Remembrance of Playwright Past

Everyone remembers people and events that shaped and changed their lives.  Long after they leave the world’s stage, these individuals and events inform and direct us through memory.  That’s how I feel about Neil Simon’s plays; they are touchstones from my childhood. That’s reasonable: when I was young he was the King of Broadway. His movies set some of my first standards for comedy.  But, that was a long time ago and Mr. Simon hasn’t had a hit play in years. So, I’ve been reading plays by other authors.  Still, when I heard of his death, I did something I haven’t done for a while: I read something Neil Simon wrote.  Not his plays this time, but his memoirs.  And I’m still thinking about what I read.

Rewrites

Rewrites is Simon’s memoir of the first half of his life, and to some extent, it’s like his early plays.  This book covered his early, energetic years as a writer when hope was built on promise and potential.  The book is a charmer, and it confirmed two things I guessed but didn’t know before.  First, Simon’s stories all have strong autobiographical elements and that the art of plays is in the re-writing.

According to Mr. Simon, the tradition of opening a new play out of town is part of the alchemy that creates a show.  Responses from Out-of-town audiences tell the cast and creative team what works and doesn’t work in the show.  And Simon rewrote the show after each early performance making the show tighter and funnier. Like Moss Hart’s Act One, Rewrites is a master-class in the art of playwrighting as well as a glimpse of American Theatre in the 60’s and 70’s.  But it’s also the story of a young, hopeful man

 

The Marrying Man

In “The Play Goes On”, Simon’s sequel to “Rewrites”, one thing becomes clear:  Mr. Simon never escaped from his past.  After a childhood in an insecure, chaotic family, he tried to create a different life as an adult. Still, he never trusted the good times when they came.  And the early death of his first wife left a man who wanted to love again but couldn’t keep her ghost from haunting his later relationships.  It’s not surprising Simon remarried four more times.  It’s sad how his pursuit of happiness was often undermined by remembered joy.  This is the mature, tempered Neil Simon, less charming, less hopeful, a bit more self-serving. But whatever his shortcomings, the man possessed a work ethic and talent. And those things are why he’s remembered.

The Constant Writer

Celebrated or panned, joyful or depressed, married or single, Neil Simon remained one thing: a constant writer.  For more than 50 years he churned out at least that many plays and screenplays (as well as these Memoirs). His quick-fire wit and urban “comedy-dramedy” forms are imitated today.  And, if some of his jokes became horribly dated or if his last plays were less hit than miss, he still taught us a lot.   Simon wielded humor as a weapon as well as a shield and he showed us that, even in the middle of the worst time of your life, the right joke can still keep you going. And Laughter will help you prevail. Now, that’s a memory worth keeping.

Into the Woods

The first time my Dad saw my adult home, he muttered, “I don’t know why you and your sister moved back into the woods.” Although I hadn’t realized before, I instantly knew what he meant. Although we grew up on the plains, both my sister and I chose homes in densly forested areas. I can’t speak for my sister, but I must say that I do love living surrounded by trees.

The Woods Behind my House
My woodsy back view

The Forest Primeval

Then again, I’m not Sayward Luckett. Sayward is the central voice of Conrad Richter’s novel, The Trees, and she has good reason to hate the forest.  It’s the late 1700’s and her father’s transplanted their family from a village in Pennsylvania to the endless woods of the Ohio Valley. The tree trunks (or Butts, as Sayward calls them) hem them in wherever they turn. High branches shut out the sunlight. No sunlight means it’s impossible for the settlers to grow crops. The forest isolates them from other pioneers and it’s an easy place for little children to get lost. Too easy. The woods are not a safe place to be.

Still, Sayward is the sympathetic, tough, resilient person needed to make a home from the wilderness.  She tells her story in a matter-of-factly in the settler’s dialect and rhythms that author, Conrad Richter discovered researching this novel. Her common-sense voice leaps off the page.

“Whether you liked it or not, Death was something you had to go through life with.  Plenty times you would meet up with it if you lived long enough, and you might as well get used to it as you could.”– The Trees, Conrad Richter

Everything happens to Sayward and her family as they carve a life out of the forest. Good and Bad both come their way, joyful moments and terrible loss. And her family’s story parallels the story of America’s development. Sayward and some settlers who live long enough even learn to appreciate the world they’ve known and seen.

THE TREES (Awakening Land)

Even a world filled with trees.

Partners in Business and Art

Let’s tell the truth about Creative Artists; we already know the myths:

Myths About Creative Types

  1. All Creative Artists are right-brain, impractical people,
  2. Given a choice, creative people tend to wear shabby clothes and messy hairstyles.
  3. Creative people all keep odd hours and disorganized lives.
  4. Artists are profligate, spendthrifts who don’t understand the value of money, and;
  5. Damn few artists have enough sense to run a successful business.

