Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Tracking and trailing and other useful skills

In Rex Stout's The Doorbell Rang (1965), Archie Goodwin offers the following practical advice:
If you think you have a tail on a subway train and want to spot him you keep moving while the train is under way, and at each station you stand close enough to a door so that you might get off.
Simple, no? And potentially useful, should I find myself picking up a tail when I'm in New York for work again this week.

It also reminds me that a couple of favorite books when I was a kid were essentially how-to manuals for this sort of work, pitched at kid level. The first one I encountered was my father's copy of The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook (1959). He would have had the first edition--which, as the brief but informative Wikipedia entry for the book tells us, had to be replaced in 1966 when Dominic A. Spina, the retired NYPD detective who served as the book's voice of authority, was indicted on corruption charges. Spina was eventually acquitted, but not before he'd lost his role as advisor to the Hardy Boys (and, one assumes, a more thankless advisor to Chet Morton).

The Detective Handbook, however, never grabbed me like its straightforwardly enchanting title led me to hope it would. It was too dry, and, even to a kid's eye both its techniques and tone seemed a bit dated by the time I was reading it in the early 1980s. What I wanted was to be a brilliant private detective; what it taught was how to be a cop.

So imagine how excited I was when our local library got copies of two books in a UK series of spycraft manuals aimed at kids, The Good Spy Guide to Tracking and Trailing and The Good Spy Guide to Secret Messages. Both were written, the Internet tells me, by Judy Hindley, and the series, from Usborne Books, also included a volume on fakes and forgeries which ten-year-old me would also have enjoyed.

What made the Usborne books was their illustrations, which were in cartoon style but at the same time extremely effective at conveying the point at issue. I still distinctly remember the image of the bad spy using a shop window to look over his shoulder at his quarry--not realizing that if you can see someone in a window or mirror, you know they can see you. For a budding pre-teen spy/detective, that was hot stuff.

Even better was the books' tone: they offered tips and tricks in simplified form but with full seriousness, at least to my memory. These were honest-to-goodness spy tricks, and the author didn't scoff at your reasons for wanting to know them: it was taken as a given that a life well lived might at any moment throw up a situation requiring some hunting or evasion, or a secret communicated by some carefully placed rocks or sticks--even if the reader lived with his parents in the middle of nowhere and had never seen a shady character.

I checked those books out of the library over and over and over again. And thinking about them now makes me glad that I didn't encounter the Nero Wolfe books at that age. I suspect that they would have entertained me greatly, like Agatha Christie's did, even as I missed a lot (their humor, for one thing). But the lure of Wolfe and Archie's perfect little world would have been too much--it would have represented everything I was hoping for out of life. Hell, it's hard to resist even now: as Donald Westlake wrote in his introduction to The Father Hunt,
One doesn't drop in at the house on Thirty-fifth Street for the plot line but for the house itself and its denizens--lovingly described, familiar, comfortable, though with Nero Wolfe in charge and Archie as Virgil never so comfortable as to bore.
Ten-year-old me was content to learn spycraft and detective skills assuming I'd one day have a use for them, and aching for the chance; having had the house on Thirty-Fifth Street to aspire to would only have made the waiting more unbearable.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Alice Thomas Ellis on secrets

When not beset by the other obligations that have rendered me an unreliable blogger lately, I've been reading Alice Thomas Ellis's The Clothes in the Wardrobe (1987), the first volume in The Summer House Trilogy, which Paul Dry Books has recently done readers the service of returning to print in the States. I've written already of my love of Ellis's fierce, astringent novels, a love that grows with each new one I encounter. Her observations are so acute--and, more distinctly, so uncompromising in their judgment--that The Clothes in the Wardrobe easily kept my Twitter feed busy all week. A sample:
Surely to make a great fool and spectacle of yourself for the sake of another is a form of martyrdom.

No one can love a person who knows a secret about him that he would prefer not to know himself.

Pride is the subtlest of sins, offering the most morally destitute some comfort.

She couldn't help disapproving of people. It seemed to be essential to her sense of identity.

If it is not possible to be free, perhaps to be hidden is the next best thing.

I told my mother with timid spite, hidden terror, and a certain mad braggadocio.

If she was a wife, she was, by conventional standards, a gloriously bad one.
Tonight, I'll add a scene that probably ought not to be taken straight as advice--in context there's more going on in this conversation than might appear at first read--but is fun to think of as such:
I wondered as I thought of secrets if I might find some release in telling Lili the thing that festered in my soul, and I asked her if she would listen.

