Wednesday, June 27, 2012
Dorothy Sayers, a friend of C. S. Lewis, gave a lecture at Oxford in 1947. She challenged educators to think about learning in a different way. She asked, “Do you ever find that young people, when they have left school, not only forget most of what they have learnt…but forget also, or betray that they have never really known, how to tackle a new subject for themselves?” She answered her own question with a practical solution: return to the classical model of education. Teach just three skills: grammar, dialectic and rhetoric and use the best of literature, science and math resources guided by an individual who loves teaching students to learn anything.
In the Baton Rouge area, a program called Classical Conversations (CC) is taking Sayers’ advice and giving a new face to these classic ideas. Leigh Bortins is the founder of Classical Conversations, a North Carolina-based organization which seeks to equip parents and students with the classical tools of learning. As a parent and teacher of four boys, Bortins has found that Sayers’ “tools of learning,” are the foundation of a lasting education.
Since 1997, CC has supported home-centered education by providing teaching tools and training for parents and educational materials for students. Although CC began with a few families meeting in Bortins’ basement, CC communities now exist in over 35 states and several foreign countries, and the programs continue to grow.
Four years ago, the first Classical Conversations community was born in Baton Rouge. Today, there are five locations in our area:
• CC of Zachary meets at Plains Presbyterian Church on Old Scenic Hwy.
• CC of Baton Rouge meets at Florida Boulevard Baptist Church on Florida Blvd.
• CC of Mid-City Baton Rouge meets at Grace Baptist Church on Richland Ave.
• CC of Gonzales meets at First Baptist Church on Burnside Ave.
• CC of Denham Springs meets at Lifepoint on South Hwy. 16
The “three skills” Sayers promoted form the backbone of the classical model and of Bortins’ programs. Grammar, the science of reciting and memorizing vocabulary, begins the study of any topic. It is followed by logic, or the discussion and reconciliation of ideas, often called the dialectic stage.
Finally, rhetoric, the consequences of ideas, is the ability to take grammar and teach it to others. Taken as a whole, classical education means good education: being taught how to learn anything by defining and storing terms, clearly thinking about the reconciliation of new ideas with old information and wisely using knowledge and understanding.
Each community is facilitated by a trained parent-director, and weekly classes are led by trained parent-tutors who model the classical tools of learning.
Using age-appropriate methods, CC’s three central programs are based on the three stages of classical learning - grammar, dialectic and rhetoric.
Monday, June 25, 2012
My book club had a lively discussion last month about the difference between good and bad writing. Can you elucidate?
A few weeks ago, I was reading "People Who Eat Darkness" by Richard Lloyd Parry and came to this sentence on page three: "Exhausted tubes of toothpaste curl on the edges of the sink, sodden lumps of soap drool in the floor of the shower." My heart sank. I couldn't read a whole book written with such strained, anthropomorphic racket. Unless Mr. Parry calmed down, which in the end he mostly did, I would not be able to finish this otherwise absorbing story.
It's impossible to define bad writing because no one would agree on a definition. We all know it when we see it, and we all see it subjectively. I remember going almost mad with irritation at how many times Carolyn Chute used the phrase "fox-color eyes" in her best-selling novel "The Beans of Egypt, Maine"—bad writing, I thought. On Amazon, other readers called it "brilliant."
Similarly, this second sentence in Gail Jones's novel "Five Bells" was the last sentence of hers I read: "Before she saw the bowl of bright water, swelling like something sexual, before she saw the blue, unprecedented, and the clear sky sloping upwards, she knew from the lilted words it would be a circle like no other, key to a new world." Professional reviewers described Ms. Jones's prose as "intensely lyrical" and "poetic."
I'm tempted to say that the only universally acknowledged characteristic of bad writing is that you can't understand it, but even that's not true. In the late 1990s, the journal Philosophy and Literature sponsored a contest to identify the worst sentences in published academic prose. I cite this third-place winner only because it has the rare virtue of being short: "The lure of imaginary totality is momentarily frozen before the dialectic of desire hastens on within symbolic chains."
William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White in "The Elements of Style" would respond to what seems like intentional obscurity—both in academia and fiction—by saying, "Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand!" "The Elements of Style" remains the single best primer on writing English with "cleanliness, accuracy and brevity," and if writers take only one piece of advice from it, let it be "Omit needless words!"
Roger H. Garrison, author of "How a Writer Works," described bad writers as those who fall victim to the "tides of phony, posturing, pretentious, tired, imprecise slovenly language, which both suffocate and corrupt the mind." That's a good start, but I'd add repetitious, smug and disrespectful of readers' time.