The Truth

Anyone who believes these stereotypes needs a copy of Something Wonderful, the new biography of Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Not only does it recount the history of a creative partnership, it shows the practical businessmen that created that art.

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were both successful men of the theatre before they teamed up together.  They’d both written hits and flops. And they’d both worked with other partners before so they knew how to give and take.  Neither man felt like he knew the other.  But neither of them let that get in the way of creating great songs together.

In Something Wonderful, Todd Purdum reveals how the R&H songs we know, the ones where words and music fall so naturally together that they almost seem inevitable, were the results of lengthy revision and multi-stage efforts.  Hammerstein agonized over each word and phrase, spending weeks to craft the right lyrics.  Then Rodgers, in a separate time and place, would sweep in a lyrical melody, so quickly it infuriated the lyricist. Sometimes they’d debate, very politely, over details in the work.  And, outside of business, the two men tended to lead separate lives.

But, inside of the theatrical business, they were indivisible partners.  They forged and reigned over the Rodgers and Hammerstein empire, creating and casting tours of past successful shows while they created and produced new ones each season.  And, despite all assumptions about artists, both men kept tight hold of the money.

If you’re a theatre geek or a  musical freak, you’ve probably already read this book.  If not, pick up a copy anyway.  You should know the truth about artists.  Sometimes the truth can be Something Wonderful.

 

A Modern Irish Murder

Fact: Ireland is a Modern Country

Sad Fact: Few people outside of Ireland realize this.

Thanks to the impressions of popular culture, many Americans still tend to think of bombs, booze or leprechauns when they hear the worlds “Irish” or “Ireland”.  Those who read, remember Yeats or the Potato Famine.  Movie-fans recall Darby O’Gill or The Quiet Man.  Few of either group think of murder.

Yet, Murder in a very modern context is the background of Tana French’s brilliant debut, In the Woods.  It’s the story of Irish police working a contemporary crime site that, unfortunately, has ties to the past.  It also has one of the best unreliable narrators I’ve come across in several years.  Rob Ryan tells the story of when past and present collide in the head of a traumatized survivor and the damage that radiates from that impact.  And he tells it in a beautiful, lyrical voice that hints but never tells you what’s what.

In the Woods is also the brilliant first novel of what is known as the “Dublin Murder Squad” series.  So far, each story is told by one detective on the Squad who may (or may not) appear in later tales.  Each character is brilliantly developed in their own stories so we get to see how different people view the same incidents.  And we also see the toll this job takes on detectives.  Thankfully, we also get to see Ireland, complete with cell phones, office buildings and the concerns and issues facing contemporary society.

Along with murder, that most ancient of crimes.  Because some things, it seems, never change.

The Breakable Professionals

I love the way things evolve.  (Don’t be scared if you’re feeling fundamentalist; I’m not talking Darwin here).  I mean that as standards of civilizations and cultures change, standards of popular arts morph along with the culture.  In that way, we can study the values of any era by looking at what was created and celebrated during that time.  And, since mysteries have been popular literature since the first “whodunit” was created, we can trace see how some protagonists have changed along with the times.  Of all of these “standard” characters, none has changed more than the professional detective.  They’ve gone from flat feet to tortured souls.
Think of literature’s early detective heroes, Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes.  (Okay, so Auguste wasn’t a professional detective, but he’s close).  Fans referred to them as human thinking machines because they solved puzzles with rational, deductive thought and neither allowed emotion to clog up their thinking.  Which makes them fascinating characters to follow but not someone a reader can identify with.  Self- doubt never undermines either man, and although both men have weaknesses, they’re never disabled by them. Let’s face it, these guys are great, but we’re not sure that they’re human.

 Sam Spade took a step towards humanity, even if it was a baby step.  On the surface, he looked and acted like the hard-edged, tough guy/private eye that Dashiell Hammett first dubbed “The Continental Op”.  And ultimately, he does the makes the difficult but right decisions. But read Maltese Falcon again and you’ll notice that Spade is guards something carefully than even The Black Bird: his feelings.  Whatever else he may think about Miles Archer, Spade respects him as a partner and Archer’s murder disturbs him badly.  We don’t know this at first, because Spade keeps that secret to himself, but it steers every step of his investigation.  And when Archer’s murderer turns out to be the woman Spade loves, it costs him to turn her over to the police.  He gives her up nevertheless because it’s the right thing to do.  But we learn just enough to realize how difficult that decision was.

