Category Archives: Lawrence Block

And I Blame Myself*

One way to get away with a crime – or leas have a good chance of it – is to frame someone else. And a very effective way to frame someone else is to convince that someone that she or he is guilty. That’s not easy to do, as you can imagine, but it can happen. And when it’s successful, a real murderer has a ready-made scapegoat.

This plot point can be difficult to pull off in crime fiction. It’s got to be done in a credible way, and most people wouldn’t easily believe that they are guilty of murder. But when it’s done effectively, it can add suspense to a story.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Third Girl, Hercule Poirot gets a visit from a young woman who tells him that she may have committed a murder. Before she can give any details, though, she re-thinks her visit and leaves without giving her name. With the help of his friend, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, Poirot discovers that the young woman is called Norma Restarick. Poirot and Mrs. Oliver try to find Norma, but she goes missing.  As they look into this case further, they discover that there really was a murder. And it turns out that more than one person had a motive for murder, and a motive to make Norma think she is guilty. But until Norma turns up, it will be difficult to find the truth about the case.

In Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder, we are introduced to Howard Van Horn. He’s been having disturbing blackouts lately, which is difficult enough. Then one morning, he wakes up with blood all over him. Terrified that he’s done something horrible, Van Horn reaches out to his old university friend, Ellery Queen, for help. Queen agrees to see what he can do, and he and Van Horn try to get to the root of what’s been going on. The trail leads to Van Horn’s home town of Wrightsville, so the two go there. They stay with Van Horn’s father, Dietrich, and his stepmother, Sally. One night, Sally is strangled. Van Horn’s had another blackout, so he is convinced he was responsible. In fact, everyone believes that except for Queen. Among other things, this story shows just how powerful a belief can be.

Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus introduces readers to Dr. Duca Lamberti. He’s recently been released from prison where he served time for euthanasia, and isn’t quite sure what he’ll do next. Then, he’s approached by a wealthy Milanese engineer, Pietro Auseri, to help solve a difficult problem. Auseri’s son, Davide, has been drinking heavily and showing signs of severe depression and despair. Nothing, not even stints in exclusive rehabilitation facilities, has helped. Lamberti isn’t sure what he can do to help, but he agrees to try. After a time, he learns the reason for Davide’s drinking. A year earlier, Davide happened to meet a young woman named Alberta Radelli. After spending a day together, she begged him to take her with him, but Davide refused. Then, she threatened suicide if he didn’t, saying that she couldn’t go back to her own life. He refused again, and they parted. Soon afterwards, her body was discovered, and the death looked very much like a suicide. Since then, Davide has blamed himself for her death, believing that he’s a murderer, even if he didn’t actually use a weapon. Lamberti believes that the only way to help Davide is to find out the truth about Alberta’s death, so he begins to look into it. And he finds that this was no suicide: someone murdered the young woman. As Davide helps Lamberti get to the truth, he slowly frees himself of his guilt.

In The Sins of the Fathers, Lawrence Block’s first Matthew Scudder novel, Scudder is approached by wealthy Cale Hanniford. His daughter, Wendy, was recently murdered, and the police have a suspect in custody. He is Richard Vanderpoel, Wendy’s roommate. At first, Scudder isn’t sure how he can help Hanniford. But then, Hanniford says that what he really wants is to learn more about Wendy, and what led up to the murder. He tells Scudder that he and Wendy were estranged for several years, so he didn’t know much about her, her friends, or her life. Now, he wants to find out about her. Scudder reluctantly agrees to ask some questions, and he goes to visit Vanderpoel in prison. His meeting with the young man isn’t successful, though, as Vanderpoel is too drugged or dazed to be coherent. He doesn’t dispute his guilt, but Scudder does begin to wonder if the facts are as clear as they seem. And it turns out that they are not. Someone else was willing to let Vanderpoel believe he committed a murder.

And then there’s David Rosenfelt’s One Dog Night. Noah Galloway believes that, just over six years before the events in the novel, he was guilty of arson and the murder of twenty-six people. He’s done his best to re-build his life since then, but has always been afraid he’d be caught. He’s especially worried about the effect on his wife, Becky, and their son. Still, life’s gone on. Then, the FBI catches up with him and arrests him. Galloway doesn’t really protest. In fact, he even says,
 

‘‘Take me away.’’
 

