Saturday, February 09, 2013

Apathy. Sheer Bloody Apathy.

The Agatha Awards noms have been announced, and looking over the nominations list, I am overcome with a wave of emotion. That emotion is sheer apathy. I just don’t care about any of these nominations. I read plenty of new books in 2012, and I enjoyed myself for the most part. But come awards season, it seems to be a celebration of the bestseller lists and of the underappreciated art of mediocrity.

But don’t worry, I’m just being a jackass today, and after I finish writing this piece I’ll go to a corner, sulk and cry myself to sleep, all while pondering on my various psychological issues, caused by my mother not hugging me enough when I was a child. At least, that’s the only explanation I can come up with. I should be excited! It’s award season! We’re celebrating the cream of the crop— the very best that the mystery field had to offer in 2012! I should turn that frown upside down, grab a martini (shaken, not stirred) and talk about how brilliant all these novels were.

Well, no. I refuse. I’m reminded of a scene in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Our heroes were subjected to the third-worst poetry in the universe, and are asked by the poet, a heartless Vogon, what they thought of it. And they babble on about how the rhythmic devices counterpointed the surrealism of the metaphors and nonsense like that. I’ve taken English classes before, and I have written essays praising some unreadable crap as masterful literature. You can do that with anything. There’s just no honesty in it.

We are in desperate need of more honesty when it comes to reviewing books and handing out awards. It seems that we are content to listen to praise for every novel written by authors like Louise Penny, Walter Mosley, Dennis Lehane, etc. This is nonsense: no author ever has had a perfect track record. Shakespeare? Please – many of his plays were derivative sequels written to cash in on a quick buck; I suspect that anyone who calls him perfect has never read The Merry Wives of Windsor. Dickens? He could write silly plots with ten times more words than he had to. They could still be readable, that didn’t mean they were all good. Agatha Christie wrote Postern of Fate. John Dickson Carr wrote The Hungry Goblin. Christianna Brand wrote Suddenly at His Residence. Even the reliable William DeAndrea wrote a generic, paranoia-fuelled Cold War thriller. Must I go on?

Yeah, we need more critics like this!
Yet professional reviewers keep writing positive things about books that frankly don’t deserve it. It seems that every book is terrific. Every book is brilliant. Every book transcends the genre on some level, even if it stinks. I suspect the reason is simple: professional reviewers are paid to review books. And they know which side their bread is buttered on. So, faced with Unreadable Garbage by Ove R. Rated, are they more likely to point out the obvious—“this book blows”—or are they more likely to give some generic praise that will ensure they’ll still be cashing in a cheque this time next week?

That’s why I no longer pay attention to cover blurbs. I understand that these reviewers are paid to say nice things, and the publisher, desperate to market this book to me, will cherry pick reviews to find the juiciest quotes. The overall effect is that Author X is the literary heir of Raymond Chandler, and author Y is the literary heir of Agatha Christie, and at the end of the day slapping that quote on the cover doesn’t make author X or author Y any better.

If the damage were limited to book blurbs, I’d be fine with that. You gotta make money somehow. But no; this attitude has seeped its way into mystery criticism, something I was made painfully aware of when I read Books to Die For, a book that has been undeservedly nominated for an Edgar and Agatha award. It is a collection of essays in praise of mediocrity. Many of the books included quite simply shouldn’t be there, but we find out that they transcend the genre, are revolutionary, etc. The logic always goes something like “Before Ove R. Rated wrote Unreadable Garbage, mysteries were unreadable garbage. Now, they are all imitating the brilliance of Unreadable Garbage—with capital letters. By the way, visit my website! I write books too!”

Let’s take one of the all-time great authors, for instance. How about Raymond Chandler? Here was a brilliant stylist if there ever was one. The description of the knight in the stained-glass window in The Big Sleep should be framed in the home of any aspiring author as a piece of writing to be admired and looked up to. But at the same time… The Big Sleep is one of the most overrated novels of all-time. The plot is bad, with more holes in it than Swiss cheese. The characterization is inconsistent at best. Some of the obvious SYMBOLISM!!! Is ludicrous. But academics have somehow found a way to praise The Big Sleep as one of the best novels of all-time. They have created fantastic theories where everything down to the last comma was carefully planned by Raymond Chandler, to exploit themes from Celtic mythology and counterpoint them with the death of the American Dream. To be sure, there are some elements of this in the novel (see the knight in the stained glass window), but when you rope in the minor and ultimately inconsequential character of “Silverwig” as symbolic of the Holy Grail, you’ve crossed the line into bat-shit insanity.


Chandler: a brilliant stylist and author of some
massively overrated books
And academia keeps this nonsense up. Instead of acknowledging that Chandler wrote The Big Sleep on an off day and it’s about time to move on to some of his better books, academia stubbornly insists that this is the perfect one. Perhaps because of its shoddy plot, if it’s used as a model for today’s authors, that means they can get away with shoddy plotting too, because Chandler did it! Perhaps that is why the Chandler style is so often imitated, but the web-like plot structures of Dashiell Hammett are not nearly as often imitated. Critics (and mystery writers) who have no idea what they’re talking about tend to lump Chandler, Hammett, and James M. Cain together as though they wrote the same type of novel, and although they share some elements, the overall novels are as different as salt, red onions, and pepper. If you’d like to season your French fries with Cayenne pepper, be my guest (I’ll even put the video on YouTube), but don’t force that stuff down my throat as well!