She said something I found so odd that my vision of the world faintly changed and my despair lessened. If the world was not as I perceived it then it was possible that I was not damned. I felt no great assurance of comfort, but my conviction of evil grew a little less.

She said, "If you have a secret you don't want the world to know you must never tell it except to an enemy. And if you must tell your dearest friend your secret then you must tell others too, for inevitably the world will get to know and you will blame your dearest friend and lose him. So tell him, if you must, but also tell his brother and the butcher and the baker and the candlestick-maker and then you will never know who has betrayed you and you can, to some degree at least, go on loving your friend. If you tell your enemy, your hatred will be even more satisfactorily justified, but the best thing to do is tell the priest. No one else. He won't tell. The trouble is, sometimes people want to be betrayed. It makes them feel more at home and less lonely."
And if you don't believe in priests, your only option is the wind and the stars.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Medical advice from Bertie Wooster

From the opening of Aunts Aren't Gentlemen (1974):
"Jeeves," I said at the breakfast table, "I've got spots on my chest."

"Indeed, sir?"


"Indeed, sir?"

"I don't like them."

"A very understandable prejudice, sir. Might I enquire if they itch?"

"Sort of."

"I would not advocate scratching them."

"I disagree with you. You have to take a firm line with spots. Remember what the poet said."


"The poet Ogden Nash. The poem he wrote defending the practice of scratching. Who was Barbara Frietchie, Jeeves?"

"A lady of some prominence in the American war between the states, sir."

"A woman of strong character? One you could rely on?"

"So I have always understood, sir."

"Well, here's what the poet Nash wrote. 'I'm greatly attached to Barbara Frietchie. I'll bet she scratche when she was itchy.' But I shall not be content with scratching. I shall place myself in the hands of a competent doctor."

"A very prudent decision, sir."
There's nothing so comforting after a busy weekend of work than putting oneself in the hands of a competent gentleman's gentleman.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

In the beginning

One reason I appreciate blogging is that it mostly relieves you of the stress of writing an opening. While each post is an individual piece of writing, it also has a place in an ongoing conversation; a blogger is allowed to presume that he and his readers are already friends, having been chatting about books for years now, with today's post just another byway in an endlessly digressive, destinationless journey. The problem of openings is thus solved.

Novelists, on the other hand--well, I feel comfortable assuming that it's hard for them not to obsess about that first paragraph. It's the handshake and greeting of someone new at a party--but unlike a meeting in real life, if your new acquaintance doesn't instantly find you engaging, he can just turn his back on you without apology or risk of censure, and you may never get a chance to convince him he got the wrong impression.

In just the past few days, I've read three great openings. Each one is different in tone and substance from the others, but they all succeeded: they made me want to keep going.

The first is from Dan Kennedy's caustic, uncomfortable--but very good--dark comedy American Spirit:
Ten years ago when someone asked Matthew the question, "Where do you see yourself in ten years?" he remained silent and tried to look like he had an answer and was only considering how to phrase it. Inside the head, however, the only answer he could hear was, Those days will eat me alive, and Matthew knew that probably wasn't what you were supposed to say. It's ten years later and if he can swing this storm of time that's standing still in front of him, fortune will smile like it never has. But it is hard to find a hint of promise in a calendar found suddenly blank; Monday through Friday wiped clean against one's own wishes or plans, a wide-open grid of Valium-and-Heineken-kissed dead end days with a horizon way past the weeks on the page. Maybe thirty-five now, maybe forty, close enough anyway--in America these days, one's forties seem to start at twenty-five.
What a combination of ominous content and tightly rhythmic prose! The implied whisper I always hear in italic speech--Those days will eat me alive--makes that unvoiced thought shiver with actual fear. And there's no way I wouldn't want to keep reading a writer who can manage the knocking of consonants (and consonance) in "It's ten years later and if he can swing this storm of time that's standing still in front of him, fortune will smile like it never has," with its hint of a corporate lingo persisting with bloody-nosed bravado amid failure. Kennedy's book is kin to other recent novels of male failure and degeneration--there are echoes here of Sam Lipsyte and Benjamin Anastas--but Kennedy's attention to his prose, and the compelling way he conveys his protagonist's internal narration, with its mix of startling truth and mediated (and medicated) self-deception, makes it stand out.