But he will need a lawyer to take his case. That lawyer turns out to be Andy Carpenter. For Carpenter, it’s an awkward situation. Several years earlier, Galloway was using drugs, and broke into Carpenter’s home to try to find money or valuables. At the time, Carpenter chose not to press charges; now he’s questioning the wisdom of that decision. Still, he takes Galloway’s case, and starts looking into the arson and deaths. And he discovers that Galloway was very successfully duped into thinking he is guilty.

It’s not easy to really convince people they’ve committed murder. So, if that plot point is to be used in a crime novel, it’s got to be used carefully. But when it is used effectively, it can add an interesting layer of suspense to a story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Fleetwood Mac’s Jumping at Shadows.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, David Rosenfelt, Ellery Queen, Giorgio Scerbanenco, Lawrence Block

Any Two-Bit Job That Pays*

Not every PI or attorney is well-known and sought-after by the rich and famous. In fact, some lawyers and PIs are very much ‘low rent.’ There are a variety of reasons for this, of course. Sometimes it’s because of the sorts of cases they take. Sometimes it’s because they simply don’t have recognition. There are other reasons, too.

These sorts of attorneys and PIs can make for interesting characters in crime fiction. For one thing, they may have interesting backstories. For another, the sorts of cases and people they deal with are often (not always) gritty, if I can put it that way. And that can add a layer of interest to a story, to say nothing of plot points.

For instance, in William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel, which takes place in 1959, we are introduced to low-rent PI Harry Angel. He’s not used to dealing with ‘upper crust’ clients, but one day, he gets a call from an upmarket law firm. It seems that one of their clients, Louis Cyphre, wants to find a missing man. His quarry is talented jazz artist Jonathan Liebling, also known as Johnny Favorite. According to Cyphre, he helped Liebling out at the beginning of his career, in return for which he was promised certain ‘collateral.’  World War II intervened, and Liebling came back from combat physically and emotionally damaged. He was placed in a psychiatric hospital, but now, he’s disappeared. Angel agrees to take the case, and starts to ask questions. But he soon finds that this is no normal missing person case. Instead, he’s drawn into a web of murder, horror, and evil.

Fans of Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder will know that he used to be a New York City police detective. A tragic accidental shooting changed everything, and as the series begins, he’s a down-at-the-heels occasional PI. He doesn’t even have his license at first, and he barely maintains a home. He doesn’t have his own office, either; instead, he holds court in local bars. As the series goes on, Scudder does a little better, gets his official PI license, and so on. But he still deals with plenty of gritty characters and places.

So does Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins. When he loses his wartime (World War II) job at an aircraft manufacturing plant, he has to find some way to make a living. So, he accepts a commission to find a missing woman in Devil in a Blue Dress. From then, he begins to get a reputation for being able to find missing people and solve other problems. Like Scudder, he doesn’t have a regular office or a fine home. And a lot of the people he helps are ‘regular people,’ rather than wealthy, well-connected people. As the series goes on, he gets an official PI license, and has some success. But he generally doesn’t mix with those who go to ‘A-list’ parties.

There’s also C.B. McKenzie’s Rodeo Grace Garnet, whom we meet in Bad Country. He’s a former rodeo star who now works as an occasional bounty hunter and low-rent private investigator. He doesn’t have an office, or post advertisements. Instead, he gets clients by word of mouth. That’s how he hears that Katherine Rocha wants him to look into the death of her teenage grandson, Samuel. The official explanation for the boy’s death is that he fell from a bridge (or possibly, committed suicide). But there’s also evidence that he might have been shot, and knocked from the bridge. If so, his grandmother wants to know who shot the boy and why. Garnet takes the case, and soon finds that some wealthy and well-connected people do not want the death investigated.

Fans of Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski will know that she, too, starts out as what you might call a ‘low-rent’ PI. Certainly, she doesn’t live a wealthy life, and her clients are not always well-connected.