And so, the Edgar and Agatha awards are as predictable as clockwork; they are mere popularity contests based on the bestseller lists and who is voting. (They are by no means alone in this, but they are the highest-profile awards ceremonies and should be setting an example.) Books to Die For was predictably nominated by both groups—indeed, most of the authors who compiled Books to Die For are part of the MWA!!! This just smacks of bias, especially when you consider that the book was essentially one really long commercial; many essays were quick pieces, dashed off for some free advertising space. As a result, it is almost entirely worthless as a critical volume. (No wonder it was nominated for Best Critical/Biographical!) It’s basically Famous Author asking his pals to write something in five minutes, and ta-da! You have an instant award-winning book! And in case one book like that wasn’t enough, we got two books like this nominated, with the second collection being specifically about Robert B. Parker!

More predictable Edgar nominations include a critical work on Raymond Chandler, a book that I’ve read two excerpts from, and both made laughable assertions about detective fiction as a whole. It would be like arguing that something can come from nothing by redefining “nothing” to mean “something”! (In other words, it’s a bullshit argument that doesn’t stand up to any serious scrutiny.) There’s also a standard Sherlock Holmes-related Edgar nomination – there seems to be one every year – and I don’t particularly care, though my guess is that it’s probably the most deserving of the four nominees.

TV also wasn’t represented very well at the Edgars. The worst episode of Elementary was nominated for an Edgar, even though the first two episodes had much cleverer plots and better dialogue. (It’s all been pretty bad since then, I’m afraid and I gave up on the show weeks ago. Not out of disgust with the show or out of boredom particularly, but I had to study for finals and was too busy to keep up with the show... and I still don't feel the urge to get caught up.)

The Agathas are even worse, since they are even more like popularity contests—books are not submitted for consideration, they’re just voted, and so the nominees will invariably be bestsellers and/or friends of the voters. G. M. Malliet’s A Fatal Winter was nominated for an Agatha. It’s a perfectly acceptable book, but it’s got major flaws. It’s far from award-worthy and its inclusion puzzles me. Louise Penny was (again!!!) nominated for an Agatha. She’s been nominated every year since 2007, presumably because she sells well and so she’s always in the voters’ heads. Even when she doesn’t deserve it, she gets nominated, which makes her the Meryl Streep of the Agathas. This time, she’s nominated for an awful, thoroughly offensive book in which she solves religion and overwrites a stupid plot to death, complete with plot holes through which you could drive an entire circus. Ten-to-one that she wins.

What makes all this so infuriating is the stuff that isn’t nominated, stuff that is far more deserving of these awards. Keigo Higashino’s Salvation of a Saint, for instance: a terrific novel that improved on the Edgar-nominated The Devotion of Suspect X. It had a clever plot, terrific characters, and a memorable ending. But it flew in under the radar, and the Edgar committee doesn’t care; Walter Mosley wrote a new book. What about Curt Evans' Masters of the Humdrum Mystery? It’s a terrific reference book that challenges the conventional way of thinking about the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. It’s immensely readable and it also provides terrific biographies of three very important Golden Age authors. I liked it so much I got two copies. Meanwhile, if I had a physical copy of Books to Die For I’d just use it to stabilize a wobbly table leg. What about Andrew Hunt’s City of Saints or Marsali Taylor’s Death on a Longship? Both were impressively-written debut novels with good plots; both were ignored at the Edgars and Agathas. Are we seeing a pattern here?

I’m done. These awards are celebrating mediocrity, nominating safe choices in the fiction category that frankly all sound like they are in the same mould. Non-fiction has some horrendous nominations. And at the end of the day, I don’t give a damn one way or the other. I was thinking that I might try to read all the “Best Novel” books nominated by the Edgars or by the Agathas, but both lists leave me feeling unpleasant in my stomach. I just don’t care. Julian Symons unfortunately got it very right when he wrote the following in the third edition of Bloody Murder:

“I conceived the idea of Bloody Murder in 1970 after ending a ten-year stint as crime reviewer for The Sunday Times. I gave it up chiefly because I knew I was becoming stale, so that my reaction on seeing a parcel of new books was not the appropriate slight quickening of the pulse marking the hope of a masterpiece. (…) I had always reviewed crime stories with the freedom I used in writing about other books, recording triumphs and disasters with candour. But I was a founding member of the Crime Writers Association, and although those who turn their pens to crime are by and large genial figures, some of them were indignant at what they considered a kind of treachery. There was even an abortive move to expel me until such a time as I wrote helpful rather than harmful reviews. It is my experience that you can say in print a poet is no good and he will slap you on the shoulder at next meeting and say what a fool you are, but if you make a similar comment about a crime writer he may say nothing but will be deeply wounded. On this ground too, therefore, it seemed a good idea to give up crime reviewing.