The second comes from one of my old standbys, Rex Stout. The problem of opening for a genre novelist, especially one writing about a series character, is on the one hand less acute (because his readers already know his work) but on the other more difficult (because he's written about these characters and similar situations over and over and over again already). In Death of a Doxy (1966), Stout solves the problem by simply throwing readers right in:
I stood and sent my eyes around. It's just routine, when leaving a place where you aren't supposed to be, to consider if and where you have touched things, but that time it went beyond mere routine. I made certain. There were plenty of things in the room--fancy chairs, a marble fireplace without a fire, a de luxe television console, a coffee table in front of a big couch with a collection of magazines, and so forth. Deciding I had touched nothing, I turned and stepped back into the bedroom. Nearly everything there was too soft to take a fingerprint--the wall-to-wall carpet, the pink coverlet on the king-size bed, the upholstered chairs, the pink satin fronts on the three pieces of furniture. I crossed for another look at the body of a woman on the floor a couple of feet from the bed, on its back, with the legs spread out and one arm bent. I hadn't had to touch it to check that it was just a body or to see the big dent in the skull, but was there one chance in a million that I had put fingers on the heavy marble ashtray lying there? The butts and ashes that had been in it were scattered around and it was a good bet that it had made the dent in the skull. I shook my head; I couldn't possibly have been such an ape.
Longtime readers of Nero Wolfe stories will, I think, recognize immediately that there's something off here: we've seen Archie Goodwin at plenty of crime scenes, and in plenty of places where he shouldn't be--but this time the worry feels different, more deep-rooted. So we read on, and we soon learn why . .  .

I'll close with the opening of Alice Thomas Ellis's The Clothes in the Wardrobe (1987):
I remembered her all my life. For years the image of her had hung in my mind like a portrait in a high room, seldom observed but unchanging. Sometimes, unawares, I would see her again suddenly revealed in the vaulting halls of my head. She was sitting on a grassy bank, leaning forward a little, a cigarette between her fingers, and she was speaking. I could not remember what she was saying, nor even if I had understood her, but I knew that what she was saying must be, in some sense, significant. She wore a cream-coloured cotton frock with large puffed sleeves, sprigged with tiny brown flowers; he stockings were cream-coloured too and on her feet were white, barred shoes. Her hair grew in dry red curls, dark red like rust or winter bracken. She was not at all beautiful, but even with her likeness before me I had always assumed that she must be, since she carried such conviction in her forgotten words and her enduring appearance. Her name was Lili.
This one, I'll admit, comes close to cliche: even a beginning writing student could see the way to create suspense and intrigue with an opening like this. What saves it for me is the imagery ("the vaulting halls of my head," "dark red like rust or winter bracken"), and the fact that the words--the content of the woman, in some sense--have been lost, and what remains is simply the deep understanding of her significance. Ellis's novel is now, thankfully, back in print, available as part of The Summer House Trilogy from Paul Dry Books. I've raved about her quite a bit before, and my enthusiasm is undimmed.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Observing May 12, 1937

Wandering my bookshelves on Saturday, I happened to pull down a volume from the Faber Finds series: a publication from the Mass Observation program in England titled May the 12th. Being as the day itself was May the 12th, I opened it up.

For those of you who don't know, Mass Observation was a program aimed at setting down the character of everyday life in Britain, the ephemeral as much as the important. From 1937 until the early 1950s, a combination of volunteer diarists, paid investigators, and mail surveys built up an archive of British daily life that, years later, can astonish you with its evocative detail. David Kynaston's incomparable histories of postwar Britain draw heavily on Mass Observation reports, and the result is that his books convey the texture of daily life, and the immediacy of individual voices, like few histories.

Because I was supposed to be working--prepping for publicity calls or working on my Donald Westlake book, one or the other--I didn't sit down and read May the 12 from cover to cover. But I did flip through it and note some passages worth sharing, in case you were wondering what was going on in England at this time of the year seventy-six years ago, the day that George VI was crowned at Winchester Cathedral.

The first I'll share comes from a twenty-eight-year-old single woman who worked as a children's nurse and identified herself as a Conservative and a member of the Church of England:
One Wednesday, May 12, 1937, I was awakened at 2.10 a.m. by a newsboy yelling Daily Mail. I crawled out of bed and was quite surprised to see that the Hotel opposite and the streets were alive with all types of people. I admit I thought London had gone crazy and felt annoyed with the world in general. I returned to my bed, determined to sleep. It was impossible, the rush of cars and noise of heavy traffic was deafening. I tried counting sheep but to my horror found I was counting human footsteps. I think I must have dozed off when I was suddenly awakened by a man's voice shouting through the keyhole, "Nurse, it's a quarter to five." It was the cook. That seemed to me the last straw. For a moment I wondered if he had taken leave of his senses, but the steady tramp of feet on the pavement outside brought home to me in a flash that the Great Day had dawned. "At least," I said to myself "I hope their Majesties are also getting up at this unearthly hour." I dressed and after the inevitable cup of tea I went to the nursery.
I think you could probably separate the world meaningfully into those who view the morning cuppa as a pleasure and those who refer to it as "inevitable."