 

By the latter 20th century, mystery detectives were feeling fear and self-doubt and by the millennium, they were downright troubled.  Thomas Harris‘s Will Graham is a brilliant detective and profiler but his exposure to evil and his own ability to imagine scenarios from a killer’s perspective put him in the hospital more than once.  Graham is a man uncomfortable doing what he does best, even though what he does serves mankind.  The same can be said for Patricia Cornwell‘s Kay Scarpetta, though not for the same reasons.  Like the BBC’s detective, Jane Tennison, and Val McDermid‘s Carol Jordan, Scarpetta is an ambitious, gifted woman often frustrated by the political, male-dominated world of criminal justice.  All three of these fictional, female crime-fighters endure unhappy personal lives. They make mistakes. And all three of them, at times, drink too much.

——–Lincoln Rhyme and Cormoran Strike add to the list of contemporary detectives with acknowledged physical and emotional vulnerabilities.  Lincoln is almost completely paralyzed and in his first fictional appearance (The Bone Collector) is so depressed, he is searching for a way to commit suicide. Cormoran Strike (first seen in The Cuckoo’s Calling) has no steadiness either in his personal or professional life and he’s missing part of a leg. But both of these detectives have training, brains and female colleagues equipped with their own talents and demons. Let the villains beware.

Today’s literary detectives are strong enough to be admirable but vulnerable enough to be human.  And that makes their stories even more fun to read.

The Sedentarians

For some folks, mysteries are two-sided stories.  There’s always the central puzzle to solve: usually who left a corpse (or corpses) laying around.  Then there’s the motive behind the misdeed.  But what keeps a lot of mystery readers glued to the page is the thrill of the chase.  They stay awake for hours, mentally following a Sam Spade or Cormoran Strike from one risky scenario to the next, taking on all comers in a fight to the finish.  It’s grand entertainment when it’s done right.  But they’re not on the menu today.
This is a salute to the mega-brains of detective fiction, those sleuths who never break a sweat.  Literature refers to them as “arm-chair detectives.”  They’re Sedentarians, to me.
I know a bit about Sedentarians from my father’s side of the family.  I saw them in action, so to speak, as a kid.  Yes, my dad’s folks were farmers originally, but whenever we went for a visit, the family got together and sat.  And sat. For hours on end. Until, if sitting was an Olympic Sport, my family would all have been medalists.  But, however stationary my

relatives could be, none of them were a patch on Mycroft Holmes.

If you follow Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, Mycroft first shows up in “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter“, and has the dubious distinction of being the only person who can make Sherlock Holmes feel stupid.  (It would be a sibling, right?) In many ways Mycroft is Sherlock on steroids; if Sherlock is smart, Mycroft is brilliant.  Sherlock is difficult; Mycroft, impossible.  But when Sherlock is confused, his bigger (in every way) brother is the person he turns to.  Because, although he doesn’t move, Mycroft thinks.  And his thoughts solve international mysteries without ever leaving his chair.
It’s a great idea for a character right?  Rex Stout must have thought so because he created another great armchair detective, Nero Wolfe.  But, instead of being a supporting character, like Mycroft Holmes, Nero Wolfe carries 40 plus years of a detective series.  With a chef to cook his meals and Archie Goodwin for checking details, Mr. Wolfe spends his time eating, gardening and solving crimes.  And he’s damn good at it.
But that brings up a fairly good point because few sedentarians work alone (Auguste Dupin may be the exception).  For all of their perception and intelligence, Mycroft and Nero both need someone to do occasional leg-work.  Another of the armchair detectives in contemporary fiction, Val McDermid’s, Stacy Chen knows she lives in two universes.  In the asphalt-and-steel world, she doesn’t (and can’t) contribute much to her boss’s investigations; among other things, Stacy lacks social skills.  But Stacy, in her chair, dances through a virtual world of information, where flesh-and-blood detectives have barely learned to crawl.
And, for that reason alone, the future of the Sedentarian detectives like Lincoln Rhyme have a wide-open future in fiction.  Armed with knowledge, technology, and first-class brains, a detective can investigate real crime in a virtual world.  Or virtual crime here.  Really, a socially-frustrated, hyper-intelligent, nosy-parker with wifi might be our next great detective hero.
I’d sit down to read that!

The Wunderkinds.

The child is father of the man, at least that’s what Wordsworth wrote. (Wasn’t he a loquacious so-&-so?) That means the things we love as kids often influence our tastes as adults.  I am (unfortunately) old enough  to acknowledge the truth in this observation, but I wonder if writers deliberately trade on this idea. After all, how do you create adult readers who’ll love Fantasy/Science Fiction?  Wait until they’re old enough to vote and then give them a copy of Dune?  No, you introduce them to the genre while they’re young, with kid’s stories written by great SF authors like Heinlein  and LeGuin.