“On the other hand I felt, and feel today, irritation at the blandness with which this occupation is carried on. I like praise for my crime stories as much as the next man or woman, but how can one take seriously warm words written about one’s own new book, when the same crime column contains equally warm words about half a dozen other books, some of which are revealed at a cursory glance as being inferior to the standard article? Such praise may please publishers, but cancels itself out for a writer.”

Unfortunately the words still ring true today. Maybe I’m just a bitter, bitter person. Either way, that’s gotten a load off my chest that I’ve wanted to get rid of for a while now. The Edgar Awards have sunk to a new low, and I thought that nominating Paul Auster’s City of Glass as Best Novel was the all-time low. I’m done paying attention to the Edgars and to the Agathas. Maybe winning one of these awards had some meaning once upon a time, when mystery authors knew about the past of their medium and about the directions it was taking, and tried to capture the very best of the bunch. But now it’s become just another popularity contest, only one that can’t afford to be hosted on live television by Billy Crystal.
My opinion of the Edgars/Agathas/etc. in three seconds (or less).

Please note that due to my existential crisis, I’ll be ignoring any death threats and hate mail unless they are written in iambic pentameter.

54 comments:

  1. Hmmm, I like SUDDENLY AT HIS RESIDENCE. Doug Greene

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'll be honest, Doug, I like the beginning. After the corpse is discovered, though, the book lost its lively energy for me and got really dull to read very quickly.

      Delete
  2. Have not read any of the books in question so I don't know if you are right, Patrick. I would say that it does seem, in general, to me that every year it is always the same handful of folks being nominated for every award. Whether or not they are truly the best, I don't know.

    Kevin
    (who is not a robot and therefore makes typos and has to delete comments nearly always after they are posted in order to fix them)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The major flaw with the Agathas -- and for that matter, the Anthonys -- is that they are voted, not nominated. And so it's quite possible that the voting committee will be sitting there, nominating the books, and they all liked "Pretty Good First Novel" by Promising Author. But they all forget to mention it, and struggle to fill in that last nomination spot, so they just pluck out the first bestseller they can name and go for lunch. I'm particularly surprised that Marsali Taylor's DEATH ON A LONGSHIP wasn't nominated. It's an excellent mystery in the general mould of Agatha Christie, and although I can understand its snub from the Edgars (it being more of a noir/hardboiled domain now), I thought the Agathas were far more likely to recognize it as one of the best debut novels of 2012.

      Delete
  3. I haven't read "Gods of Gotham" by Lyndsay Faye, however I was surprised to see her book on the list for Best Novel. I know she is a good writer having been positively enthralled with her Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper novel, "Dust and Shadow."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Quite the recommendation! I've gotten a *bit* too tired of Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper (especially since we all know it was Dr. Watson), but I can enjoy another spin on the tale if done well. I think I might even try reading it.

      Delete
    2. Gods of Gotham is quite well done and very enjoyable. Haven't read her Jack the Ripper book. Like others, I'm a bit tired of the genre.

      Delete
  4. Bravo! I heartily agree with your views on this. Rest assured, you are not alone!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you very much for this comment. It's encouraging to know that some people out there agree with me.

      Delete
  5. I wholeheartedly agree and I think you couldn't be "snarky" enough in this matter. I've lost interest in these awards almost the moment I discovered them. At least, those from the past few decades. Nothing of my taste. I've also seen this being discussed to death on the GADgroup. You should browse the archive section for comments from (past) members.

    Speaking of low-sinking awards, when Baantjer was nearing his eightieth birthday he was awarded with the first-ever Masterprice (and his first official recognition as a writer!) and the Society of Dutch Crime Writers placed an article on their website disparaging their own choice: "a knee-fall for capitalism," you know, 'cause he was selling millions of books and had a successful TV-series based on his characters.

    I have no idea why they gave Baantjer the award anyway, because I find it hard to believe that the sole objection of that august body to honor him with their first Masterprice was to generate free publicity. That would be vulgar. ;)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. See, what really stings about this disillusionment is that last year, the Edgar noms for Best Novel included two translated books by excellent authors from two different corners of the globe: Fred Vargas and Keigo Higashino. It got me really excited, thinking that "Hey! The guys at the Edgars even consider translations for this award! That must mean they really go all out trying to establish a list of the very best stuff of 2012!!!"

      And then turn around and pull the stunts they pulled this year. And just you see, BOOKS TO DIE FOR will win the Edgar. It's a freakin' juggernaut. And it frankly doesn't deserve the nomination. If you burned half the essays and kept only the brilliant ones, by Bill Pronzini, Marcia Muller, Max Allan Collins, Sara Paretsky, Mark Billingham, and others, you'd have a far more entertaining and far more insightful book than the 560-page long commercial that it is.

      Delete
    2. See? That's why most of us don't bother with these awards, you'll end up taking Poe's name in vein, and chuck a bust of Pallas at the raven perched above your chamber door.

      Delete
  6. I gave up watching awards programs on TV when I was in my twenties, so I don't worry much about literary awards either. I'm sure I haven't read any of the current Edgar or Agatha nominees because I'm still catching up on much older titles.