I'll quote two passages from the next observer, identified only as a Platonist. (Seriously!) After opening his notes with, "I noticed with malicious pleasure that the weather was not fine," and assuaging his regret at the lack of rain with hope that the situation might change, he starts to go about his day:
After breakfast I put some hair oil on my head, as a prophylactic against threatening baldness, noting the resemblance between the King and myself in respect of this action. At this time (10 a.m.), when I was in my bedroom, I was a little startled to see a bird (a sparrow, I fancy) beating its wings for a short time (perhaps three seconds) against the window-pane. For a moment I thought it was perhaps imprisoned between the panes of the open window. On going nearer I concluded that it had seen, and was trying to get out, a daddy long legs or some such creature, which was motionless in an approximately upright position (i.e. head near ceiling) against one of the panes. I thought (i) of "nature red in tooth and claw" (ii) that the bird was observing the source of its sustenance, even as the Coronation crowds would be doing, (iii) that the bird's observation of the daddy long legs ought to be included in mass-observation. I noticed also the terrifyingly fragile and almost beautifully exact structure of the insect. (I wondered whether it was technically an insect, and counted six legs on it.) I thought also that it was too transparent for decency. This last thought arose from my squeamishness.
The second passage comes from later in the day:
At about 5:45 an unexpected incident happened to me, to which I recall no parallel in my life. I opened a "printed paper rate" postal communication from the Cambridge Preservation Society. This communication had reached me about three weeks earlier, but, having been extremely busy, and perhaps also not anxious to explore a request for money, I had left it unopened. (The envelope bore the words "Cambridge Preservation Society.") Inside, besides the printed communication from the Cambridge Preservation Society, I found a sealed envelope addressed to a person whom I did not know, and bearing undistributed tamps to the value of 1-1/2d. Rather impulsively, I opened it up, and found inside a document evidently not belonging to the communication from the Preservation Society, and of a suspicious and perhaps illegal nature. In some alarm at my unintentional but still reckless participation in an affair that might possibly lead to legal proceedings, I resolved to send the document to the Secretary of the Cambridge Preservation Society. This, coming at the end of a boring and long-drawn out stretch of work, too me by surprise.
But what was in the envelope? What sort of shady dealings? Money, murder, general mayhem? Alas, Mass Observation will never know!

I'll close with a passage from a 21-year-old woman from a small village in Essex. After spending the day in the village listening to the broadcast of the service, she helped serve the village's free supper and managed some of the details of the public dance. Then she went off on her own adventures:
After this I went to a more sophisticated dance at a nearby town where they had a pageant representing the different colonies in the Empire--then home to bed at 4 a.m.--slightly whistled!
With which we gain a new word for drunkenness, one that even Edmund Wilson's Lexicon of Prohibition knows not. Work be damned, that seems enough achievement for one weekend, no?

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

John Ford and cultural lenses

Still waylaid by work and such, but I did want to take a moment and share an essay I just read from Film Comment in which Kent Jones takes after Quentin Tarantino for a poorly thought-out slam of John Ford. It's not strictly speaking book-related, but I wanted to share it because 1) I'm a Ford fan and 2) this passage encapsulated a particular problem of contemporary American cultural life better than any writing I've come across before:
It’s curious that American culture and history are still so commonly viewed through a New Left prism, by means of which 1964 or thereabouts has become a Year Zero of political enlightenment; as a consequence, the preferred stance remains that of the outsider looking in, or in this case back, at a supposedly gullible and delusional pre-Sixties America. It’s certainly preferable to right-wing orthodoxy, but that’s hardly a compliment. The New Left is now very old but its rhetoric lives on, many times removed from its original context, and that rhetoric seems to have found a welcome home in film criticism.

