Nostalgia City Mysteries

By Mark S. Bacon

Tag Archives: Raymond Chandler

How to multiply the benefits–and pleasures–of reading

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One of the worst pejoratives that anyone in our book group can hurl at the monthly selection is to compare it to “Children of the Arbat,” a profile of Stalin and Russia in the early 1930s. Although I enjoyed the book, many group members considered the 1988 historical novel to be ponderous. At every book group meeting, one of our members must listen to the criticism (or praise) of the book he has selected. That’s how the group works. And I love it.

Book groups–or clubs–are so popular, so commonplace now it prompted this headline in a recent issue of The New York Times: “Really? You’re Not in a Book Club?” The article’s author, James Atlas, says when he meets a friend on the street he says, “‘What’s your book group reading…’ Not: ‘Are you in a book group?’”

Atlas says that five million Americans belong to book groups, but I suspect that’s an understatement. Katie Wu writing in McSweeneys.net says there could be more than 100,000 book clubs in the United States. One of the largest, according to Wu, is Pulpwood Queens, which has 350 chapters throughout the country and also includes men. The book club membership numbers probably don’t count online book groups. The website Goodreads.com lists more than 10,000 of those.

Book groups go back a long way–but not as far back as Gutenberg. In the 15th century printed books tended to be on the religious side, and in many areas of the world at that time debating the merits of scripture could result in serious disfigurement.Stack of books B&W John Grisham and Ann Rice wouldn’t come along for some time–in fact, it was centuries after Johannes Gutenberg that the first modern novel was written.

“In 1840, Margaret Fuller [author and Emerson colleague] founded the first bookstore-sponsored club in Boston,” Wu writes in McSweeney’s, “and by the mid-1800’s, book clubs were spreading throughout the Midwest both as social events and intellectual opportunities.”

My group is both social and intellectual. The main reason I’m in the group is the other guys. We’ve been together for about seven years. We laugh and have fun. We enjoy each other’s company. And we read books. There’s just six of us now that one member of our group died.   We’ve talked about adding someone, but we haven’t yet, perhaps over worries about upsetting the group’s chemistry.   We shouldn’t be concerned, however, because we have a chemist in the group, as well as professionals from other fields, and two members are ivy league grads.

And for the most part, we like the same sort of books.

Explaining the exact types of books we like, however, is difficult. Our list over the years has included a broad selection of authors, topics and genres. And that’s the other reason I love the group. I’ve read dozens of wonderful books that likely I would never have been exposed to. Our authors have included Sara Gruen, Raymond Chandler, Bryce Courtenay, Erik Larson, Philip Roth, Constance Millard, Pat Conroy, Graham Greene–and even Steinbeck, Dickens and Dostoyevsky.

I prefer to call our book gathering a group instead of a club. I still remember when book club referred to an organization that sold books through the mail. I was thrilled when the first book I wrote was picked up by the Book of the Month Club. The BOMC is still around, though I don’t see its advertising anymore and I doubt it adds much to my CV.

Our group, like many others, likes to eat. We meet in late morning, discuss our selection at one or another of our homes, then head to a restaurant for lunch. Unlike many groups, however, we select our restaurants based on the book we’re reading.   For example, when we read “Two Years Before the Mast,” we had seafood. When we read Faulkner we sought southern cooking, and Donne Leon’s latest Venice mystery led us to an Italian restaurant.

We have few rules. Each person takes a turn at selecting a book, something like dealer’s choice poker. Usually the person making the selection has read the book, but it’s not mandatory. It’s assumed that everyone will read the book and, although one member of our group sometimes finishes a last chapter while someone else drives him to the meeting, we all do.   Novels predominate, although some members like history and biography, and as a result we’ve read some masterpieces in those genres.

We don’t always agree and that can lead to thought-provoking discussions–what a book group is all about. I could (but won’t) list two or three books we’ve read I thought were stinkers, but even those literary disasters provided me with keys to authors I will avoid in the future.

Our group doesn’t have a name. One of our members was lamenting that the other day. Maybe we should call ourselves the Children of the Arbat.

Hyperlinks:        

New York Times on book groups

Katie Wu on the book club phenomenon

Note:  Starting today I will post articles and stories on Tuesday afternoons, rather than Wednesday.