    I have to say that while I agree with you about some of Shakespeare's work being vastly overrated and far from perfect, I loved "The Merry Wives of Windsor" when I read it years ago. I've always thought "Hamlet" (a.k.a. "Omelet, Blintz of Denmark") far less interesting and involving than "Othello," "King Lear," and "Macbeth."

    As for Chandler, you know THE LONG GOODBYE is my all-time-favorite novel, mystery or otherwise, so I'm a die-hard Chandler fan. THE BIG SLEEP's plot was cobbled together with elements from several of Chandler's pulp magazine stories. He called the process "cannabalizing," and it accounts for the looseness and holes. You say some critics consider it one of the great mystery novels of all time, and that may be true. I think its significance is that it was the first novel by a writer who became one of the most important. Many critics cite FAREWELL, MY LOVELY as Chandler's best because it's a quintessential example of a hardboiled private eye story. Then there are those of us, critics and civilians alike, who think THE LONG GOODBYE was his greatest.

    With regard to critics and symbolism, I think many of them go reaching for things to fit cockamamie theories or because they're in publish-or-perish academic situations and have to come up with "original ideas" whether they make sense or not. I've seen it in poetry criticism for sure. I recall reading a column in which the author reviewed five or six disparate books of poetry by disparate authors, but posited his own new theory and found ways to cram these distinctly different works into it.

    You alluded to a book about Robert B. Parker, an author I gave up on after reading his first dozen or so Spenser novels. I've never understood why reviewers and critics have gone crazy for him. He couldn't BE more derivative, and as I recall, some of his plots were at least as loose as Chandler's--maybe more so. Spenser also frequently struck me as both childish and snobby.

    As you point out, many of these awards have become popularity contests and, as such, shouldn't be taken too seriously. It doesn't mean, however, that every winner is a dud. Some winners deserve their acclaim. And face it, like so many other things in life, individual opinions play a huge role. You may or may not agree with the crowd about certain books and authors.

    You mentioned "Elementary." Every time I've tried to watch it I've fallen asleep. I don't care; I don't feel I missed anything vital. I've never been a major-league Holmes fan. A show I despise is "Psych." I've tried exactly four times to watch it. The first three times I turned it off after ten minutes. The fourth time, I was determined to get through an entire episode. But after half an hour I couldn't take it any more and turned it off. The lead character is annoyingly infantile rather than funny and/or clever. I want to see him smacked on the back of the head the way Gibbs does to Dinozzo on "NCIS"--except with a shovel instead of an open palm.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. A good point about THE BIG SLEEP, and while it's important for every great saga to have its beginning, I do think the love affair many academics have with THE BIG SLEEP is quite blind. Chandler wrote way better stuff, he learned to disguise that "cannibalizing" process more, and in your opinion it culminated in THE LONG GOODBYE. I'll have to give it another shot, since when I originally reviewed it I criticized it on some unfair ground that, at the time, seemed entirely fair to me. One of my worst reviews ever, when I look back on it.

      As for Shakespeare, I suppose something like "Henry VIII" would have been a far easier choice as a bad play to mention -- after all, he was basically kissing up to the monarch and her ancestry throughout -- but I thought that'd be too easy a choice, so I went with another play.

      I haven't read a single book by Robert B. Parker, but I'm frankly not interested. Maybe I'll read one some day, but I don't feel a desperate urge to do so. I'm already a big fan of another fellow called Parker, though the first name eludes me at the moment. ;)

      Of course, Barry, winning an award doesn't mean you didn't deserve it, but let's face it: the nominations are mainly a popularity contest (especially with the Agathas, where the voters could quite easily forget about a book they quite liked and end up not voting for it at all). The saddest thing is the stuff that is left behind because it didn't get a storm of publicity behind it. MASTERS OF THE HUMDRUM MYSTERY is a brilliant book, but not only was it *not* nominated, the Best Critical/Biographical section has also got less nominations than usual! Why the abrupt cutoff? I can only call it a snub -- the voters were probably too scared that it'd be a dry academic work and put it down as such without opening the covers.

      I thought "Elementary" was OK. I kept up with it mainly out of loyalty to Holmes, but I can live just fine without it.

      Delete
    2. I love the Big Sleep despite its gaping plot holes. It has a few passages, such as the ending, that make it unforgettable. But if academics are actually trying to say that somehow Chandler made it deliberately sloppy, that is indefensible.

      Delete
    3. The latest piece of BS I heard on that front is that Chandler gave you a detective story with holes in order to question your approach to the detective genre as a hole... or he just forgot to rewrite part of his short story to fit the new plot. I like my theory a bit more.

      Delete
  7. Dude, you lose all credibility when you tell me Chandler sucks. Holes? So F---- what? Nobody ever did this crap better than him. No one.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ah, but I never said Chandler sucks; in fact I called him one of the all-time greats. But instead of blindly repeating how brilliant he is and just how perfect is every word and punctuation mark he set down, I use my brain and give an honest opinion. Chandler wasn't perfect. There, I said it again. See my full review of THE BIG SLEEP for why it's so massively overrated. Coles Notes version: it's hastily thrown together and you can tell very, very easily. The cracks between the stories are much harder to distinguish in the follow-up, FAREWELL MY LOVELY.

      "Holes? So F---- what?"

