Crime: All the Time or Some of the Time

The ever-popular category of crime fiction — which can include detective novels, mysteries, thrillers, etc. — has different categories of authors.

There are those writers — such as Raymond Chandler, Lee Child, Agatha Christie, Michael Connelly, Arthur Conan Doyle, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith, P.D. James, Walter Mosley, Louise Penny, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Lisa Scottoline — known mostly for their crime fiction, even as they occasionally roam/roamed outside that genre. Then there are authors known more for their non-crime-fiction work, even as they produce/produced some strong offerings in the detective/mystery/thriller realm. This blog post will be about the latter group — which includes people like Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, J.K. Rowling, and Mark Twain.

I’ll first discuss Rowling, who, as “Robert Galbraith,” writes the series starring fascinating private investigator Cormoran Strike. I read the debut installment, The Cuckoo’s Calling, this week — and was bowled over by how smoothly Rowling moved into crime fiction after conquering the young-adult/magical-fiction world with her iconic Harry Potter series and then writing the compelling general-adult-fiction book The Casual Vacancy. Rowling will always be associated more with Harry Potter than anything else, but her versatility is off-the-charts.

Collins is best known for The Woman in White, an ultra-suspenseful mystery; and The Moonstone, an early example of detective fiction. But most of his novels were in the realm of general fiction.

Poe is of course almost synonymous with horror fiction, but he wrote several earlier-than-The Moonstone detective stories starring C. Auguste Dupin — the most famous of which were “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter.”

Twain’s late-career novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, with its important plot-solving element of fingerprint analysis, placed that author somewhat in the crime-solving genre. Two years later, Twain came out with Tom Sawyer, Detective — one of his lesser novels.

Dickens turned to the mystery genre with his last, unfinished book — The Mystery of Edwin Drood — after more than 30 years of penning more general literary works.

Obviously, authors who write crime fiction most of the time can really master that genre, but the potential drawback can be a certain sameness in some of their work. Those pros and cons can of course flip for writers who turn to crime fiction only occasionally.

Any thoughts on the two categories of crime-fiction authors discussed in this blog post? Your favorite works in each category?

(BTW, one reason Jim Grant took the name Lee Child was because that alias alphabetically placed his Jack Reacher novels in libraries and bookstores between the works of crime-fiction greats Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie — just like Child ended up between Chandler and Christie in this blog post’s second paragraph.)

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about overdevelopment run amok in my town — is here.

This Literature Post Contains a Secret Supreme Court Message

Today’s column will be sort of random. What pulls it together is the first letter of every fiction title I’ll mention, because together those boldfaced letters spell out a message by the time you reach the end of this post. Here goes:

Beloved by Toni Morrison. A novel, about the psychological toll of slavery and more, chosen by The New York Times in 2006 as the best American fiction work of the previous 25 years.

Redburn by Herman Melville. The lesser-known but excellent Melville work, published in 1849, about a sea voyage to Liverpool that predated The Beatles.

Evelina by Fanny Burney. A novel about the adventures (romantic and otherwise) of a young woman that’s one of the most readable books of the 18th century.

Three Junes by Julia Glass. An interestingly structured novel with three separate but interconnected parts set in 1989, 1995, and 1999.

Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener. The famous stories-sewn-together-as-a-novel that feels more modern than a 21st-century reader would expect.

Kindred by Octavia Butler. Part science-fiction, part sobering social commentary as a 20th-century African-American woman is repeatedly pulled back in time to the Antebellum South.

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. The best YA novel ever? Could be. About a brainy, spirited orphan girl in 19th-century Canada.

Villette by Charlotte Bronte. Uneven and not as riveting as the author’s Jane Eyre, but still pretty darn good.

Arch of Triumph by Erich Maria Remarque. This memorable novel, set in late-1930s Paris, features a German surgeon refugee who becomes romantically involved.

Native Son by Richard Wright. This riveting novel is a sort of 20th-century version of Crime and Punishment, with the added theme of American racism.

A Is for Alibi by Sue Grafton. The first of the engaging “alphabet mysteries” that star very human private investigator Kinsey Millhone. Sadly, the friendly Grafton (I spoke with her twice on Facebook) died before writing the 26th book.

Underworld by Don DeLillo. A long, sprawling novel that says a lot about the United States in the second half of the 20th century.

Gerald’s Game by Stephen King. I’m in the middle of reading this ultra-suspenseful book — which, though published in 1992, evokes the current Republican “war on women.” Gerald’s bad behavior toward his wife Jessie (and the sexual misconduct of other males in the novel) would make many a vile Republican politician proud.