The lean editing staffs of even the most reputable publishers mean that authors aren't likely to get the Max Perkins treatment anymore (read A. Scott Berg's biography, "Max Perkins: Editor of Genius," to see the kind of help Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe got with their writing). Typos have become a fact of life even in well-published books now, and I've trained myself to ignore them, but I am often shocked by how badly some books need to be trimmed. Overwriting is definitely bad writing, and there is a lot of it out there.
The vast majority of the subjects of Nick Page's book "In Search of the World's Worst Writers" are overwriters. "Amanda McKittrick Ros (1860-1939) is the greatest bad writer who ever lived," Mr. Page writes. As evidence, he quotes this line from one of her novels: "Do not sit in silence and allow the blood that now boils in my veins to ooze through cavities of unrestrained passion and trickle down to drench me with its crimson hue." C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, among other Oxford literati, reportedly held contests to see who could read her work longest without breaking into guffaws.
Some readers, and I know a few of them, don't care how a story is written as long as it's comprehensible and keeps them turning pages—"The Da Vinci Code," for example, or "Twilight" or "Fifty Shades of Grey." Responding to a question about "Twilight" on a Yahoo Answers page, a reader wrote, "I never quit reading a book because I think the style of writing is bad. It may not be bad, just different from what I'm used to. Focus on the story more than the writing style."
I sometimes wish I could do that so I could enjoy the occasional airport book. Unfortunately, I feel as the mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers did: "The most intricate plot ever woven will never carry bad writing," she wrote in "Style in Crime Stories—Why Good Writing Pays." "But good writing will often carry a thin plot, and really inspired writing will carry almost anything."
—Send your questions about books and writing to Cynthia Crossen at email@example.com.
Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Thursday, June 14, 2012
Tuesday, June 12, 2012
Seeing the Hollywood version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo at the video store reminds me of how Stieg Larsson made me break the Eighth Commandment. In 2009, I was stuck with the flu in a damp off-season rental in France’s Midi-Pyrénées, facing the prospect of a transatlantic flight home without an English-language book to read. The previous evening, clutching my hankie, I’d turned the final page on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the first in Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. As I packed my suitcase, I glanced at the landlady’s bookshelf. There was the next instalment in the trilogy; the paperback might as well have had horns and a tail. Quickly and shamefully, I dropped The Girl Who Played With Fire into my carry-on bag.
It was the act of an addict. Since my 20s, I have been unable to control my craving for murder mysteries. It started with Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Josephine Tey, and later progressed to P. D. James, Ruth Rendell, Reginald Hill and Canada’s own John Brady and Peter Robinson.
The older I get, the edgier I want my mysteries to be. I don’t want cozy anymore — knitting patterns or cupcake recipes interspersed with murder don’t do it for me. Cute old-lady detectives make me long for Georges Simenon’s enigmatic Maigret and the sardonic twists of Elmore Leonard.
Oddly, I think my appetite for a good corpse-strewn read can partly be explained by the fact that I’m a person of faith. Not to cheapen the rite, but experiencing well-made detective fiction is like sitting in the pew at an inspired funeral. There is structure. You’re in the hands of a knowledgeable, sure-footed leader. There’s a dynamic tension of life and death that forces contemplation of the great whys, and a longing for a deeper understanding of what comes after. In funerals and mystery literature alike, there’s a place for humour, however dry.
These days, I’m particularly drawn to Scandinavian mystery writers. As a bunch, they tend to be quite secular, like Scandinavia itself. Yet there’s a liturgical discipline in their storytelling that I find irresistible. As with a good sermon, the “bone structure” of the plot is everything; the congregation of readers can feel the pace without longing for the end. The prose is precise, with enough contextual detail to inspire without blunting the scope of imagination. The characters of both the hunters and the hunted are lightly sketched, not burdened with biography.
With their spare prose and taut plots, most of today’s Scandinavian mystery writers pay homage to a pioneering Swedish writing team. The brilliant Martin Beck series by collaborators Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö kept me sane in the early 1980s when I was pregnant and weeks overdue. These morality plays in the guise of mystery novels seemed to be telling me that out of the chaos of life to come, there could be order. A quarter of a century later, we’re swamped with translations of mysteries by Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Icelandic authors. We are awash in Henning Mankell, Liza Marklund, Jo Nesbø and Peter Høeg. The Millennium trilogy, in particular, has sparked North America’s interest in Nordic noir. It has also opened up the mystery genre to those who might otherwise overlook (or look down upon) its comfortable conventions: its orderly staging and gimmick-free character development; its ambiguity around goodness; its clarity on the consequences of evil (you can be confident it will be punished later on in the series).