      I'll tell you so f----- what. Plot holes are a sign of lazy writing, and in his early books Chandler could use his style to disguise his inability to come up with a good plot. I've been told he got better and that THE LADY IN THE LAKE is an excellently-constructed plot, but I've yet to read it so I cannot comment. As for authors who did "this crap" better than him, I'm rather a fan of Dashiell Hammett, whose excellent style also came hand-in-hand with tricky plotting. Here you've entered a matter of opinion.

      I apologize if I've hit some sort of nerve with you here about Chandler -- I know he's a great favourite of many, and I've come to appreciate his stuff a lot more within the last year or so -- but one thing you should know about this blog is that I will never cover up my opinion. I'll always give it to you the way I see it instead of giving some bland, general niceties. And if I lose credibility for *that*, I won't lose any sleep over it.

      Delete
    2. The Lady in the Lake is my favorite Raymond Chandler novel because his much praised style was accompanied by a rather clever plot, even if the main idea is an old trope of the genre and one that is still popular with puzzle-oriented mystery writers. I always thought this was a bit hypocritical on his part after taking a sledge hammer to Milne's The Red House Mystery, which is too easy an target IMO (he was a children’s book author who wrote a one-off cozy for his father).

      I also read The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely, but as I have often said, the only thing they had going for themselves was style and pace and that was simply not enough for me. Sacrilege, I know.

      Delete
    3. I thought Lovely was a big improvement on Sleep in terms of plot coherence (I also think it's a better novel, though some of the language concerning racial minorities is problematic).

      But Lake is honey of a detective novel from all points I think. Jacques Barzun, despite the reputation he has for hating anything that isn't a classical English detective novel, picked this as one of his 100 great crime novels.

      I like the High Window a lot too, from his early work.

      Delete
    4. I'll be doing Chandler in order from now on, so that means a second visit to LOVELY will be in order. I do look forward to LADY IN THE LAKE when I get to it.

      Delete
  8. I read for entertainment, not searching for holes, or to see who constructed the best plot. Every word of THE BIG SLEEP is shear fun, the opening paragraph perhaps the best of any American novel, ever. Your taste is your taste. But don't pretend the rest of us are all stupid.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Whoah, whoah, whoah! Slow down there! I never pretended the rest of you are stupid. Okay, me saying that I use my brain and come up with my own opinion may have sounded like I was being a jackass, but I didn't mean it that way. I meant that I come up with my own opinions instead of just repeating what the general consensus is. I'm a bit of a freak that way -- it's why I don't hate the Star Wars prequel trilogy like many Star Wars fans do.

      Actually, I singled out the opening paragraph of THE BIG SLEEP, saying it "should be framed in the home of any aspiring author as a piece of writing to be admired and looked up to". So we're in agreement there.

      And I don't go searching for plot holes myself. I don't go scrutinizing the solubility tables for sodium nitrate to see whether it is soluble in water (it is, BTW) and whether the 4.50 from Paddington really passes through such-and-such a point at 5.24. I have better things to do with my time, like reading more books. I only look to be entertained. But with THE BIG SLEEP, plot holes jump out at you, and that removes my enjoyment of the book. That last scene, for instance: how the hell was Marlowe supposed to know that the killer would encourage him to teach him/her how to shoot a gun, and thus prepare his gun in advance??? What if he was going to need it -- he'd have been completely f%&)%d! It's not exactly something you need to cross-reference with earlier passages to see.

      Delete
    2. Chandler always has good writing (although in Big Sleep some of the anti-gay stuff gets tiresome, as well as the phobias about women), but I confess I got bored with The Big Sleep because the plot was such a mess. The stained glass knight is an arresting image, but I actually prefer Farewell, My Lovely, Lady in the Lake, The High Window, among his early books.

      When an author decides towork in the form of the detective novel, it's not beside the point, I believe, to look at the author's plotting. It's something Chandler actually worked hard on, despite the claim often made that he cared nothing about plotting. He struggled hard with it and did produce some books with strong plotting, I think.

      It's possible to combine good writing and strong plotting and some hard-boiled novels are perfectly compatible with the classical puzzle tradition. Bill Pronzini's for example. Of course Bill Pronzini has great respect for both traditions and is widely read in both.

      Delete
    3. I have to agree with you here, Curt, although I find the racism of LOVELY refreshing compared to the constant triple-threat of misogyny, racism, and homophobia in THE BIG SLEEP. Brilliant as that knight-in-the-stained-glass-window image is, you can't coast on that paragraph for an entire book.

      I of course agree that plotting is important. Ingenuity is such a staple of the mystery genre that it's really almost an inevitable question. And I did find it fascinating to see how Chandler, in correspondence and essays and such, went precisely against the opinions ascribed to him by modern academia -- hence my very unfair appraisal of THE LONG GOODBYE. I still think that first act was brilliant, but perhaps knowing what I know now, I wouldn't have been so harsh with that second act.

      Delete
    4. In FAREWELL, MY LOVELY, critics have pointed out--correctly, if my memory serves, having not read it in decades--that the racism does not come from Marlowe but from others, including the cop Nulty, and that this is part of characterization. And as has been pointed out about many another mystery story from the Golden Age, racism was unfortunately not uncommon, reflecting as it did the attitude of the time in which it was written. Lest I be misunderstood, let me hasten to add that I'm saying it's understandable, not forgivable.

