The Subversives

Hang around book-nerds types long enough and you’ll hear them mention the word “subversive.”  Subversive themes, subversive protagonists, subversive…well, you get the picture.  Now, before you decide all English professors and book-club members need to be on some government watch list, what they’re talking about are the aspects of a story that make you rethink your assumptions. Part of this rethinking is part of any mystery or detective story. But some literary detectives succeed because they subvert the assumptions other characters make about them.  Like that lovely old snoop, Miss Jane Marple.

Early Detective Subversives

In Agatha Christie’s stories, Miss Jane appears to be the quintessential English Spinster.  She gardens, she bakes, she wears nothing but tweed (I think) and she lives in a small, English Village. The kind of lady most people expect is sweet and rather naive.  But beneath those fluffy curls and an abominable hat sits an observant and cynical brain. Not much gets past that shrewd, old dame. And when she comes up with some pithy, insightful observation, she subverts the other characters’ expectations.  See what I mean?
But if Miss Jane set the standard of the unexpected detective, she’s had lots of followers since. One of my favorites is a handicapped ex-jockey named Sid Halley who other characters initially underestimate because of his small stature and background. (Stupid move, by the way) But, most of the fictional subversive detectives I’ve seen are female, which, in a chauvinistic way, makes sense.  The heroes of the “hard-boiled” detective yarns, like Mike Hammer, Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe dominated the genre for years and these guys are so tough and male that testosterone almost drips from their pages.  The Hard-boiled stories are great and I have a well-worn collection of Dashiell Hammett prose to prove that I’m a fan, but those guys do set up certain assumptions.  Which the ladies then turn upside down.

Contemporary Detective Subversives

After hours with the cool-under-pressure Sam Spade, it’s a delight to see Janet Evanovich‘s klutz extraordinaire, Stephanie Plum, wrecking cars and falling over her own heels until she somehow catches the bad guy. And Sue Ann Jaffarian‘s Odelia Grey feels like my twin sister at times: she’s a middle-aged, overweight, paralegal (like me) trying to get through life without too much mess.  Bless Odelia, corpses seem to find her like so many stray kittens.  But probably the best example of the Subversive Detective today is the inimitable Mma Precious Ramotswe, founder, and head of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.  Mma Precious upends all expectations her culture has of middle-aged, single women by opening and operating a successful business, and then proving herself a skilled practitioner of her chosen profession.
And that’s the essential function of the subversive theme, to make people re-examine their assumptions. These entertaining stories have something profound to say: that intelligence, insight, and grit can be found in the most unlikely people and no one should be discounted because of their appearance.  That’s a liberating idea.  Funny that it’s still considered subversive.
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The original Odd Couple: Holmes and Watson

Detective Fiction’s First Odd Couple

There are all kinds of mystery stories, filled with all different types of detectives, but if you’re going back to the roots of the mystery series types, the Granddaddies of them have got to be Holmes and Watson.  They’re the original Adama-&-Eve, Mutt-&-Jeff, Odd Couple detective team and the template they set up is fierce.

An Early portrait of the Dynamic Duo
Thank you, Wikipedia!
The most noticeable team member is Sherlock Holmes, the world’s first and foremost consulting detective. Brilliant, acerbic, and emotionally detached almost to a pathological degree, he’s the star of the series and he knows it.  But Holmes isn’t chasing villains for glory or cash; he’s in it for the fun and the science. Believe it or not, Arthur Conan Doyle introduced the world (and law enforcement agencies) to the world of criminal forensics through Holmes’s obsession with crime scene details and deductive logic.

But, if Sherlock Holmes is so great, why did the author need Watson?

Simple. Watson is the person who needs to tell the story because that’s the last thing Holmes would do.  If “The Great Detective” decided to write up his adventures, what would he emphasize?  Would he capture the creepy atmosphere of the The Great Grimpen Mire or dwell on the terrifying appearance of the Hound of the Baskervilles?  No!  Sherlock doesn’t see these things as important.  A Holmes version of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” would consist of long narratives about newspaper fonts, the replication of certain facial features in familial descendants and (maybe) the application of phosphorus to flesh to create an unusual appearance.  None of the Gothic Setting or chilling story would survive because Sherlock Holmes rarely notices these things.  That’s one reason we need Watson.
Another reason we need Watson is he’s our Point-of-View, the guy we identify with, our average Man on the Street. We learn to trust him implicitly.  Sherlock Holmes is a master of subterfuge and obscurity but Watson always tells us just what he sees as soon as he sees it. Which makes the story all that much better when Holmes looks at the same puzzles Watson just described and comes up with an insightful answer.  But, as much as the readers need Watson as a character, these two characters need each other.

When Opposites Decide to Team Up

It’s the chemistry of this mismatched pair that creates the architecture of each story in the series and both characters bring out the best in each other.  It’s my belief that the Holmes-&-Watson formula has been the basis of many a mystery series because it works so well.  Look at Nick and Nora Charles, Morse & Lewis, Tony Hill & Carol Jordan.  They’re crime-fighting Mutt-&-Jeffs who bring out the best in each other by being completely different people.  They’re the descendants of Holmes & Watson.