There’s also mystery novelist and fellow blogger E. Michael Helms’ Dinger. He’s a low-rent PI in post-World War II Las Vegas. He’s a tough, hardboiled sort of a guy, who’s not afraid to mix it up with all sorts of low-life types. Helms has published his Dinger stories in serial form. You can read Part One of one of them, Rose, right here. Once you do, you’ll want to read the other parts, too! I hope – I really do – that we’ll see more of Dinger. A-hem, Mr. Helms…

Martin Edwards’ Harry Devlin is a Liverpool-based attorney. But he’s not the sort you see in high-profile, lucrative cases. He’s a low-rent attorney who makes his living defending drunks, prostitutes and thieves, among others. He’s got a small place, and works in a cheap firm. So, he sees the gritty side of the city. In All The Lonely People, where we first meet him, Devlin is shocked when his ex-wife, Liz, comes for a visit. She says she’s left her current lover, Mick Coghlin, because he’s abusive, and she’s afraid of him. She asks to stay with Devlin a few days, and he agrees. Then, she disappears, and her body is found in an alley. Devlin feels guilty because he didn’t take Liz’ concerns seriously at first, and decides to find out who murdered her. At first, he assumes that Coghlin is the killer. But the more Devlin learns, the more possibilities there are. His search for the truth takes him into several of Liverpool’s seedy places.

And then there’s Attica Locke’s Jay Porter. When we are introduced to him, in Black Water Rising, he’s a low-rent Houston-area lawyer. It’s 1981, and Porter is trying to build his law business. But so far, he’s not been very successful. Then, in one plot thread, he gets drawn into the case of a fatal shooting. The trail leads to some very high, very well-protected places, and it’s a big risk for Porter. He’s black in what is still very much a white person’s world. And he’s up against some considerable opposition.

Low-rent, two-bit, down-at-the-heel, whatever you call it, such fictional attorneys and PIs add an interesting layer to crime fiction. They often deal with the sorts of cases others might not be willing to handle. And they themselves can be interesting characters.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Clouds’ Pocket.

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Filed under Attica Locke, C.B. McKenzie, E. Michael Helms, Lawrence Block, Martin Edwards, Sara Paretsky, Walter Mosley, William Hjortsberg

Where You Come From*

One of the interesting things about fictional PIs is the diversity in their backgrounds. The profession isn’t limited to people who have a particular academic degree or job experience. This means that the author has a lot of flexibility when it comes to a PI’s background. And that can make for intriguing layers of character development, to say nothing of plot points and other characters.

There are some fictional PIs who decide early in life that that will be their profession. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, for instance, chose the profession quite deliberately. And, in A Study in Scarlet, he describes himself to Dr. Watson as
 

‘…a consulting detective, if you can understand what that is.’’
 

He’s carefully prepared for his career, too. In fact, his focus is so much on being the finest detective that he doesn’t take a lot of interest in topics unless they’ll be helpful to him professionally.

There are many fictional PIs who are former police officers. This means that they may very well have connections within the police community. And that can either be a source of valuable information, or an obstacle, depending on how the author wants to use that relationship.

For instance, Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant is a former member of the Saskatoon Police Service (SPS). He decided that life on the police force wasn’t for him, and hung out his own shingle. But he still has contacts on the force. He doesn’t spend a lot of social time with his former colleagues, and he’s much happier as a PI. But he’s established a useful and mutually beneficial relationship with the SPS.

Fans of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot will know that he used to be a member of the Belgian police. That career ended, and then life changed abruptly with the advent of World War I. Poirot went to England as a refugee and started a career in private detection there. Interestingly enough, Christie doesn’t delve very much into Poirot’s early history. There are a few stories (right, fans of The Chocolate Box) that shed some light on Poirot’s life as a police detective. But he doesn’t maintain ties with his former colleagues.

Sometimes, fictional private investigators get into the business unexpectedly, or even accidentally. For instance, Dick Francis’ Sid Halley was at one time a well-known jockey. But he suffered a riding accident that severely injured his left hand and ended his riding career. At loose ends, so to speak, he got a job working for a large private detective agency, Hunt, Radnor and Associates. Private investigation wasn’t in Halley’s plan, and he’s bitter over the loss of his racing career. Still, he’s had to find some sort of job. His real career in private detection, though, begins in Odds Against, when his former father-in-law asks him to uncover a plot to take over the Seabury Racecourse for development. This case, which brings Halley back into contact with the racing world, also, as you might say, brings him back to life. He becomes a racetrack investigator; and, although he misses riding, and is still sometimes bitter, he manages to put himself back together.

