That’s a lot of detectives!

Longman Anthology of Detective Fiction
Longman Anthology of Detective Fiction

The Longman Anthology of Detective Fiction
edited by Deane Mansfield-Kelley and Lois A Marchino

I’m using this book in my Literary Genres: Detective Fiction class this semester, so I skimmed it to determine which readings to assign, and now I’ve been reading it thoroughly as the class works their way through it. Lots of good stories and some decent commentary. Thoughts:

  • The book is divided into 3 sub-sections: the amateur, the private investigator, and the police detective. I’ve combined this setup with Gary Hoppenstand’s reading of additional sub-genres such as Hard-boiled and Avenger. We also have a unit on Feminist detectives and one on Supernatural detectives.
  • The commentary in the book is decent, with solid introductions by Mansfield-Kelley and Marchino, and good essays from Maida and Spornik, Chandler, Kaufman and Kay, Panek, and McBain. The other essays tend to get a little too enthusiastic (from a fan perspective) for my taste.

The stories are a solid mix of the three subsets above. Some thoughts on my favorites:

  • Poe, “Murders in the Rue Morgue” – this story’s historical importance demands that it be included, but as a mystery, it’s a pretty big cheat.
  • Doyle, “Silver Blaze” – Like Robert Ray, I’m enamored of the two awesome phrases in the story: “the curious incident of the dog in the night time,” and “the immense significance of the curried mutton.”
  • Christie, “Witness for the Prosecution” – an excellent story that’s tighter than most of Christie. Alas, one of the commentary articles gives away the ending. I warned students to read the story first. Disaster averted!
  • Sayers, “The Haunted Policeman,” and Carr, “The House in Goblin Wood” – classics of the “puzzle game” genre, and lame. It turns out I don’t have much taste for the short story puzzle game.
  • Queen, “My Queer Dean” – spoonerisms are important in today’s society.
  • Maron, “Deborah’s Judgement” – an excellent example of the more thoughtful character studies produced since women invaded the P.I. genre in the 1970s. Nice.
  • Hammett, “The Gutting of Couffignal” – the avenger detective in full regalia here. Not that interesting.
  • Chandler, “Trouble Is My Business,” worth reading for the title alone.
  • Grafton, “The Parker Shotgun,” excellent. Great characters and a tight mystery. Plus, great title. See Chandler.
  • Paretsky, “Skin Deep,” Haywood, “And Pray Nobody Sees You,” and Rozan, “Going Home.” Each tight and entertaining. The last one especially captures the noir sensibility that runs through much PI fiction.
  • McBain, “Sadie when she died,” Rankin, “The Dean’s Curse,” and Howard, “Under Suspicion” all sizzle along nicely. I can take or leave the other Police mysteries in the set.

Overall, a nice selection of short form detective fiction, and a good introduction to the genre. I encourage readers to tackle the stories first and return to the commentary afterward, though I believe the only spoiler occurs in the Maida/Spornick article.

It rises!

MEG: A Novel of Deep Terror
by Steve Alten

MEG eats a surfer
MEG eats a surfer (concept art from the dead-in-the-water movie)

There’s a preposterous moment in Mega Shark versus Giant Octopus when a ship captain, anticipating an attack from the 2000 foot shark, murmurs with religious awe, “It rises!” MEG is much less preposterous, for the most part, but is still interesting and amusing. Good summer reading before I settle down to review the books I’m teaching with this year.

MEG tells the story of a Megalodon, a prehistoric shark that was thought to be extinct (but for which there is no proof of that). Because so much of the very deep water is unexplored, Alten proposes that Megalodons dwell in the volcanically-heated waters at the bottom of the sea, and if given an opportunity to get past the thermocline, would wreak havoc on shipping lines and people today.

  • The characterization is a bit clunky, but it works fine for this kind of book. The back cover compares the novel to Crichton and Cussler. I’d put it in-between. The writing is less ham-handed than Cussler (even better if you think about this as a first novel), but not nearly up to Crichton’s skill. That said, the book has a moral tenor that’s pretty interesting: if you’re a jerk, you’ll get eaten. Probably.
  • The action sequences work pretty well, with lots of good people-eating by the shark.
  • Alten goes out of his way to include the science of the shark — sometimes even hounding it a bit too much. Nonetheless, extrapolating from Great White biology, he does an excellent job of explaining how and why the Meg would hunt and, more importantly, why it would attack people.
  • I wonder how much of the idea for Mega Shark‘s shark was swiped out of this book. But then again, this book swipes much of what makes JAWS great. And JAWS is just Moby Dick without all the smarts. The circle of art continues.
  • It’s interesting to read the background story of this book. It was written by a butcher at a grocery store during his evening hours, and purchased days after he was fired (presumably for being so tired from having stayed up until 3am writing every night) for bazillions of dollars. It’s not Ray Bradbury paying for time on a library typewriter, but it’s the inspiring story of the Great American Beach Novel nonetheless.