Hollywood by Charles Bukowski. A hilarious fictionalization of the author’s experience writing the screenplay for the movie Barfly.

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. The great, justly famous historical novel. But while it’s Scott’s best-known work, it’s not his best work.

Silas Marner by George Eliot. Many high-schoolers supposedly dislike this novel, but I think it’s compelling and moving. And quite short for an Eliot book!

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. Fascinating satirical novel that can be enjoyed on different levels by kids and adults.

Ulysses by James Joyce. Oops — never read it.

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. So masterful that it became one of the few short-story collections to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel. A boy warily co-exists with an unfriendly tiger when they’re cast away at sea.

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck. The author’s first really successful novel is hilarious and socially astute.

Yet he still was confirmed. 😦

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which puts a local spin on the repugnant Brett Kavanaugh — is here.

These Fictional Works Should Come With a Medical Thermometer

Some novels and short stories deserve an “F”…for “feverish.”

Yes, those works are so intense that the “F” word seems totally appropriate, even if the characters’ body temperatures remain at 98.6. The fear they might face is palpable, death might be lurking around the corner, their words and feelings might be anguished or impassioned, the march to the conclusion might leave you breathless, etc.

I read one such novel last week: Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s compelling The Insulted and Injured, which is filled with fervent, vehement thoughts and conversations from Vanya, Natasha, and others as they navigate tumultuous relationships and more. Heck, the book’s characters act so feverishly that several of them literally get sick from all their emotional turmoil. (A scene from the novel is pictured above.)

Of course, the much-better-known Crime and Punishment and its Raskolnikov protagonist are so intense that readers might feel like dropping that amazing Dostoyevsky novel like a hot frying pan. Plus first-time C&P readers have a fierce curiosity about whether Raskolnikov’s double murder will be discovered, what the penalty would be, and whether Raskolnikov and Sonya will end up together.

The sheer physical and/or psychological violence of some novels — and wondering who might survive — can certainly dial up the fever meter. Examples include Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, etc.), Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men, Stephen King’s Misery, and Frank Bill’s Donnybrook, to name a few.

Oh, and virtually all of the Jack Reacher novels conclude with almost unbearably suspenseful chapters as Lee Child’s roaming protagonist tries to mete out justice.

Then there are riveting revenge novels, such as Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.

And novels that deal intensely with social issues — like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Richard Wright’s Native Son, and Octavia Butler’s Kindred.

And dystopian novels — such as Butler’s Parable of the Sower, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Albert Camus’ The Plague. (The Handmaid’s Tale fits this category, too.)

And novels claustrophobically set in close quarters, like the ship in Martin Cruz Smith’s memorable Gorky Park sequel Polar Star.

And novels that are ultra-intense romantically — as in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, and Emile Zola’s The Beast in Man.

Also, short stories can obviously pack a lot of feverishness into their relatively small number of pages. Examples of these works include — among many others — Atwood’s “Stone Mattress,” Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” Leo Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata,” Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno,” Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Aleph,” and many Edgar Allan Poe creations — such as “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.”

Which novels and short stories have been the most intense for you?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — a goofy look at how to reach a school’s upper floors without stairs or an elevator — is here.

When the ‘Good’ Are the Bad, It Can Get Ugly

As the Brett Kavanaugh drama unfolded this month, I thought about fictional characters who seem admirable on the surface yet are in reality bad people.

Kavanaugh, of course, is Donald Trump’s nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court. I never felt Kavanaugh was a good guy — he’s an ideologue with nasty, ultra-conservative views on women, the poor, civil rights, guns, the environment, and more. But to at least some people, he seemed like a decent and friendly “family man.” That persona was blown to bits when Dr. Christine Blasey Ford credibly accused him of having sexually assaulted her several decades ago. To me, there was no motive for Dr. Blasey Ford to lie — she knew she would be deluged with hate mail, social-media abuse, death threats, and other horrors from right-wing Republicans. The only coming-forward upside for Dr. Blasey Ford (shown with Kavanaugh in separate photos above) was to tell the truth.

So…some quasi-equivalents of Kavanaugh in literature:

The first character who came to mind was Perry in Liane Moriarty’s fantastic Big Little Lies. In the eyes of society, he’s a charming and respected banker. Under the surface, he has a sordid past and present that includes ugly violence against his wife Celeste and other women.

Then there’s Willie Stark, the Huey Long-like politician in All the King’s Men. He’s charismatic, and seems idealistic and populist. In reality — a reality that grows stronger as Robert Penn Warren’s famous novel goes on — Stark is a corrupt hypocrite.