The territory Nordic noir explores is harsh and gritty — probably too harsh and too gritty for some. We Canadians are uniquely positioned to feel the pull of the heavy, dark magnetism at the heart of these stories. We know what it’s like to be continually deprived of sunshine and doused in slush, and so we appreciate the dark corners of the Scandinavian soul. The genre’s archetypal detective, Mankell’s Kurt Wallander, has never met a case that didn’t haunt him. The crimes he investigates force him to get inside the heads of his quarry and thereby unpack the baggage from his own complicated life. Yet amid this wintry gloom, we learn to expect glimpses of light: reconciliation with his daughter, a meaningful trip with his emotionally elusive father.
Though rarely expressed in overtly religious language, these moments of redemption are staples of the genre. At other times, religious imagery lurks just below the icy surface of the narrative — witness Arnaldur Indridason’s thoughtful Reykjavik police procedurals, where protaganist Erlendur Sveinsson is constantly searching for the brother who was lost in a snowstorm so that Sveinsson might live. When religion is front and centre — such as in Åsa Larsson’s Sun Storm, Camilla Lackberg’s The Preacher and, most conspicuously, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — it’s neatly twisted to pay homage to crime fiction’s holy trinity: motive, means and opportunity.
It’s a testament to the tautness of Nordic noir that so many novels have translated seamlessly to film. The three novels in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, for example, turned into three excellent movies made in Sweden and an equally worthy Hollywood version of the first instalment. Compare Noomi Rapace as protagonist Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish Dragon Tattoo with Rooney Mara’s Oscar-nominated performance in the 2011 American remake. Both are remarkable.
The films are every bit as dark as the novels, and frequently as gruesome. Remember — Nordic noir isn’t for everyone. But if you choose to look beyond the surface of the page or the screen, you’ll be rewarded with glimpses of themes and truths that will enrich your understanding of the human soul. You’ll be transported to a place that is satisfyingly different yet oddly familiar. And you’ll be greatly entertained. You may find that a taste of Nordic noir leads to an appetite for more. Experience enough of it, and you could develop a lifelong habit. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Tuesday, June 5, 2012
From the Scriptorium: The Trinity: Yes, A Doctrine About God
Today was Trinity Sunday, as observed by churches who follow the western liturgical calendar. There wasn’t always a Trinity Sunday, and even when (well into the middle ages) it was proposed, some popes argued against it on the grounds that (a) feast days are supposed to commemorate events, not doctrines, and (b) every Sunday is Trinity Sunday. Those are pretty good arguments. But eventually both objections were overturned by the recognition that it’s a good idea to have a final summarizing day on the liturgical year: after Christmas and Easter (the sending of the Son of God, and his work of salvation) and Pentecost (the coming of the Spirit on the basis of the work of the Son), it makes sense to look back on the whole series of divine revelations and say: Hey, that was the Trinity! The Father sent the Son and the Spirit. Let’s have a party! (The eastern liturgical calendar follows a similar logic, celebrating not so much the eternal fact of the Trinity but the salvation-historical revelation of it. But the eastern churches settled on the baptism of Christ as the most appropriate day to ponder the revelation of the Trinity: when the Spirit descended on the Son and the Father said “This is my beloved Son,” it was the great trinitarian Theophany).
So Trinity Sunday ought to be a great day for a sermon in a lectionary-based church. What an invitation to roll up the whole history of salvation and declare openly the great, central meaning that has been building up for so long: That God has made himself known to us as he really is, as eternal Father, Son, and Spirit, through the economy of salvation.
But alas, the conventional wisdom has long been that it is not a great day to find yourself on the preaching rotation. Preachers apparently dread Trinity Sunday, and (that being the case) who knows what congregations think?
A recent issue of Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology was full of resources and suggestions for how to preach for Pentecost Sunday and Trinity Sunday. Some of them are quite good (if you’ve got access to the journal, don’t miss Jeremy Begbie’s piece on George Herbert). But the key article (pp. 5-15) went to Beverly Roberts Gaventa, NT prof at Princeton Seminary. This seasoned exegete was the one who took the lectionary readings and wove them together.