      Delete
    5. Barry, you're perfectly right, and that's one of the reasons I find it the racism of FAREWELL MY LOVELY much more palatable. Marlowe doesn't go off for 14 pages about how unfair it is that there's a coloured bar and how society is unfair to the black people, but he shows some decency to black men that other characters do not. It also helps that LOVELY has a terrific female character who is feisty and plenty of fun, the polar opposite of Carmen in THE BIG SLEEP -- who still scares the bejeezus out of me!

      We might look back and frown on racism now, but 1000 years from now, people might look on our literature with disgust when they realize that everyone sits in poor, innocent, defenseless chairs without giving a moment's thought to the unfairness of the situation.

      Delete
    6. Oh, I really enjoyed Farewell, My Lovely. It may not be the most brilliant plot in the world, but it's a classically archetypal one (and also comprehensible!) and the writing is wonderful.

      Delete
    7. Okay, now that I've defended him, I have to point out in the interest of full disclosure that in THE LONG GOODBYE, Marlowe's attitude toward the Wades' Mexican houseboy Candy could be construed as racist. Additionally, when he thinks Eileen Wade might be in danger, Marlowe imagines several possible scenarios, one involving her being pursued by a black man.

      Delete
    8. One thing that always strikes me in Big Sleep is the attitude to gays and to women (the sisters specifically).

      Clive James calls them "rich bitch" and "little witch":

      "Carmen is the first in a long line of little witches that runs right through the novels, just as her big sister, Vivian, is the first in a long line of rich bitches who find that Marlowe is the only thing money can't buy."

      Link to his essay:

      http://www.clivejames.com/books/pillars/chandler

      Delete
  9. I think it's in the nature of the beast that more people are going to be interested in what Deborah Crombie, for example, has to say about P. D. James in Books to Die For than what I do in Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (after all, in praising Crombie's piece on Sayers in "that remarkable collection of essays about crime fiction-Books to Die For" Crime Beat makes sure to mention that Crombie is a "best-selling author"--as if best-selling novelist status in and of itself validates anything the author writes in other areas).

    But I also think people could learn a lot about English detective fiction from my book, which, among other things, is massively researched (all in all, it took about eight years to produce). I hope they get the chance to read it, whether in the library or on Kindle (I don't imagine that many people are going to shell out $50 for the print version!). What I would like most is not awards nominations but more people leaning about the arguments I make in Masters.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Curt, I entirely agree. It seems that just because you sell a lot of mystery novels, it suddenly makes you an expert in mysteries in general, which couldn't be further from the truth. Maybe that was true once upon a time -- Symons, Chandler, Carr, Todd Downing, etc. were all critics and knew what they were talking about -- but nowadays, "the past" is defined as anything before 2009, and few authors make any effort to get past that.

      Delete
  10. Did Patrick just get called "dude"? I knew this would be an interesting thread!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. What with me being a product of the 90s, I suppose it was inevitable to happen some day.

      Delete
  11. I love the knight in the stained-glass window opening of The Big Sleep. I made me think of the TV show, Have Gun Will Travel with its hero, Paladin, "A knight without honor in a savage land." Like Marlowe's LA. I subscribe to the belief that the hardboiled detective came from the solitary cowboy hero. The are a couple of other bits in TBS I like but I agree with your assessment ot ias a novel.

    I just ordered a copy of Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery. Thanks for letting us know about it.

    I plan to look at the novels you think would have been more worthy for nomination as soon as I click Publish.

    There is a very good review of Penny's The Beautiful Mystery on Amazon by Robert Sackett. He takes apart, in detail, the way Penny describes monastic life.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Mack, thank you for commenting and I hope you enjoy "Masters". It's a bit pricey, but Curt Evans wrote it with the everyday reader in mind, and not just the academic.

      I also really highly recommend SALVATION OF A SAINT. Of the "new" books I read in 2012, this one was hands-down the best. It's a terrific impossible crime novel. Here's my full review: http://at-scene-of-crime.blogspot.ca/2012/10/nothing-is-impossible.html

      I saw that review of THE BEAUTIFUL MYSTERY. It raised excellent points. I knew I could do no better so I didn't try. As a lifelong Catholic, I knew almost all the points that Sackett covered, and it really infuriated me that Penny could get such basic stuff so wrong, in a book that relied so heavily on its portrayal of monastic life. I mean... scouting for new priests??? Really??? Like the NFL??? Are we talking about the same Catholic Church here, or did I just enter into a parallel universe straight from THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY? (A lot of other things got me mad too, but I don't want to think about it, to be honest.)

      Delete
  12. Yikes, horrible mistake. Paladin is "a knight without armor in a savage land". "Honor" is what I heard when I watched the show as a kid.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No worries -- it's a perfectly honest mistake. I have misheard plenty of lyrics myself, so I know how that feels.

      Delete
    2. I also thought it was "honor". If I did hear "armor", I would have assumed that it was a mistake. Everyone knows that in the Old West no one wore armor.