Some PIs start by doing informal investigations, mostly to help friends. It’s only later that they make it an official business. Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is like that. As the series begins (in Devil in a Blue Dress), he’s been laid off from his job at an aircraft manufacturing plant. It’s shortly after the end of World War II, and several former aircraft, munitions, and other war-related factories are closing or downsizing. Rawlins has to find some way to earn a living. So, when his friend, a bar owner named Joppy, introduces him to a man named DeWitt Albright, Rawlins listens to what Albright has to say. Albright is looking for a woman named Daphne Monet, who seems to have gone missing. He wants Rawlins to find her, and is willing to pay well for it. Rawlins is in serious need of money, so he agrees. But, as he soon discovers, this isn’t a simple case of finding a woman who may be in hiding. It involves theft, blackmail, and murder. Rawlins solves the case, and he does get paid, but he works informally for the first few novels in this series. Mostly, he does things for friends and their acquaintances.

That’s also the case with Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder. He was a New York homicide detective (another former police officer!). But a tragic accidental shooting changed everything. As the series begins (with The Sins of the Fathers), he doesn’t really have a ‘regular’ job. But he does know how to find people and get answers. He works very informally. As he puts it:
 

‘‘Sometimes I do favors for people. They give me gifts.’’
 

He doesn’t get his official PI license until later in the series.

Some PIs have very unusual backgrounds. Leigh Redhead’s Simone Kirsch for instance, is a former stripper. She still does gigs now and again. It might seem unlikely that a stripper would make the change to a career as a PI. But for Kirsch, there’s a reason. When she got the point where it was time to quit, she tried to join the Victoria Police. That’s because she’s still grateful to the police for saving her life and her mother’s and brother’s when she was younger. But,
 

‘Either I didn’t have the moral credentials to be a girl in blue, or the Victoria Police had enough scandal without dropping a stripper into the mix.
 

She’s not accepted into police training, so she decides that the PI course is the next best thing. And she’s good at it, too. It helps that she stays in close contact with several people in ‘the business.’ They’re often good sources if information.

Fictional PIs (real ones, too) sometimes have some fascinating backgrounds, or at least unusual ones. That can add to a story, and make for solid character development and contexts.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dick Francis, Lawrence Block, Leigh Redhead, Walter Mosley

So Similar and Estranged*

Estrangement in families can happen for any number of reasons, really. Sometimes they happen for specific reasons, and sometimes it’s more a matter of drifting apart. Sometimes, the people involved simply go on to live very separate lives, with no real rancor.

But when circumstances bring together estranged family members, all of the emotion can also come up to the surface. And that can add tension to a reunion. It can add quite a bit of tension to a crime novel, too. And it raises the question: is blood thicker, as the saying goes? Can people who’ve been estranged work together? It makes for an interesting and sometimes suspenseful sub-plot or thread through a story.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder for Christmas and A Holiday For Murder) bring together the various members of the Lee family. Patriarch Simeon Lee has always been both malicious and tyrannical, but he is also very wealthy. And, when he decides to gather his family at the family home for Christmas, no-one dares refuse the invitation. So, his sons, David and George, together with their wives, Hilda and Magdalene, make the trip. Another son, Alfred, already lives at the family home with his wife, Lydia. And Lee’s son Harry, who’s been estranged from the family for years, is also invited. There’ve been several estrangements in the family, actually. For one, David has always blamed his father for his mother’s poor health and eventual death. For another, Alfred sees Harry as a selfish cadger who’s never taken his share of responsibility for the family business. Harry sees Alfred as a ‘stick in the mud’ who’s far too quick to toady to their father. All of this bad feeling comes to the fore when the various family members get together. And, when Simeon Lee is murdered on Christmas Eve, matters get even worse. Hercule Poirot is staying in the area with a friend, and he works to find out who killed the victim. As he gets to know the various family members, we see how this estrangement plays its role in the way the different family members interact.

John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Wechsler introduces readers to Classics professor Arnold Wechsler, who works at a small Massachusetts school, Hewes College. The novel was published in 1971, a time of great change and, sometimes, student unrest, at many US colleges and universities. Hewes College is no different in that respect. Wechsler is aware of what’s going on, but he tries his best to stay out of it all, and simply do the best he can. That all changes when he is summoned to a meeting with Winthrop Dohrn, the college’s president. Dohrn is concerned because of Wechsler’s younger brother, David. It seems that David was a Hewes student until he dropped out of sight after joining a radical movement. Now he’s returned to campus, and Dohrn wants to know whether David is or will be involved in subversive activities. Wechsler is loath to spy on his brother. For one thing, they’re quite different, and they’ve been estranged for some time. They really don’t have much to say to each other. For another thing, Weschler really does want to stay out of politics. But he can’t really refuse the college president. So, reluctantly, he contacts his brother. The two are very awkward with each other, and that estrangement makes for quite a lot of tension. It’s ramped up when there’s a bombing, a kidnapping, and a theft. Is David involved? If he’s not, can his brother trust him to help find out who is?