I’m about to complain about the result, so let me start by saying how much there really is to appreciate in Gaventa’s work here. In the Pentecost section, she lands a solid hit on the way “Spirit” and “spirituality” have come unhooked in recent decades. Best quote:
Those who claim that they are ‘spiritual’ but not ‘religious’ will find no comfort in Acts 2 or any other biblical witnesses about the Spirit. In Acts particularly, the dramatic events of Pentecost conclude with a community that gathers for instruction, fellowship, and worship, a community that witnesses ‘wonders and signs,’ a community that is also characterized by the sharing of possessions. (p. 9)
And then in the Trinity section, she not only takes up the texts assigned by the lectionary, but she puts them in context, draws out connections, and relates them to the broader lines of Biblical thought. She starts with Matthew Matthew 28:20 and spends a little time relating it to the rest of the book of Matthew. From there she works out to triadic patterns in Galatians 4, Romans 5 and several other Pauline texts (Gaventa is always at her best w/Paul, to whom she has proven doggedly loyal over the years). She does one-paragraph surveys of the gospel of John and the book of Acts, and reaches back to Isaiah 6 and Proverbs 8. And she concludes with a reassuring review of the NT commitment to monotheism. A whirlwind tour of all the right texts, handled with a lively sense of the whole book. Gaventa writes with an admirable respect for her readers, an urbanity that makes me wish she were my neighbor.
But this article gets preachers off on the wrong foot, because as soon as the word “Trinity” shows up, Gaventa starts pulling her punches and lowering expectations. Her heart is really in the exposition of the biblical lines of argument, and she just doesn’t want to follow the church calendar’s lead in saying that this Sunday’s topic is the nature of God.
If you (or your liturgy) say you’re going to talk about the Trinity, you’d better deliver. Gaventa gets close –and I’m approaching her with high expectations because this is not some yokel, this is a respected NT prof at Princeton Seminary– but she keeps qualifying, backpedaling, and lowering the reader’s expectations that anything really, you know, trinitarian is going to happen here.
After a summary of the publishing bonanza that is modern trinitarian theology, Gaventa says
Whether we are among those who find the flourishing reflection on the Trinity invigorating or those for whom it remains both impractical and incomprehensible, Trinity Sunday returns us to the richness of Scripture’s reflections on God, where we find the constant feature to be the claim that, in all God’s doings, God acts for us and for our salvation. That claim may not produce a new articulation of the mystery of the Trinity, but it is certainly both comprehensible and profoundly practical.
The “impractical and incomprehensible” line is in reference to a good Dorothy Sayers spoof she had just quoted. But I was left wondering which group Gaventa would recommend: those for whom the doctrine of the Trinity is invigorating, or incomprehensible? She pushes forward into “the richness of Scripture’s reflections on God” and gets the message that “in all God’s doings, God acts for us and for our salvation.” Yes. But this “may not produce a new articulation of the mystery of the Trinity…” Okay. May it produce the old articulation?
As a general introduction to the task, Gaventa says “Trinity Sunday calls us to acknowledge both the breadth of our experience of God and the limitations of our knowledge.” She goes on,
Our language about God is always stretched, our words in no way capable of gasping, much less conveying, the reality of thel iving God. At best, we are merely whistling a song for which the lyrics are not so much forgotten as unknown. (p. 5)
I’m all for confessing the mystery of God, but I also know that that’s a card often played in favor of mere, unitarian monotheism, in rejection of trinitarianism. In fact, throughout this article, whenever Gaventa strays from direct exposition of Scripture and into doctrinal conclusions, she seems to be carefully couching everything in terms that won’t offend modalists or other unitarians. I don’t know how mixed up things are in the church or the guild the journal Interpretation is aimed at, but Gaventa admits that there’s a social-cognitive pressure to shy away from anything like a formal doctrine of the triunity of God:
Contemplating all of these claims together is indeed perplexing: that God is one and that there is fellowship within God, a fellowship the NT names as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Especially when articulation of the Trinity emerges in abstruse theological terminology, we may well be tempted to throw up our hands and join with Dorothy Sayers’ imagined interlocutor in declaring the whole project incomprehensible and impractical. That temptation may be especially strong at present, when many scholarly reconstructions of early Christianity labor to show the discontinuities between Jesus of Nazareth and the doctrines that emerge in the church’s life. This use of historical work contributes to the erosion of confidence in the life of the church and the legitimation of a ‘do-it-yourself’ attitude toward religious life.