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Victim plots creepy, bizarre revenge in Woolrich’s ‘Rendevous in Black’

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The word “black” appears in the title of five Cornell Woolrich novels–considered his best–written in the 1940s. Darkness describes his literary themes and his life.   He was married only briefly, had no children and lived in New York hotels with his mother until she died. He was preoccupied with death, disliked much of his own work–which included two dozen novels and hundreds of short stories–and died virtually alone. Yet his haunted, bleak life led him to create the discouragement, distrust and panic that colored his suspense-filled, austere novels.   Rendezvous in Black is such a story.

Johnny Marr always met his girlfriend Dorothy in the same place, outside the drugstore down by the town square. “He had special eyes for her, just as she had for him.” Their wedding was set for June. But on May 31, in a bizarre, unlikely accident, Dorothy was killed as she waited for Johnny by the square. Johnny’s life exploded. When the shock finally wore off–or did it ever?–it took him only a short time to figure out how she had been killed, and a little more time until he had a list of five men, one or all of whom were responsible.

What follows is the episodic tale of Marr’s crazed, devious retribution. He doesn’t kill the men on his list; his revenge is more appropriate, more cunning. And always on time. The men who populate Johnny’s list are only loosely connected and they live vastly different lives as we discover as the deranged lover tracks them down.

This is part of an occasional series on the work of noir thriller writer Cornell Woolrich (1903-1968).

Johnny’s indirect form of revenge makes it difficult for the police to anticipate his moves and collar him. As writer Richard Dooling says in the introduction to the 2004 Modern Library edition of the novel, “The reader finds no shelter in a comfortable central character or crime-solving Hollywood hero….” The less-than brilliant detective on the case, MacClain Cameron, says Dooling, is “a mere accessory to a story governed by the mighty forces of murder, retribution and fate.”

As the novel lurches forward, each specimen of revenge becomes almost a separate story, connected by the presence of Johnny Marr lurking somewhere off-camera and detective Cameron usually several, clumsy steps behind.Rendezvous in black 2   We know that each long chapter will end with something horrible.

Woolrich’s language is sometimes criticized–by a few of the small number of reviewers who even know of his existence–as more clunky than that of Chandler or Cain–but his fast pace and taut suspense keeps your eyes racing forward. His writing skills, however, often flower and he can deepen an already gloomy atmosphere.

All the way up those deliberately curving stairs, the shadow pursued him along the wall panels and he fled from it. But as the stairs curved, it relentlessly overtook him, then swept around before him, to confront him accusingly as he reached their top.

Johnny’s methods for revenge obviously take much planning, and they become more ingenious as the book progresses. This is not a question of whodunit, but of how is he going to do it this time, and will he be caught.   The conclusion is sufficiently suspenseful. Until the last page, you’ll be guessing whether Woolrich will conclude with a Hollywood ending. When you finish, you’ll have to decide if the ending was “Hollywood,” or a bit darker.

Rendezvous in Black
Cornell Woolrich
Modern Library Paperback Edition, 2004 Original printing, 1948
211 pages     $14

Is new Marlowe novel too literary?

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“From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class.  From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away.”

–Raymond Chandler, The High Window

There’ll never be another Raymond Chandler.  Or will there?  Irish novelist John Banville, writing under the name Benjamin Black, has written The Black-Eyed Blonde, a Philip Marlowe detective story.

It’s so authentic, says New York Times reviewer Olen Steinhauer that it “could be passed off as a newly discovered Chandler manuscript found in some dusty La Jolla closet, leaving only linguistic detectives to ferret out the fraud.”  Apparently the book is too authentic as Steinhauer writes that he had hoped for “something fresher.”Black Eyed Blonde

Bob Hoover, writing in the Dallas Morning News, did not agree that the novel sounded like Chandler.  “He’s [Black] too literary, for a start, to create a scene without calling attention to the common techniques of a ‘serious novelist,’ a state Chandler disdained.”

Mark Lawson reviewing The Black Eyed Blonde for The Guardian seems to like the more literary style.  “What Banville, through Black, brings to Chandler is perhaps an enhanced literary sensibility.”  The more literary take doesn’t put him off and he concludes that “the protagonist of The Black-Eyed Blonde is easy to visualise as an older [Humphrey] Bogart.”

THE BLACK-EYED BLONDE

Benjamin Black / 290 pp. / Henry Holt & Company / $27

Hyperlinks:

Marlowe Reviews in:

The Guardian

The Dallas Morning News

The New York Times

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