Some favorite Holmes & Watson stories



And If You are interested in more….

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What Makes up a Great Mystery Series?

So, I’ve been thinking….
(Yes, I have!  If you wonder where I’ve been for weeks and weeks, I’ve been lost in the woods thinking.  And, despite the heat of the oncoming summer, I believe I’ve come up with a thought.)
Of all the fictional genres out there, one of the most-popular (if not the most) is the mystery novel.  I’m not sure what it says about humanity, but almost half of us who read for enjoyment, find nothing more relaxing than curling up with a story about murder and mayhem.  Maybe we like these stories because of the implicit drama involved, or we like the good guy/bad guy aspect.  Maybe it’s the aspect of solving puzzles we favor.  For whatever reason, a lot of people like mysteries.   And some of the most successful mysteries are part of an ongoing series.
Go hang out with a book club or the mystery/thriller section any bookstore around, and you’ll see what I mean.  Sooner or later you’ll hear someone ask about “the latest Alex Cross” or “the next Kay Scarpetta,” which can sound a little odd, to a newbie.  Fact is, both names belong to fictional sleuths who each star in their own best-selling series of mystery stories.  And I’m talking about enormous popularity here, characters who inspire movies, and web pages and reams of fan-fiction and debate.  So, I have to ask myself, Self, what keeps readers coming back?
So I’d like to look at some popular mystery series during June when people are out at the beach, or in their hammock, head first in another tale about crime.  But, instead of looking at an individual novel, let’s break down some successful mystery series, past, and present, and figure out what made/makes each one work.    And I’d like to have your help.
Now I have my favorites, same as everyone else, but I’d like to hear which ones you like and why.  Do you favor a Mutt-&-Jeff team like Holmes and Watson?  An amateur busybody, like Miss Jane Marple?  A tortured justice professional, like Dr. Scarpetta?  Or an endearing accidental detective, like Odelia Grey or Stephanie Plum?  There’s no judgment here, I just want your feedback to learn what characters have really grabbed your imagination.  And, yes, I’m always hoping to find another good book.
So, fire up those grills, unpack those swimsuits and let’s get ready for some light summer reading.  Just remember not to trip over the corpse that usually appears by Chapter 3!

Lost in the Fog of a Story

It’s been foggy as all get out this week. I don’t mean one of dark, pea-soup fogs that blacken city centers for days, but a daily, thick, white, winter mist that layers everything outdoors in microscopic droplets and obscures any object more than 30 feet away. Fogs that makes the world seem even colder than it is. We’re talking weather an English Teacher can use to lecture about creating “atmosphere.”

Well, fog works in stories, doesn’t it? The very nature of the phenomena creates confusion, where good things and bad are hidden, and individuals are isolated. Writers have been using fog as set-dressing, plot-device, and symbols for longer than I care to think about. Since we’re stuck inside until the sun breaks through, why not take a look one or two stories that turned these earth-bound clouds into art?
Fog and England have been associated for so long, it’s practically become a cliche. Yet, if you are talking about bright, white, fog, forget about the stories of London. The soot and sulfur-filled clouds that permeate Bleak House and every Ripper tale ever written are peculiar to the city. Instead, look toward the southern coast for one of the greatest Gothic stories ever penned: Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. Here, fog is used as a plot device to heighten suspense and terror during the story’s climax. Holmes and Watson are running through the Great Grimpen Mire (what a name!) to catch the villain and foil his plot. The thick fog slows down our rescuers and blinds them to the approach of the terrible Hound until the last second. But the fog is even-handed in its justice.Just as it keeps our heroes from seeing where danger is, it hides the escape route from the criminal of this piece. Unable to find his safety markers in the fog, our bad guy gets lost in the quagmire of a peat bog and comes (we assume) to a wet, miserable end. However, the fog and bog add a note of mystery. Because the criminal’s body is never found, Conan Doyle left open the possibility open for him to survive and return from the fog to threaten Holmes in a sequel!
My own Great, Grey Grimpen Mire
As isolating and dangerous as the fog can be, there are those that welcome it.  To Edmund Tyrone, and his mother, Mary, in Long Day’s Journey into Night, fog creates an illusion of isolation. It also symbolizes Edmund’s active alcoholism and Mary’s addiction to morphine. As the drugs isolate them from reality, Edmund describes how fog transforms their world into a place where “Nothing was what it is. That’s what I wanted—to be alone with myself in another world where truth is untrue, and life can hide from itself.” As for Mary, she admits,”I really love fog. It hides you from the world and the world from you. You feel that everything has changed, and nothing is what it seemed to be. No one can find or touch you anymore. It’s the foghorn I hate. It won’t let you alone. It keeps reminding you, and warning you, and calling you back.” Notice that neither character believes the fog makes them happier or better people; these tortured souls aren’t seeking happiness, but distance. The fog isolates them from their underlying feelings and their problems. Of course, like other wanderers in the mist, these two can’t find their way out of this half-life because they can’t tell how lost they are.  
It isn’t as gloomy as O’Neill’s Monte Cristo
Cottage, but it sure isn’t cheery either!