Another complicated politician is Hamm Sparks of Fannie Flagg’s engaging Standing in the Rainbow. He’s hardworking — raising himself up from poverty — and appears to be admirable in other ways as well. Popular with the electorate, too. But Hamm eventually reveals himself to be too slick, very right wing, and an adulterer (cheating on his shy wife Betty Raye).

In Andre Dubus III’s compelling House of Sand and Fog, the married Lester Burdon is an apparently upstanding law-enforcement guy until he becomes enamored with Kathy Nicolo and starts doing rash and illegal things to try to help her regain the home that’s subject to an epic ownership dispute.

The most recent novel I finished — Susan Moore Jordan’s absorbing mystery The Case of the Slain Soprano — turns out to have a murderer who was thought to be the nicest of guys. An excellent actor, I guess.

Oh…and there’s a complicated version of good but not actually good in J.K. Rowling’s iconic Harry Potter series when the admirable Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody seems to turn bad. But that’s because he was kidnapped and impersonated by another character, Barty Crouch Jr.

I’ll conclude by mentioning Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Which fictional characters fitting this topic do you most remember? And any thoughts on the Kavanaugh situation?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about a school stairway collapse in my town — is here.

‘A Game of Thrones’ vs. ‘The Lord of the Rings’

It took me a long time to get to it, but I finally read A Game of Thrones after commenters here recommended it.

The first volume of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” epic fantasy series clocks in at nearly 700 large-size, small-print pages. I almost abandoned the novel after a few chapters, because the author kept jumping to so many different characters that it was hard to get absorbed. But I finally did, and found the book really compelling from then on.

Rather than write a straightforward review of A Game of Thrones — which, along with its sequels, inspired the hit TV series — I thought I’d compare it to the other epic fantasy tour de force read by many people (like me) who usually don’t read fantasy. I’m of course referring to J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings, and its prequel The Hobbit.

Overall, Tolkien’s wonderful classic is more of a page-turner — the storytelling is mostly linear, and the quest to destroy that titular ring is riveting. Martin’s most noticeable plot line — various families striving for power — is also exciting but a bit more diffuse. Yet A Game of Thrones (I haven’t read the sequels) surpasses The Lord of the Rings in certain ways.

Both epics have great writing, memorable characters, and excellent humor (though Tolkien is somewhat funnier — at least in The Hobbit). Each also features all kinds of death and war, but Martin’s depiction of violence is much more graphic and realistic. Perhaps partly a product of our current time.

Martin expertly juggles a somewhat larger cast of principal players, and, to his credit, has far more female protagonists in major roles. That might also be partly a product of a later era, but, heck, plenty of novels in Tolkien’s heyday had prominent female characters.

Perhaps most importantly, Martin’s characters are more three-dimensional than the vast majority of those in Tolkien’s cast. Few of the Game of Thrones denizens are all good or all bad — and that kind of moral ambiguity makes things very interesting.

Another interesting difference between the Martin and Tolkien works is that A Game of Thrones is mostly populated by humans, while The Lord of the Rings features a variety of bipeds: humans, hobbits, wizards, elves, orcs, etc.

Also, both series are set in long-ago, pre-modern-technology times. Martin does a better job of depicting the squalor and difficulties of living in such an era; things are more sanitized in The Lord of the Rings.

Will I read more of “A Song of Ice and Fire”? Not sure. A Game of Thrones was a large investment of time (about two weeks), and I’m not a fantasy buff. But I might. The novel ended on a very intriguing note, and I’m curious about what will happen to such characters as Daenerys Targaryen, the timid teen girl who turns into a ruthless dynamo; Arya Stark, the resourceful “tomboy”; Jon Snow, the outcast “bastard” son who makes something of his life; Joffrey Baratheon, the appalling young prince-turned-king; and Tyrion Lannister, the witty/crafty dwarf with perhaps the biggest personality in the book. (Tyrion, as played by Peter Dinklage in the HBO series, is pictured above.)

If you’ve read them, any thoughts on George R.R. Martin’s and J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous creations? (For those counting, that’s four “R” initials you just saw. 🙂 ) What other fantasy works have you enjoyed?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about climate change, a Board of Education resignation, and a school stairway collapse — is here.

Germane to McCain: Fictional Characters We Have Mixed Feelings About

Many people have mixed feelings about America’s late Republican senator John McCain, who died August 25. On the plus side, he displayed incredible bravery as a prisoner of war, occasionally bucked his party’s far-right orthodoxy, despised Donald Trump, etc. On the minus side, he supported U.S. military overreach, opposed the national holiday for civil-rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., backed 2017’s Republican tax legislation for the rich, and so on.