But creating under-age Mystery readers is a slightly more difficult proposition.  After all, Mysteries almost always involve Violent Crime, and we don’t want the Little Darlings to have nightmares.  (Well, we may, but we won’t sell as many books if they do.)  So how do you create the next generation of Nero Wolfe and Alex Cross fans? By giving them mysteries with juvenile detectives, of course!

Early Juvenile Detectives

When I was first learning to read, there were three fictional superstars of kid-lit whodunits.  Well,  seven characters but three detective teams: Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins and the Hardy Boys. On the page, they were the Wunderkinds.

On one level, they all looked like ordinary kids with affluent, middle-class lives. Kids that most adults overlook. But look at them again, and you’ll see they’re junior adults.  Nancy Drew is independent and talented, Frank and Joe Hardy never lose their nerve, and of the four Bobbsey Twins, only Freddie shows a mischevious streak.  To me, that’s a flaw since no hero should be too good to identify with. Still, the subtext was clear: in some circumstances, if kids do the right things, they can rule.  They’re as smart and brave as the adults and, if they match wits with any bad guy or bully, they can come out on top, usually without too much help from a parent.  A sentiment guaranteed to make most kids cheer.

Contemporary Juvenile Detectives

 

A whole raft of fictional juvenile detectives have followed these prototypes from Encyclopedia Brown through Flavia deLuce and the newer heroes have more of a real-life kid’s feelings and issues.  But the essence of the juvenile detective hasn’t changed: youth’s zeal and integrity, mixed with a world-class intelligence and the emotional maturity of an adult whenever the chips are down.  Come to think of it, that’s winning combination at any age.

The Subversives

Hang around book-nerds types long enough and you’ll hear them mention the word “subversive.”  Subversive themes, subversive protagonists, subversive…well, you get the picture.  Now, before you decide all English professors and book-club members need to be on some government watch list, what they’re talking about are the aspects of a story that make you rethink your assumptions. Part of this rethinking is part of any mystery or detective story. But some literary detectives succeed because they subvert the assumptions other characters make about them.  Like that lovely old snoop, Miss Jane Marple.

Early Detective Subversives

In Agatha Christie’s stories, Miss Jane appears to be the quintessential English Spinster.  She gardens, she bakes, she wears nothing but tweed (I think) and she lives in a small, English Village. The kind of lady most people expect is sweet and rather naive.  But beneath those fluffy curls and an abominable hat sits an observant and cynical brain. Not much gets past that shrewd, old dame. And when she comes up with some pithy, insightful observation, she subverts the other characters’ expectations.  See what I mean?
But if Miss Jane set the standard of the unexpected detective, she’s had lots of followers since. One of my favorites is a handicapped ex-jockey named Sid Halley who other characters initially underestimate because of his small stature and background. (Stupid move, by the way) But, most of the fictional subversive detectives I’ve seen are female, which, in a chauvinistic way, makes sense.  The heroes of the “hard-boiled” detective yarns, like Mike Hammer, Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe dominated the genre for years and these guys are so tough and male that testosterone almost drips from their pages.  The Hard-boiled stories are great and I have a well-worn collection of Dashiell Hammett prose to prove that I’m a fan, but those guys do set up certain assumptions.  Which the ladies then turn upside down.

Contemporary Detective Subversives

After hours with the cool-under-pressure Sam Spade, it’s a delight to see Janet Evanovich‘s klutz extraordinaire, Stephanie Plum, wrecking cars and falling over her own heels until she somehow catches the bad guy. And Sue Ann Jaffarian‘s Odelia Grey feels like my twin sister at times: she’s a middle-aged, overweight, paralegal (like me) trying to get through life without too much mess.  Bless Odelia, corpses seem to find her like so many stray kittens.  But probably the best example of the Subversive Detective today is the inimitable Mma Precious Ramotswe, founder, and head of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.  Mma Precious upends all expectations her culture has of middle-aged, single women by opening and operating a successful business, and then proving herself a skilled practitioner of her chosen profession.
And that’s the essential function of the subversive theme, to make people re-examine their assumptions. These entertaining stories have something profound to say: that intelligence, insight, and grit can be found in the most unlikely people and no one should be discounted because of their appearance.  That’s a liberating idea.  Funny that it’s still considered subversive.