If you think of this play as autobiography, it’s amazing to realize these are the two family members who found their way out of the mist. O’Neill (as Edmund) eventually chose life and his work. His mother, by realizing her disease had a  spiritual as well as physical component, found recovery through a religious retreat. Ultimately, the fog’s illusion of comfort wasn’t enough for the real people.

That’s what fog ultimately means for people, in fiction and real life: confusion and the illusion of isolation from reality.  In the end, we have to deal with whatever comes along, even if it’s illness or a big, scary dog.  No matter what the mist obscures, we aren’t that far apart from each other. That’s something we’ll all see when the sun comes out again.

The Writer who Changed the World, One Story at a Time

Yesterday was the 65th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s accession to the throne.  It’s an incredible milestone, one no other ruler of England has attained, and she deserves all the honor and respect she gets.  The woman has seen a lot of changes during her reign, but that’s not what England should celebrate today. Today marks the 205th birthday of Charles Dickens, one of the most influential Britons and writers of any time. He didn’t just watch the world change, he changed our language and world with his stories. He was the literary Colossus of the Victorian Age, and his influence is still felt today.  
Dickens in his early years
The life of Dickens holds enough drama to fuel a multi-season mini-series. His terrible childhood has become so well-known we label all other impoverished, chaotic beginnings as “Dickensian.”  The funny thing is, he tried to hide these facts for years. Destitution was considered a social and character defect in the Regency and Victorian Eras and Dickens spent much of his life’s energy trying to get as far away from his impoverished past as he could. That drive turned him into a law clerk, a court reporter, a freelance journalist and finally a novelist.  Like any good storyteller, he wrote about what he knew.  And his stories changed our world.
After witnessing how poverty corrupts and ruins lives, he wrote Oliver Twist and satirized the Poor Laws that punished the very people they were supposed to help.  The book exposed the disgusting London slum, Jacob’s Island, to a heretofore unsuspecting public, who cleaned up the area so thoroughly that thirteen years later one bureaucrat insisted it never existed! In Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens wrote about the system of farming unwanted children out to boarding schools in Yorkshire where kids were neglected instead of educated.  An investigation shut that practice down.  In Bleak House, in The Old Curiosity Shop, in Hard Times, and more, Dickens attacked some social evil.  And because his books sold like hotcakes, his readers followed his pen to the trouble and tried to correct the wrongs.
Best-sellers!  It’s hard to compare the popularity of any novelist writing today with Dickens.  J. K. Rowling came closest with the midnight publication parties for her Harry Potter series.  But those were orchestrated affairs hosted by the bookstores.  Now, imagine yourself in Victorian times.   Dickens doesn’t publish a whole novel all at once, he serializes chapters in a magazine.  If you want to read the latest installment, you have to get each new issue of the journal.  In America, people gathered in droves on the wharves, to get the new issues as they came off the ship!  This wasn’t some publisher’s or PR agent’s operation, these were people who couldn’t wait any longer to find out what happened to Nell Trent or Little Emily!  Readers are crazy people, but they wouldn’t have done that if the man hadn’t created wonderful characters and stories.
Of course, his characters have entered our lexicon.  The saintly, too-good-to-live girl is known as Little Nell, and an insincere toady is labeled Uriah Heep.  (By the way, Dickens had a way of naming his characters that was second to none.  You don’t have to meet Wackford Squeers, Fagin, Quilip, or Uriah Heep to know they are all villains; the sounds of their names are enough.) And people who have never picked up one of Mr. Dickens’s books still know the worst miser is a “Scrooge.”  That single story, The Christmas Carol, changed how we celebrate the holiday.  It used to be a relatively minor festival in the Christian calendar.  Now it’s a season of family, parties, and charity because Dickens wrote about it that way.
Boz, the Grand Old Storyteller
Am I saying he was the world’s greatest man or subtle writer? Of course not.  There’s a fair amount of evidence suggesting he had faults as a family man and Ellen Ternen knew he was no saint. The way he treated his wife when their marriage fell apart is enough to make a feminist cringe.  And, as entertaining as many of his characters are, they lack the complexity and depth of real people. There are too many coincidences and far too much sentiment in a lot of his stories.  But that doesn’t make them any less compelling.  And his influence doesn’t lessen with the years.
So, pull out your noisemakers and cheer old “Boz” as he was known then.  Over-blown, over-sensitive, over-dramatic, Boz, who could tell a story that made you laugh, cry, and shiver with fear.  Boz who made money telling people what was wrong with the world and said it so well his readers tried to make it better. With Shakespeare and the Beatles, he may be one of Britain’s finest exports. We’re lucky he came our way.