All of which can lead a literature lover to think about characters we have mixed feelings about. Any of those protagonists can be good, bad, and in-between — and their complexity often makes them more interesting than characters who are mostly admirable or mostly not admirable. But their complexity can also be interpreted as inconsistency, which might make reading about them as frustrating as it is interesting. Meanwhile, it’s impressive when an author can skillfully depict a character who’s both likable and unlikable.

One of literature’s most masterfully depicted good/not-good protagonists is Gwendolen Grandcourt (nee Harleth) of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. She is spoiled, selfish, and makes some bad choices, but she’s also smart, capable of emotional growth, and a decent human being at her core. It’s mesmerizing to read the charged interactions between Gwendolen and the admirable Daniel (both pictured atop this blog post, from a screen adaptation of the novel).

There’s also Mr. Stevens, the dignified/hardworking butler in Kazuo Ishiguro’s subtle novel The Remains of the Day. He’s stoic, but too stoic. He’s loyal, yet the loyalty is to his Nazi sympathizer/appeaser employer (Lord Darlington). And Stevens is reflective, yet doesn’t think things through enough at the right time to accept the possibility of a romance with a woman (the housekeeper Ms. Kenton) who’s clearly interested in him.

The title character of Toni Morrison’s Sula is adventurous and fiercely independent — especially impressive traits for a woman of her era and an African-American woman of her era (between the two world wars). But she also has a negative side, including betraying her best friend Nel by having an affair with Nel’s husband.

How about Chuck Mumpson of Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs? He’s crude and loud, smokes and drinks too much, and is clearly no intellectual. But he is curious and has a good heart, and the novel’s professor protagonist Virginia Miner develops a strong regard for him after they meet on a trip.

Then there’s Lisbeth Salander of Stieg Larsson’s riveting Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, etc.). She’s angry, unfriendly, and has poor social skills. She’s also brilliant, brave, and loyal — and, given her history of being abused, one can totally understand why there are some negative aspects to her personality.

Last but not least, I’ll mention Severus Snape of J.K. Rowling’s wonderful Harry Potter novels. As many of you know, he comes off as unsympathetic and mean (especially to Harry) during much of the series. But as readers wonder whether he’s an ally of the evil Voldemort or a double agent, positives emerge as well.

I’ve obviously just scratched the surface here. Your favorite characters who you have mixed feelings about?

I won’t be posting a column next Sunday (September 9) because I’ll be in Florida again to deal with my late mother’s estate, but I’ll still reply to comments when I can. New column on September 16!

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which has a start-of-school theme and some thoughts about John McCain similar to those expressed in today’s blog post — is here.

Some of the Saddest Novels Ever

The other day I watched the Johnny Cash video of “Hurt,” the Nine Inch Nails song Cash covered to perfection. That under-four-minute masterpiece, filled with musings on mortality just months before the gravely ailing Cash died, might be the saddest music video ever made.

You probably know where I’m going: After watching “Hurt” — which you can see here, and from which the image atop this blog post was taken — I thought about the saddest novels I’ve read. Many VERY well worth the time, even cathartic in some cases, but heartbreaking nonetheless.

One such book is Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. The plot alone is poignant enough, but the beautifully crafted prose — touching on matters such as life’s fleeting moments of happiness — makes a nearby box of tissues an absolute necessity.

There’s also William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, which, as a novel with a Holocaust theme, is naturally going to be devastating. But when Sophie has to make that fateful choice promised by the title, the despair gets almost unbearable on a one-family level, too. Another sorrowful Holocaust novel, Erich Maria Remarque’s Spark of Life, takes an even more unsparing look at life in a concentration camp.

Albert Camus’ classic The Stranger, written during World War II, is also an almost total downer.

Going further back in time, I’d add Edith Wharton’s memorable The House of Mirth, which chronicles the dismal descent of a woman (Lily Bart) who is doomed because she has some integrity and is trapped in a patriarchal society. Maggie Tulliver’s limited choices and opportunities as a female make the masterful The Mill on the Floss perhaps George Eliot’s most melancholy novel. And the miserable mining milieu in Emile Zola’s Germinal leaves readers despondent even while admiring the novel’s power.

Obviously, dystopian and/or apocalyptic novels — like Mary Shelley’s The Last Man — can make readers completely disconsolate. I’ll also include George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four here, although that book has a few moments of joy before all hope is crushed.

Other very depressing novels? Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog, M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans, Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, George Sand’s Lelia, and Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor, to name a few.

What are the saddest novels you’ve read?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which looks at signage, a subdivision, spinelessness, and resurfaced streets — is here.