The original Odd Couple: Holmes and Watson

Detective Fiction’s First Odd Couple

There are all kinds of mystery stories, filled with all different types of detectives, but if you’re going back to the roots of the mystery series types, the Granddaddies of them have got to be Holmes and Watson.  They’re the original Adama-&-Eve, Mutt-&-Jeff, Odd Couple detective team and the template they set up is fierce.

An Early portrait of the Dynamic Duo
Thank you, Wikipedia!
The most noticeable team member is Sherlock Holmes, the world’s first and foremost consulting detective. Brilliant, acerbic, and emotionally detached almost to a pathological degree, he’s the star of the series and he knows it.  But Holmes isn’t chasing villains for glory or cash; he’s in it for the fun and the science. Believe it or not, Arthur Conan Doyle introduced the world (and law enforcement agencies) to the world of criminal forensics through Holmes’s obsession with crime scene details and deductive logic.

But, if Sherlock Holmes is so great, why did the author need Watson?

Simple. Watson is the person who needs to tell the story because that’s the last thing Holmes would do.  If “The Great Detective” decided to write up his adventures, what would he emphasize?  Would he capture the creepy atmosphere of the The Great Grimpen Mire or dwell on the terrifying appearance of the Hound of the Baskervilles?  No!  Sherlock doesn’t see these things as important.  A Holmes version of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” would consist of long narratives about newspaper fonts, the replication of certain facial features in familial descendants and (maybe) the application of phosphorus to flesh to create an unusual appearance.  None of the Gothic Setting or chilling story would survive because Sherlock Holmes rarely notices these things.  That’s one reason we need Watson.
Another reason we need Watson is he’s our Point-of-View, the guy we identify with, our average Man on the Street. We learn to trust him implicitly.  Sherlock Holmes is a master of subterfuge and obscurity but Watson always tells us just what he sees as soon as he sees it. Which makes the story all that much better when Holmes looks at the same puzzles Watson just described and comes up with an insightful answer.  But, as much as the readers need Watson as a character, these two characters need each other.

When Opposites Decide to Team Up

It’s the chemistry of this mismatched pair that creates the architecture of each story in the series and both characters bring out the best in each other.  It’s my belief that the Holmes-&-Watson formula has been the basis of many a mystery series because it works so well.  Look at Nick and Nora Charles, Morse & Lewis, Tony Hill & Carol Jordan.  They’re crime-fighting Mutt-&-Jeffs who bring out the best in each other by being completely different people.  They’re the descendants of Holmes & Watson.

Some favorite Holmes & Watson stories

 

 

And If You are interested in more….

 

 

What Makes up a Great Mystery Series?

So, I’ve been thinking….
(Yes, I have!  If you wonder where I’ve been for weeks and weeks, I’ve been lost in the woods thinking.  And, despite the heat of the oncoming summer, I believe I’ve come up with a thought.)
Of all the fictional genres out there, one of the most-popular (if not the most) is the mystery novel.  I’m not sure what it says about humanity, but almost half of us who read for enjoyment, find nothing more relaxing than curling up with a story about murder and mayhem.  Maybe we like these stories because of the implicit drama involved, or we like the good guy/bad guy aspect.  Maybe it’s the aspect of solving puzzles we favor.  For whatever reason, a lot of people like mysteries.   And some of the most successful mysteries are part of an ongoing series.
Go hang out with a book club or the mystery/thriller section any bookstore around, and you’ll see what I mean.  Sooner or later you’ll hear someone ask about “the latest Alex Cross” or “the next Kay Scarpetta,” which can sound a little odd, to a newbie.  Fact is, both names belong to fictional sleuths who each star in their own best-selling series of mystery stories.  And I’m talking about enormous popularity here, characters who inspire movies, and web pages and reams of fan-fiction and debate.  So, I have to ask myself, Self, what keeps readers coming back?
So I’d like to look at some popular mystery series during June when people are out at the beach, or in their hammock, head first in another tale about crime.  But, instead of looking at an individual novel, let’s break down some successful mystery series, past, and present, and figure out what made/makes each one work.    And I’d like to have your help.
Now I have my favorites, same as everyone else, but I’d like to hear which ones you like and why.  Do you favor a Mutt-&-Jeff team like Holmes and Watson?  An amateur busybody, like Miss Jane Marple?  A tortured justice professional, like Dr. Scarpetta?  Or an endearing accidental detective, like Odelia Grey or Stephanie Plum?  There’s no judgment here, I just want your feedback to learn what characters have really grabbed your imagination.  And, yes, I’m always hoping to find another good book.
So, fire up those grills, unpack those swimsuits and let’s get ready for some light summer reading.  Just remember not to trip over the corpse that usually appears by Chapter 3!

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