Saturday, December 21, 2013

One city, one crime novel — but which novel?

I have in the past gently chided the Free Library of Philadelphia for the high-mindedness of its "One City, One Book" choices. Why can't Philadelphia do what other cities and institutions have done and sneak a Chandler or a Hammett in there once in a while?

Hammett has long enjoyed popular and critical esteem, and his work, I was surprised to learn recently, can appeal to younger readers. Julie M. Rivett, Hammett's granddaughter and recent editor, told me last week: "I talk to kids about Hammett. The Maltese Falcon has helped reach some reluctant readers."  Teenagers, she said, responded especially to the novel's celebrated "Flitcraft Parable," a story of sudden, cataclysmic, arbitrary change.

Alan Glynn's novels could serve as a springboard for discussion of corporate and government infiltration into our lives. Kevin McCarthy's could meet American interest in its immigrant populations and their histories. So could Paco Ignacio Taibo II's. Same with Andrea Camilleri's, which would also tally nicely with the boom of interest in cable television food shows and diversity in dining. Want a contemporary view of China? How about Qiu Xiaolong's Death of a Red Heroine?

If Philadelphia wants to stay local, why not David Goodis' Black Friday? Sympathy for the downtrodden. Survival against daunting odds. Finding one's own destiny.  Black Friday is full of big themes, the sort of thing to generate big discussion and draw in even readers who have not read the novel. Or how about Hammett's Red Harvest? That book would lend itself easily and deliciously to discussion of Philadelphia's history of rotten politics.

Or what about— But that's where you come in. What crime novel or story collection would you have your city, county, province, state, or country read? And why? It's not enough that the book be good or great. It must have the potential to appeal to readers young and old, to crime fans as well as to those who normally don't touch the stuff, and to those who might need a nudge to pick up a book in the first place. How does your choice meet these criteria? How will it grab readers the way "The Flitcraft Parable" snared Julie Rivett's teenage existentialists?
 
 © Peter Rozovsky 2013

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15 Comments:

Blogger R.T. said...

I look forward to your readers' suggestions, but--to my mind--there is no book in the genre with the kind of universal appeal you seek. Perhaps my mind is too closed. Or perhaps my reading is too limited. On the other hand, if we change the definition of "book," then perhaps I would nominate something like Macbeth. Now there is a "book" that appeals to everyone. It has witches. It has murder. It has madness. It has blood and gore. And it has great poetry. Yes, it is Shakespeare, which tends to frighten some readers, but you cannot come up with anything quite so universal or Shakespeare, and Macbeth may be one of his most accessible and most popular plays.

December 22, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Not universal, but widespread. I assume planners of such a program would want a crime novel (or other work) that could appeal to folks who don't normally read crime.

Incidentally, you neglected one factor in Macbeth's wide appeal: Its brevity. I once wondered why it and Julius Caesar were the first two Shakespeare plays I studied in school. "They're short," someone suggested.

I agree that Macbeth possesses appeal as a crime story. Here's the evidence.

December 22, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

High school teachers make odd decisions for teaching Shakespeare. Each play is short but not easy to understand. At least half a dozen other Shakespeare plays are shorter and easier.

My junior high English teacher taught us Merchant of Venice. She was insane to have attempted that play in 8th grade. We understood little. She probably understood very little herself.

December 22, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Merchant of Venice would not be my first choice, either. I wonder how Coriolanus would go over with a bright class of high school seniors. Lots of potential for meaty discussion there.

December 22, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Let's go whole-hog. We'll include Titus Andronicus. Severed body parts ought to be good for some classroom discussion.

Actually, this coming semester, if I teach (i.e., the class may not go forward), we will deal with the standards: Othello; A Midsummer Night's Dream; and The Tempest. Last semester was Hamlet and Twelfth Night in one course, and Macbeth, Pericles, and Taming of the Shrew in another course.

Were it up to me--which it is not--the theater department would have one full course devoted to nothing but Shakespeare, but 2013 minds running the department cannot fathom such orthodoxy.

December 22, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Yeah Black Friday is terrific isn't it?

I like crime novels that give you a sense of place without becoming what Clive James rather condescendingly called "postcard novels". I do his take point though...

December 22, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Postscript: And, believe it or not, most drama majors resent reading and studying Shakespeare. They say it is too hard to understand. Ah, the wasting of 21st century minds!

BTW, should you be interested in the plight of at least one teacher, check out my latest rant at my blog.

December 22, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Regarding sense of place in crime novels, I belatedly nominate the Arnaldur Indridason novels; the Icelandic settings are the heart and soul of the novels but do not overwhelm the characters. I hope that contradiction makes sense.

December 22, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., you could base your pitch for a Shakespeare course on a "Shakespeare, Our Contemporary" theme. Like all the very greatest artists, his work is protean enough to accommodate almost any sort of discussion.

I think my youth included study of The Tempest. I can't think of a contemporary hook as readily for it as for some of the other plays, but it is such an enchanting work that anyone of any age could enjoy it.

December 22, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, it may be time to dig out my old Clive James helicopter post for a few more comments.

You'll recall that, while calling his thesis simplistic (and deliberately so, I suspect) I admired his taste. He was right about Andrea Camilleri, for instance. And yes, any such crime novel that conveys a sense of why its story could be set nowhere other than the setting other chose, and does not descend into travelogue, could be a worthy educational tool.

December 22, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Titus Andronicus in a home economics class, perhaps?

R.T., I have some sympathy for those students who resent studying Shakespeare. I had my eyes opened twenty years ago when I saw a wonderful production of The Tempest at a small theater in Chicago. A small theater is ideal for Shakespeare these days, I realized, because it facilitated concentration on the language. By contrast, I also sat Ian McKellan in Richard III in a big hall around the same time and did not enjoy the production nearly as much.

And you're dead on about Arnaldur, one of the few authors for whom the landscape really is a character.

December 22, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Your lack of enthusiasm for R3 may be due to the inferiority of the play itself. It is popular but not justifiably.

Small venues are great for Shakespeare. However, my university mutilated Pericles this past semester. Pericles is hard to do well, but this production was wretched. Ah well, it was a learning experience for the student actors. Now they will know what it is like to be in a rotten Shakespeare production of a mediocre Shakespeare play.

December 22, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The other outstanding production I remember from that time was of Coriolanus, at the Folger in Washington. (Years earlier I had taken a Shakespeare class taught by an Irish professor. It was worth the price of admission to hear him say, "Coriolanus."

Speaking of Shakespeare productions, I trust that the dreary trends of staging the plays in military dress or in Weimar Germany have passed.

December 22, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Never be surprised by what passes for Shakespeare in the modern theater. Consider the recent Pericles (see earlier note) in which all wore typical campus attire, danced around to blaring rock music, and mimed all sorts of activities for which props would have been most helpful. Audiences were baffled. The actors were overwhelmed. And the director was smug in his self-satisfaction--he had, after all, put his own stamp on Shakespeare.

December 22, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, the director proved that Shakespeare speaks to everyone, albeit a bit more loudly to the director than to the rest of us.

Coriolanus made sense in military dress, Macbeth less so, and Macbeth goose-stepping around the stage was one of the clumsier directorial touches I have seen.

No, the clumsiest.

December 22, 2013  

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