Anathem

Anathem
Anathem

by Neal Stephenson; narrated byWilliam Dufris

One might suggest that Stephenson’s last work, the aptly titled “Baroque Saga” went too far into the eriudite and too far from its narrative. The same complaint might be made of Anathem, with its extended conversations about different philosophical ideas and understanding of the relationship between space, physics, and philosophy. But I wouldn’t make that complaint.

Anathem tells the story of Fraa Erasmus, a monk in a “math”– a sort of monastic order for scientists devised to keep the science-minded from mucking up the world as they’re apt to do when they get too feisty with their toys (c.f. Jurassic Park). The world goes all topsy turvy when a spaceship from somewhere far away (or perhaps another cosmos?) shows up and causes trouble.

Some thoughts:

  • Definitely hard core Stephenson. Excellent if you enjoyed the following bits of his previous novels: the science in The Baroque cycle, the organ stuff in Cryptonomicon, or the stuff about ancient languages hacking the brain-stem in Snow Crash. This book has a lot of that. I dig it, but I can see how you might not. It’s got less of the adventury wicked cool stuff than books like The Diamond Age or Zodiac.
  • The idea of the long term plan, the maths with their decenarians, centenarians, and millenarians (whose gates open for cultural exchange every decade, century, and millennium, respectively) tweaks me, as do the technological tricks he came up with to allow for such structures — the bolt, cord, and sphere, the mechanical devices that allow for the gates to open, and so on. The carefully crafted world and history that create that world flow through the book with every page. Lovely.
  • For me, the book’s new language and ideas worked well, in spite of the xkcd rule.
  • I would be interested to know whether the book’s first half drove off most of the people who wouldn’t have appreciated its second half. Does the gauntlet of philosophy make the second half more enjoyable?
  • His detailed and slow creations of the characters make their interactions in the second half work really well. The distinct ways each person speaks and acts become amusing and delightful as the story enters its final phase, but even in the most exciting moments, it maintains its contemplative distance.
  • I remain a sustained and solid Stephenson fan. Good stuff.

More Information Than You Require

"More"
"More"

On Subjects As Diverse As: The Past (There Is Always More Of It), The Future (As There Is Still Some Left), All of the Presidents of the United States, the Secrets of Hollywood, Gambling, the Sport of the Asthmatic Man (Including:  Hermit-Crab Racing), Strange Encounters with Aliens, How to Buy a Computer, How to Cook and Owl, and Most Other Subjects Plus: Answers to your Questions Posed Via Electronic Mail, and: 700 Mole-Man Names, Including Their Occupations

by John Hodgman

The title of the book gives you a sense of its breadth and scope.  Hodgman’s book is truly a COMPENDIUM OF WORLD KNOWLEDGE.  There are lots of hilarious bits, but I’ll comment on just a few themes and ideas:

  • I love the continued numbering that puts this book in concert with the previous book, AREAS OF MY EXPERTISE.  The last book in the series purports to be forthcoming: THAT IS ALL.
  • Throughout the book, JH has “this day in history” almanac entries.  Here’s my favorite:
    August 7:
    1989, ATHENS: Archeologists discover that Plato’s famous allegory of the “Cave” was not just an allegory, but an actual cave where Plato had physically chained his students to rocks.  They then were forced to watch his amazing shadow puppets until they either died or mustered the strength to cast off the illusion of their senses and sawed off their own feet to escape.  Plato was a very sick man.
  • The number and breadth of the literary and cultural references at work in the book boggles.  There’s a JAWS joke referring to the nickname of the shark (Bruce), references to Goethe and other philosophers, and plenty of conversation about Mole-men.  JH regularly mixes fact and fiction to make a blend that’s just delightful.
  • One theme in this book is JH’s enormous wealth from his work as an Apple commercial personality.  He keeps referring to his contentious relationship with Emo Philips and his friendship with “feral American” Jonathan Coulton.  I would really enjoy moving in the circles JH does: among the people thanked at the end are Sarah Vowell, Ira Glass, Alex Bloomberg, Dana Gould, John Flansberg, Dave Eggers, and Dick Van Patten.

Overall, the book is pretty entertaining if you enjoy short punches of humor.  Or if you liked his last book.  Or if you have a sense of humor.

So Lush, So Deadly

So Lush, So Deadly

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