes about it.  No government officials mentioned the death of thirty-two citizens.

Many churches refused to hold funerals for the victims.  One Episcopal priest did and was criticized by his parishioners and bishop.  (Unitarians and Methodists stepped up too.  More power to 'em.)  Some families never claimed their deceased's remains.

If there is a positive side to that story it is comparing it to how the nation reacted to the Pulse massacre of 2016.  Looks like we had matured a little since then.

I haven't mentioned the actual reason we were in New Orleans, which was the American Library Association conference.  That's the topic for next time.



04 July 2018

Patriotic Gore


by Robert Lopresti


This being the Fourth of July I would like to say a few words about one of our country’s most successful exports. We didn’t invent it, but we have certainly helped spread it around.

In fact, this product has become so popular that even countries which objectively seem to be lacking in it will claim to be rolling in the stuff.


I am referring to democracy.

You may be thinking: well, sis boom bah, but what does this have to do with mystery fiction?

A lot, as it happens. I’m not the first to say this but it bears repeating: mystery fiction only becomes popular in democracies.  (Ahem.  Jeff Baker pointed out that ancient China, not known for its polling stations, brought us Judge Dee.  Okay then.)

I think I know why this is the case. If you live in a country where the laws themselves are secret (as used to be true in the Soviet Union) or the King/Ayatollah/Dear Leader can arbitrarily decide who is guilty, then what’s the point of reading about detectives? If trials are just public theatre to reveal what has already been decided behind the scenes, what use are crime novels?

The author of a cozy mystery believes (or pretends to believe) that he is describing a society in which justice can be done, and therefore investigation matters.

The hardboiled hero lives in a more cynical world, but even she believes that there is some possibility of justice that is worth fighting for. And the hardboiled author believes that she lives in a society in which she can get away with writing so cynically.

One of the earliest proto-detective stories is Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. (It has a detective, a Watson character, interrogation of suspects, and a most unlikely killer.) And it is a product of Athenian democracy.

Yes, I know Athens wasn’t such a great democracy, allowing only male citizens to vote. On the other hand, ancient Athenians might argue that a country that only votes every few years and lets representatives decide all the specific issues is a funny kind of democracy, too.

Another play from that era is Aeschylus’ The Eumenides, which shows the punishment of crime moving from the realm of direct vengeance or divine punishment to the decisions of impartial juries.

I wrote most of what you see above a decade ago and it appeared then at Criminal Brief.  I can't say I have as much faith in democracy as I did back then.  Terms like collusion, emoluments, and interference may have something to do with that.

The last few years have shown us so many things that no fiction writer would dare to put in a novel.  As someone said authors have to be believable but God doesn't.  

Have sales of paranoid thrillers been rising while crime novels have dropped? Expand this to 300 pages and you can get a Ph.D.

But in the mean time, go ahead and wave a flag if you feel like it. It’s the mysterious thing to do.