      I really shouldn't edge into this conversation because I have not read Chandler or Christie. I haven't read James Patterson or Mary Higgins Clark either. I have read some terrific writers whose places on best seller lists are taken by writers whose publishers push their work, good or bad. Readers who have missed Timothy Hallinan's QUEEN OF PATPONG or BREATHING WATER should remedy that soon.

      Delete
    3. Thank you for the recommendation, Beth. Unfortunately, publishers to push those authors who are more viable in the marketplace, which is tragic, especially when it pushes talented individuals aside. That's why, IMO, the Edgars should be around to pick the very best from across the board, and not just the books that were bestsellers. I'm not saying an author who sells well must suck -- hell, I love Walter Mosley's "Devil in a Blue Dress"! But I *am* saying that a list of nominations with nothing but bestsellers is not necessarily the best list.

      Delete
  13. Your criticism of THE BIG SLEEP might carry more weight with me if you recalled that Chandler's line had to do with a bishop kicking a hole in a stained-glass window rather than a knight appearing in said window.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sorry, Naomi. You're mistaken.

      The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.

      Chandler, Raymond (2010-12-29). The Big Sleep (pp. 3-4). Numitor Comun Publishing. Kindle Edition.

      Delete
    2. The bishop line is from FAREWELL, MY LOVELY with regard to Mrs. Grayle, not THE BIG SLEEP.

      Delete
  14. Naomi, I don't understand your comment. I'm looking at the first page of The Big Sleep and don't see anything about a bishop kicking a hole in a stained-glass window. It may be that there are other references to the knight in the stained glass window that I don't remember

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The stained glass knight is the key symbolic image in the novel, it's one thing I really like about it.

      The bishop line is considered one of the classic Chandlerisms.

      Delete
    2. As Barry mentioned before, it's a description of a female character in FAREWELL, MY LOVELY. It's a terrific little line.

      It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.

      Chandler, Raymond (2011-09-20). Farewell, My Lovely (Kindle Locations 1864-1865). . Kindle Edition.

      (I include the references from my Kindle edition to help locate the quote in the book, since I only own a Kindle copy. More generally, it's in Chapter 13 of FAREWELL, MY LOVELY.)

      Delete
  15. The Agatha and the Anthony Awards DO have a nomination process, Patrick. They are chosen by the registered attendees of each convention where the award is presented: Agathas at Malice Domestic and the Anthonys at Bouchercon. The Agatha award because it is primarily about the "cozy" is not at all representative of the entire mystery community. It also has stringent rules that eliminate from the competition a huge number of books. How can you get upset about an award that is only awarded because it is deemed the best of a certain fan base? Want to change that? Go to the conventions and participate in the process.

    I know you've read two of the Agatha nominees, but I doubt you've read most the books. I further doubt that you've heard of many of the writers let alone read *one* of their books. Lumping so many writers and their work into the category of mediocre is hardly fair from someone who is demanding more fairness and justness in reviewing and nominating mystery books.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. John, I accept your rebuke here. This rant was really rather a polemic piece, and just because a book was nominated for one of these awards doesn't mean it's shit or that it's mediocre, and if I saw one of these authors in the street and recognized them, I would congratulate them, not tell them that the award is a meaningless status symbol.

      I should have made that more clear, because that is not what I feel at all-- I do feel that the nominations include some books that are total shit and/or mediocre, and *that* is why I don't want to read the selections for "Best Novel" by either group anymore, in case the chosen books keep excellent company with the ones I've read. I can believe that Walter Mosley wrote an excellent book -- he's a brilliant stylist -- but I'm far more skeptical about Dennis Lehane, and the rest of the books all seem cut out of the same mould. You're right, though: I shouldn't judge without having read the books or at least anything else by the authors. What I'm judging is how the nominees all seem to be bestsellers, and some genuinely good books have been left out in the process. Nowhere is this more evident than in non-fiction, where the mega-juggernaut that is BOOKS TO DIE FOR inexplicably got the nod while MASTERS OF THE HUMDRUM MYSTERY got snubbed... and the non-fiction nominees are far fewer than the fiction ones!!! Surely they could have nominated Curt's book-- but no, I suspect nobody even opened it for fear it was a dull academic treatise.

      CITY OF SAINTS seemed like just the type of book the Edgars would like, and it was a terrific debut novel. But it was passed over. As for DEATH ON A LONGSHIP, that was a terrific story in the Christie mould, a book that I thought would have *definitely* have been nominated for an Agatha; it's just the kind that such a committee would like! So you see, my puzzlement isn't that a hardboiled novel isn't nominated in a "cozy"-dominated awards show.

      I know that the Agathas and Anthonys are voted for, but the voting system is flawed. It will always favour the bestseller over the novel that sells quietly but is far superior -- and that's why books like A FATAL WINTER and THE BEAUTIFUL MYSTERY, ranging from "shit" to "decent", get a nomination for a "Best Novel" category. In this kind of voting situation, for every twenty people who read "I Dashed This Off in Five Minutes" by B. S. Author, there'll only be one who read a better book that didn't get a hailstorm of publicity and reviews from established critics. And this is for the simple reason that most readers won't be trying to get a comprehensive picture of the genre as it was over the previous year.