Can we really afford to keep saying “them” instead of “us?” Is it useful to keep looking back at the past, disowning what we don’t like and attributing it to laughably failed versions of our perfectly enlightened selves?
Jones nails it: despite the fact that we should know better, that we've seen the past products of American culture ourselves and know they're more complicated than that--and that our own era is always more complicated, more two-steps-forward-one-step-back than the surface narrative would suggest, we're still stuck in this very 1960s mode of gawping at history. The past is littered with moral failures; the present is as well. Saying that we've gotten better at recognizing humanity and fighting injustice need not require us to simplify the past nor amplify its flaws.

The only other time I've encountered thinking this cogent about our lingering Boomer cultural mindset, and its insistence on opposition and outsiderism (which necessarily requires insiders and villains) is in a post from New York magazine music critic Nitsuh Abebe a few years back. The post, titled "You Are All Still Boomers: A Sort of Modest Proposal," highlights the degree to which we're still wedded to that worldview:
We often worry about the health of our undergrounds, or worry about the possibility of having one. If we can’t find one, we get sad. People get older and shake their heads about it: where are the vigorous pop-culture insurgencies of yesteryear? It’s just a basic of our rhetoric: if I’m trying to explain to you why one piece of art is better than another, it’s a standard tactic to say, well, this thing represents an underground, a revolution, a next thing. And I don’t want to turn into Thomas Frank here, but this is so rote that it’s long been part of advertising, even, which’ll pitch almost anything as a counterculture alternative. Because advertisers know that’s just how we think.

And there are loads of perfectly good reasons for this — this whole map/narrative is often a workable and effective way of looking at things. I’m not necessarily arguing with it. The thing I find myself dwelling on lately, though, is that it’s also a pretty old way of looking at things. We could trace it backwards through art far enough into history that I wouldn’t know what I was talking about anymore. Wikipedia tells me the first use of the term “avant-garde” to describe the purpose of the artist came in 1825. And there’s the rise of a western-European bourgeoisie, with the image of the artist as anti-bourgeois. And there’s modernism. And then most of all . . .

Well, if you’re American, here’s the part that might depress you: the map/narrative we’re talking about is basically a Baby Boomer thing, isn’t it? Isn’t the use of this map basically an attempt to relive the narrative Boomers brought forward out of the 1960s? Obviously I’m pretending to be a bit naive here, because I think you probably realize this already: the template and narrative for how modern Americans think about counter-culture and social change is insanely influenced by the Boomer experience.
Acknowledging the lens is the first step to actually seeing what it reveals.

I'll close with a (perhaps inevitable?) turn to Mad Men, our culture's most prominent current ongoing engagement with history. Simply put, it is dull when it focuses on the sins of the past--Look, pregnant ladies are smoking! People are homophobic!--and fascinating when it shows us that every life is lived within constraints, and that the individual struggle to escape or come to terms with those limitations is what is interesting. The past may have been less enlightened than the present, but it was no less complicated and multifaceted. As Jones says, it shouldn't be "them" and "us"--it's all us. We'll be the past ourselves soon enough.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

A bit of Waugh

As I warned last week, the combination of work and the early stages of assembling The Getaway Car: A Donald E. Westlake Miscellany have stolen away any hope of proper blogging this week.  But just now as I was flipping through The Paris Review Interviews, Volume III, I came across a section of their 1963 interview with Evelyn Waugh that seemed worth sharing.

First, when asked if he would like to choose any other historical period to live in, Waugh responds,
The seventeenth century. I think it was the time of the greatest drama and romance. I think I might have been happy in the thirteenth century, too.
I understand the appeal of the eighteenth century--what lover of words could fail to fall for the Age of Johnson? But the seventeenth, with the Thirty Years' War and the English Civil War and essentially unending strife? And the thirteenth century? Really? One might almost as well opt for caveman days and fervently hope for a good cave and reasonably strong teeth.

The second part is a moment when Waugh reveals his reliable snobbishness and dyspepsia. After having it pointed out that he had never created a sympathetic working-class character, he replies:
I don't know them, and I'm not interested in them. No writer before the middle of the nineteenth century wrote about the working classes other than as grotesques or as pastoral decorations. Then when they were given the vote certain writers started to suck up to them.
It's interesting that fifty years later, Waugh's position--that writers address the working class out of self-interest rather than actual interest--can still be found reflected in conservative politics, whose leaders not infrequently reduce any attempts to ameliorate inequality to simple vote buying.

The dyspepsia, however, gives way to enthusiasm quickly--and amusingly--with the next question:
What about Pistol . . . or much later, Moll Flanders and--

Ah, the criminal classes. That's rather different. They have always had a certain fascination.
You can almost see the gleam in his eye as he makes that reply.