Lawrence Block’s The Sins of the Father is the first novel to feature his PI sleuth, Matthew Scudder. At this point, Scudder isn’t a formally licensed PI. Rather, he informally looks into things when friends and acquaintances need his help. One day, he gets a visit from successful executive Cale Hanniford, who has an unusual sort of request. Hanniford’s twenty-four-year-old daughter, Wendy, has recently been murdered. The police have arrested her twenty-one-year-old roommate, Richard Vanderpoel, for the crime, and there’s plenty of evidence against him. What’s interesting is that Hanniford doesn’t want Scudder to solve the murder. He believes that Vanderpoel is the killer. Rather, he wants Scudder to find out what sort of person Wendy had become, and what led to her death. It turns out that he’d been estranged from his daughter for years. It’s too late now for a reconcilement, but he’s hoping to at least learn more about her. Scudder’s not sure how much help he can be, but he agrees to at least ask some questions. He arranges to interview Vanderpoel in prison, but the young man is too dazed, or drugged, to be very informative. Then, not long afterwards, Vanderpoel commits suicide. Now it’s clear that this case is more complicated than Scudder thought, and he’s no longer sure the police got their man in the first place.

Former journalist Robert Dell, whom we meet in Roger Smith’s Dust Devils, has a wife and two children whom he loves, and a life that seems to be going well. It all changes one terrible day when he and his family are taking a drive just outside of Cape Town. His car is ambushed and goes over an embankment, and Dell is the only survivor. As if that’s not devastating enough, the police soon accuse him of engineering the accident, and he’s thrown into prison for murder. In fact, it’s very likely he’ll be executed after a ‘kangaroo court’ hearing. It’s clear that he’s being framed, but he doesn’t know why or by whom. Unbeknownst to Dell, his father, Bobby Goodbread, has found out what’s going on. He and his son have been estranged for a long time, mostly because of their diametrically opposed viewpoints on apartheid. It hasn’t helped matters that Dell married a woman who wasn’t white, and that Goodbread has been linked with several reactionary pro-apartheid groups. Nonetheless, Goodbread engineers his son’s escape from prison, and the two go into hiding. For different reasons, they’re each going after the man who killed Dell’s family. The rift between them makes for a lot of tension and awkwardness, but they manage to work together as they head towards the village where the killer lives.

And then there’s Dorothy Fowler’s What Remains Behind. In that novel, archaeologist Chloe Davis, her business partner, Bill, and some of their archaeology students travel to Kaipara Harbour, on New Zealand’s North Island. They’ve been contracted to excavate the remains of religious community that was burned down in the mid-1880s. The excavation is required before the land can be sold for development, so there’s a lot of pressure for the team to do their work quickly. For Davis, there’s a great deal of other pressure, too. For one thing, her cousin Shane is a member of the development consortium, and wants to move as quickly as possible to get the new construction done. For another, her sister Phaedra, from whom she’s been estranged for many years, has title to a house and piece of land that’s critical to the consortium’s plan. And she’s not willing to move. So, as the dig team is uncovering the truth about the religious group, Davis is also having to deal with the tense and difficult reunion with her sister and cousin, as well as with the rift between the branches of her family. And it turns out that what happened to the religious community has repercussions even now.

Estrangements can happen in just about any family. They aren’t always violent, but they’re often very difficult. And they can add a great deal of suspense, to say nothing of character development, to a novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Eastmountainsouth’s Father. 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy Fowler, John Alexander Graham, Lawrence Block, Roger Smith

Always Shouts Out Something Obscene*

An interesting pair of events happened on this day, only five years apart. In 1955, copies of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl were seized as being obscene. Only five years later, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was ruled not obscene. It’s all got me to thinking about our standards for what ‘counts’ as too explicit, too violent, or in some other way too graphic. To an extent, beliefs about what ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ be discussed are a product of the times. But there are arguably other factors at play, too.