      So take this for what it was: a bitter rant about my disillusionment in the awards systems that last year seemed like they were at least trying to get a good picture of the genre as a whole. I'm not saying that a nominee for the award has got to be mediocre, but I *am* saying that quite a bit of mediocre or shitty stuff has been nominated.

      Delete
  16. I can't believe I read through this entire thread without seeing a single death threat in iambic pentameter. I'm feeling very cheated. But thanks for stirring the pot, Patrick. You certainly did liven things up.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Glad you liked it, Bill. I dunno why I added that line about iambic pentameter in there. No wait, I'm lying: I was reading Wallace Irwin's LOVE SONNETS OF A HOODLUM (available for free on the Kindle), which are sonnets written in hardboiled language. That got the idea into my head. I heavily edited this rant to make it sound less bitter, and added a few jokes in there to lighten up the mood and make me sound less like Patricia Highsmith on a particularly bad day. And so the line ended up in there. Kind of disappointed myself that nobody rose to the challenge and tell me how full of cr@p I am in verse. I'd have genuinely respected such an achievement. ;)

      Delete
  17. I'm sure that you are answering comments left and right here, but I thought that I ought to throw in my own two cents. Personally, I don't have much regard for Raymond Chandler. I have read "The Lady in the Lake" since I have heard it is the closest that he ever came to writing a more traditional mystery. I should make it clear that I have never taken greatly to the hard-boiled school of detective stories and find them rather tiresome.

    Anyhow, I really couldn't give much praise to the novel. Granted, I did read it quite a few years ago, but I just didn't take to it. I liked the narration, but that was about all I could say for Chandler (the fact that he was accomplished at descriptive writing is well known no doubt). Since then, I have been rather put off his work and really have not considered venturing into his work again (no matter how curious I am just to try "The Big Sleep").

    I suppose what I find worst of all is that Chandler said something along the lines that the cleverly plotted, complex mystery such as a traditional Agatha Christie mystery is not all that good. Now, I know that is not exactly what he said, but that is the impression that I got from it. This seems like a gigantic instance of the pot calling the kettle black when Chandler couldn't even solve his own mysteries (such as "The Big Sleep").

    That's about all I have to say, hope I didn't offend anyone too harshly. Raymond Chandler is just not my cup of tea.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not only do I understand, but this was until quite recently my own opinion on Chandler. Much of it has to do with the stuff that is attributed to him. He's portrayed the St. George who destroyed the dragon of "mere" detective fiction -- which I've come to learn is total BS. Chandler was actually quite a fan of some meticulous plotters like Freeman Wills Crofts and R. Austin Freeman. He himself admitted that THE SIMPLE ART OF MURDER was a polemic piece and that he could've just as easily written a piece defending stories like A. A. Milne's THE RED HOUSE MYSTERY (which, let's be honest, is a bit too easy a target).

      The stupidest thing, IMO, is a tendency among academia to praise Chandler's realism. This is total crap. Chandler was no more realistic than Agatha Christie. His universe is just as stylized as Christie's, but in a different way.

      My suggestion is to read Chandler as the masterful stylist he was, a man who thought detective fiction was a noble genre worth defending (from trolls like Edmund Wilson). He didn't always do a good job of constructing his own plots, but he could *write*, and his writing style has got personality and sheer magnetism to it. The more I read, the more I am fascinated by this man.

      I would recommend reading the BIG SLEEP only to say you read it. It's seriously overrated, but it's got some really good ideas. It knows it has good ideas but doesn't know what to do with 'em. On the really negative side, it's got the creepiest female character I've ever come across, Carmen, who is obviously a bat-shit crazy nymphomaniac from the first moment we see her... and it's really unnerving how she keeps giggling her way through the book.

      As an overall book, I would recommend FAREWELL, MY LOVELY. It's got a decent plot and even has references to Dr. Thorndyke, Philo Vance, and some others. It's also got a really lively, energetic female character who is plenty of fun to read about. Also the first police beating of the series (it's gangsters who beat him in THE BIG SLEEP). And it's enjoyable.

      Hardboiled detective fiction has its own interesting merits (often stylistic), but Ross Macdonald's books are terrific hardboiled novels that are also well-clued mysteries. I highly recommend THE GALTON CASE.

      Delete
  18. Can't say much since I have not read many of the authors whom you have mentioned. Chandler is quite a favourite of mine and I do rank his The Long Goodbye as amongst the top-mysteries ever written. The Big Sleep however does not do much to me.

    I agree with your views about blurbs and the extravagant praise that is bestowed on books. When Sandra Brown gets compared to James M. Cain, it is time to do some rethinking.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yup, such comparisons are used so often that they have become meaningless. It's why I avoid them on this blog. I think it's perfectly acceptable for Author X to write like Author X, and not to bestow upon him the literary mantle of [rolls dice] Ed McBain.

      Delete

Due to a recent resurgence in spam messages, I have disabled anonymous commenting. I realize this may be annoying to some users who do not wish to sign up for a Google account, but this is the easiest way for me to deal with spam and still have comments appear in a timely manner.

Please keep all discussion civil.