But she seems to be arguing in the overall article that the biblical material itself puts its own pressure on the interpreter, and that we’re all but forced to move forward to a doctrine of the Trinity. “A great deal is at stake here, however,” she says: “more even than any particular current interpretation of the church’s history or its future.” She is just about to stick the trinitarian landing, when she backs off one more time and leaves us with this too-weak summary of what the Bible is leading us toward with its monotheistic talk of the three persons: As these texts stretch out to speak about God’s oneness, the community within God’s life, the actions of Father, Son, and Spirit, they do not seek to articulate the character of God in and for Godself. Instead, they do so always to give voice to the experience of God’s action for human welfare. These texts uniformly have to do with God’s activity on behalf of humankind, however that activity is named. .. The one God brings human life into being and wills it to flourish… (p. 14)
Note again the backpedaling: “they do not seek to articulate the character of God in and for Godself;” they “give voice to the experience of God’s action for human welfare;” and they are about that action “however that activity is named.” It’s all about the actions of the one God.
These statements are true. They are also utterly acceptable to non-trinitarians. Because they don’t add up to statements about God. On Trinity Sunday, a Bible interpreter, in or out of the pulpit, really needs to rise to the occasion and say what the Bible teaches about the nature and character of God, and how that goes with the Jesus and the Spirit thing. Just in terms of advertising and dealing with the congregation’s expectations, you need to say something about the Trinity. Instead, this article is a careful, delicate, nuanced effort to deflate that expectation. It’s Trinity Sunday, but don’t worry, we won’t affirm the doctrine of the Trinity. We”re going to look quite comptetently at all the Trinity texts, and conclude that God is saying something about what the one God does. Unitarians will not be offended by the Trinity sermons that arise from this commentary.
Every article needs a high note to end on. A Trinity article could end with something about the triunity of God. But this one ends with people gathering, to go somewhere, with God.
Christian biblical reflection on these texts and themes supports the conviction that loving friends and family members (and many also who are neither loving nor loveable) will continue to gather in season and out and that God will be with them. Perhaps such reflection even encourages us to fret less over the supposed demise of the church and more about where the Triune God may be taking us even now. (p. 15)
Friday, June 1, 2012
The crime novel, specifically the murder mystery, is to the world of genre fiction what baseball is to the world of sports: the place where intellectuals figure they can get in on the action. Everyone from W.H. Auden and Martin Amis to Umberto Eco and Slavoj Zizek have unleashed high theory on the humble country-house slaying and the hard-boiled gumshoe bust-up.
You can see the appeal. Murder mysteries and scholarship test the same skills and invoke the same gods. A puzzle must be solved, a maze navigated; every false lead, however tantalizing, must be tested and discarded. And at the end, there is the satisfactory clunk of truth falling into the world even as the hand of the detective falls on the guilty party’s shoulder.
The stakes are life and death, of course, which rarely happens in the life of the mind. Nevertheless, conventional murder mystery offers the ideal type of intellectual inquiry, with success guaranteed. (An unsolved murder mystery is not an aesthetic failure, it is a breach of aesthetic contract.) But, just as most baseball fans waste little energy contemplating the mind-blowing fact that the foul pole is actually fair, the appeal of murder is obviously wider than this. Let’s indulge the impulse to analyze that appeal a bit.
There is, most basically, (1) the pleasure of observing deduction in action, felt by scholars and non-scholars alike. Made famous by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, extended if not refined by Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot and Father Brown, the ratiocinative powers of the detective mind sparring with those of a clever or desperate killer provide a visceral sort of mental stimulation. In fact, Holmes’s deductions are usually inductions, conclusions drawn from observed evidence rather than from reasoning as such; this fact does little to lessen the popularity of Sherlock’s celebrated “methods.”
Thus, the enduring reach of Holmes as a character, recently inhabited by actors as different as Robert Downey Jr. (as steampunk drama queen) and Benedict Cumberbatch (as postmodern sociopath). The game-of-chess metaphor is made clumsily literal in the former’s most recent outing, but in all cases the reader or viewer is asked along for the ride with just enough grasp of the facts to enjoy the full reveal at the end. In the cliché version, this comes with all the suspects gathered in a room, often enough in a country house, generating the label for a prominent subgenre.