For instance, like several writers of her generation, Agatha Christie didn’t really write about explicit sex. And certain other topics were also taboo. Yet, she made her meaning clear enough. For instance, in Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Hercule Poirot investigates the sixteen-year-old poisoning murder of famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time of his death, he was having an affair with Elsa Greer, who was staying in Crale’s home (she was modeling for a painting he was doing). The fact of that relationship, plus some solid evidence, placed Crale’s wife, Caroline, under suspicion. In fact, she was arrested, tried and convicted, dying in prison a year later. But now, her daughter wants her name cleared, and Poirot agrees to try. Of course, if Caroline Crale was innocent, that means that someone else is guilty. So, part of Poirot’s task is to find out who that someone else might have been. One possibility is family friend Philip Blake. As it turns out, he had strong feelings for Caroline and, in fact, asked her to have an affair with him:
 

‘‘I never liked her, if you understand. But it would have been easy at any moment for me to make love to her…She came to my room. And then, with my arms around her, she told me quite coolly that it was no good! After all, she said, she was a one-man woman.’’
 

In this novel, first published in 1942, there are a few discussions of adultery and illicit affairs. They’re important in the story, but neither is described in detail.

Three years earlier, in 1939, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep was published. In that novel, PI Philip Marlowe is hired by Guy Sternwood to stop an extortionist named Arthur Geiger.  When Marlowe tracks Geiger to his office, he finds that Geiger’s just been killed.  Worse, Sternwood’s daughter, Carmen, is in the room. She’s too drugged or dazed to be of much help, but Marlowe doesn’t want her dragged into the situation any more than necessary. So, he gets her out of the room. With Geiger dead, Marlowe thinks he’s done with the Sternwoods, but the truth turns out to be quite different. At one point, for instance, Carmen turns up in Marlowe’s place (he actually finds her in his bed), and her purpose is obviously to seduce him:
 

‘Then she took her left hand from under her head and took hold of the covers, paused dramatically, and swept them aside. She was undressed all right.’
 

There’s more, but this should be enough to show that, even though this novel was published a few years before Five Little Pigs, it’s more explicit. Most people classify the Philip Marlowe novels as noir, which tends to be more graphic than is the work of more traditional Golden Age authors such as Christie. So, part of what ‘counts’ as too much explicitness could very well be a matter of sub-genre. For instance, cosy mysteries are, in part, defined by their lack of explicitness.

Another factor at play here may be context. For example, C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series takes place during the Tudor years. Shardlake is an attorney, which gets him involved in the murder cases he investigates. Throughout the series, there are references, for instance, to affairs. But they’re more oblique references, and aren’t described in detail. It’s not because Sansom is required to avoid explicitness. Rather, that series isn’t the right context for it. It takes place at a time when such things were not discussed (at least publicly) using the ‘blow by blow’ accounts that we sometimes see in today’s novels. So a very graphic description wouldn’t really fit in with the rest of the context.

On the other hand, Lawrence Block’s Small Town, published in the same year (2003) as the first Matthew Shardlake novel, is quite different. It features a serial killer nicknamed the Carpenter, and a collection of different New York characters, including a dominatrix and the ex-police commissioner who falls in love with her. There’s plenty of drug use, sex, and other explicitness in this novel. It’s that sort of story. Block doesn’t include those aspects for ‘shock value.’

There’s also, of course, the matter of personal taste. Some readers are bothered by any mention of sex beyond the most oblique reference. Others don’t mind the detail. And, although the focus in this post has mostly been about sex, the same might be said for anything else that could be considered ‘obscene.’

For instance, James Ellroy’s LA Quartet has quite a lot of extremely explicit language. The same goes for Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town. Christopher Brookmyre’s work also can get quite explicit. Many readers prefer to avoid that sort of language; others aren’t so bothered by it. Is it obscene? That’s a difficult question to answer. I would argue (and please feel free to differ with me if you do) that the language in those books is not out of context. That is, it’s not put there for shock value. It’s woven into the stories and helps to give them their ‘feel.’ That said, though, there’s no denying that it’s profanity, and profanity offends some readers (or at least, it’s language they’re rather not read or hear).

This is, perhaps, part of why it’s so difficult to define ‘obscene. What ‘counts’ as obscene varies a great deal based on time, on context, on individual taste, and on other things. So, while there are some things that just about all of us would call obscene, there are others that aren’t at all so clear. What’s your view? What’s your ‘barometer,’ if you have one?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Mean Mr. Mustard.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Allen Ginsberg, C.J. Sansom, Christopher Brookmyre, D.H. Lawrence, James Ellroy, Karin Slaughter, Lawrence Block, Raymond Chandler