On this point, W.H. Auden notes in his 1948 essay The Guilty Vicarage that he found it “very difficult” to read a murder mystery “that is not set in rural England.” This common prejudice highlights a second kind of appeal, namely (2) the spectacle of fall-from-grace violence. The disruption of Edenic appearances in the so-called “English cozy” works by nasty contrast: the bloody corpse found next to the delicate tea things. Even the twee antics of a Lord Peter Wimsey, with his penchant for incunabula and idiotic banter, are set off by the legal fact – mentioned more than once in Dorothy Sayers’s oeuvre – that catching a killer means killing a killer. Nor, for that matter, are the Great War trenches ever far from his claret-savouring mind.
There is, finally, (3) the incidental pleasures of entering the world in which the murder, and its detection, take place. This includes both the milieu, which for preference is a closed and somewhat esoteric place – Oxbridge colleges are, next to English villages, the ideal – inhabited by a cast of eccentrics with layered secrets lurking beneath a placid surface. The detective confronts this world as a disruption generated by disruption. His job is not to restore previous order or state of innocence, as in a Shakespearean comedy – here I take issue with Auden – but to act as the imperfect hand of human reason aghast at the fact of mortality.
There are numerous variants possible, as all fans know. Even within the classic English mystery, there is a range from witty and nimble (Ngaio Marsh or Michael Innes) to dark and probing (Ruth Rendell or P.D. James). You can likewise ring endless changes on the conventions of the genre by tweaking location or milieu, moving everywhere from medieval towns (Umberto Eco, Ellis Peters) to outer space (Isaac Asimov), with stops along the way at Nazi Germany (Philip Kerr), native American reservations (Tony Hillerman), baseball diamonds (Alison Gordon), New York high society (Gore Vidal writing as Edgar Box) and Pacific surfing towns (Don Winslow) – to mention just the ones that come readily to mind. Martin Amis’s 1997 philosophical “whydunit” murder mystery, Night Train, belongs somewhere nearby.
But I am now guilty of some semi-intentional blurring. I am categorizing kinds of appeal, while others would divide the genre by type: locked room, deductive, police procedural, private-eye yarn, thriller and so on. Auden, in a deft backhanded compliment, famously excluded Raymond Chandler’s superior Philip Marlowe books from the category of “detective story” because Chandler’s works are, instead, “serious studies of a criminal milieu, the Great Wrong Place” and so these “powerful but extremely depressing books should be read and judged, not as escape literature, but as works of art.”
For those who prize the seven complete Marlowe novels the way Janeites revere Miss Austen’s six, and even take some muted pleasure in Robert B. Parker’s two posthumous “collaborations,” the exclusion makes no sense. To be sure, these are works of art, with, among other things, the often imitated but inimitable voice that defines a certain American type, the damaged loner. But the books, and all their cognates (the work of Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane, even James M. Cain, Brett Halliday, Donald Hamilton and Lee Child after their fashion) would not function without the basic core of murder and its investigation.
True, the solution of the murder is often incidental to a criminal plot or planned enterprise; or there are more murders than met the eye; or the reveal is given the reader as a kind of afterthought. These are the marks of literature beyond genre, and if Chandler transcends the conventional detective story it is only because, in rude and sardonic Marlowe, we have the transcendent detective. Thus the diverse yet plausible film incarnations: Dick Powell, Robert Montgomery, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Elliott Gould. More to the point, Marlowe’s gift is blunt virtue – resoluteness, cracked courage, incorruptibility – rather than sheer brainpower. His inelegant crime-solving brings no relief, no elation, no return to anything.
And it must be Los Angeles, the city the angels have in fact deserted, where Marlowe finds work. All detective stories teach the same basic lesson, drawn from a distinction as old as philosophy itself: appearances mask reality. The glittering Hollywood neon is as false as the neatly arranged antimacassars or the finicky rituals of high table. The one who seems innocent is guilty; the apparently guilty, innocent.
Auden concludes by noting that Kafka’s The Trial is literature’s essential anti-mystery, where “it is the guilt that is certain and the crime that is uncertain.” Josef K., Auden says, is “a portrait of the kind of person who reads detective stories for escape.” A sinner, in other words, like all of us who are addicted to the fictive spectacle of guilt and its punishment. Marlowe is a sinner too, but his lesson is different: He doesn’t invert the conventional mystery, he destabilizes its essence. Doggedly insisting on his daily rate plus expenses, Marlowe is a knight of faith, a tough-talking paladin who rises from a vicious pounding, again and again, to ask yet another awkward question, to pry under yet another shiny surface.
Marlowe knows that solving puzzles is one thing, justice quite another. As dedicated readers will know, for escape Marlowe plays chess – by himself.
Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto. His new essay collection, Unruly Voices, will appear in September.