The Autumn of Our Regret: Something Wicked This Way Comes

There’s no doubt about it anymore, this year has grown old.  We’ve gone through the frigid days of winter and the balm of summer and spring. Then we sailed through the most colorful parts of fall and now the world’s turned cold again.  It’s hard not to look at the shortening days and the denuded tree branches without feeling a little regret over the closing of the year. A holiday season is great but there’s nothing like a change of season to make you think about opportunities missed.

I think that’s one reason why Ray Bradbury set his haunting fantasy, “Something Wicked This way Comes” during the later part of the year.  Of course, it’s tied to Halloween – show me a good scary story that isn’t – but this tale is bound less to the ghouls and goblins and more to the real demons that bedevil our lives: fear, regret, isolation, and sorrow.

The Story

Longing and Age are the obsessions running through this dark fantasy: Jim Nightshade, just shy of fourteen wants to grow up and leave childhood, and his friend Will, behind.  What adults do behind window shades intrigues him.  Will’s father, Charles Halloway, has the opposite problem. He suffers the nightmares of middle-age, seeing the windows of his life beginning to close and aware he’s too old to relate to an adolescent son.  Between these two stands Will Halloway, who has pain and longings of his own that can’t be shared.  These three are the only souls to recognize the latent evil in the Autumn carnival that’s come to town.

Carnivals are perfect for a small-town’s thrills.  They’re gaudy, gauzy, visitors that arrive and entertain, then leave before they wear out their welcome.  But the rewards they promise customers are usually more than they deliver.  This carnival, the Autumn Carnival, promises whatever anyone’s longed for or lost and the townspeople are eager to pay the initial price of admission.   But the rides in the Autumn Carnival take more than the coins traded for a ticket.  And finally, only Jim Nightshade, William, and Charles Halloway stand between the town and damnation.

Why read this?

Bradbury delivers, in lyrical lush prose, this story of temptation and accepting the changing seasons of life.  It’s been praised and adapted for film, radio, and stage but the book (as usual) beats all adaptations.  Reading it’s a good way to remember the past and move forward into the present.  And that’s a good thing to do, even at the near of a year.  Better to enjoy each short  day of December than suffer through a long Autumn of Regrets,

The Unseen Connections that Bind: Lethal White

There are unseen connections in this world.

I’m not (necessarily) talking about back-channel diplomatic communication lines or conspiracies here.  No, I’m talking about the ties between people. We’re all connected by friendships, family, work or some interest.  We’re bound to events and people in our pasts, as well.  These connections are invisible when we walk down the street but they impact every move that we make.

Cormoran Strike, hero of Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling)’s mystery series, knows how the past still connects with the present.  After all, his military injury affects his everyday life even though the accident happened years ago.  But, in Lethal White, those unseen connections not only affect his missing leg.  They string together secrets and murder.

Secrets, Secrets

First, there’s the mentally-ill man who wanders into Strike’s office.  Is this poor man crazy to think he witnessed a murder as a child or did witnessing a murder help drive the poor lad insane?  Is he connected to the government official who wants Strike to stop a blackmailing scheme?  The official won’t explain who the blackmailers are or what he’s being blackmailed about.  He just insists “it was legal in the past.” Strike’s junior partner, Robin Ellacot, goes undercover in the minister’s office and finds more connections and schemes instead of the extortionists. And the secrets continue to multiply and spread until one of the secret-keepers turns up dead.

Then, it’s up to Strike and Ellacott to untwist the lies and excavate the connections. That’s no easy task, for clients who want leverage, not the truth.  The search is even harder because of the ties and secrets both detectives are trying to keep from themselves.

Followers of this series have known for years that Strike and Ellacot belong together, personally as well as professionally.  They share core values and have complementary skills.  They bring out the best in each other.  But both have ties to their pasts that keep them from acting on this mutual attraction.  This conflict often makes communication difficult.  It deepens their unspoken romantic feelings for each other.  And it drives both of them into dangerous places.

Changes & Connections

This unacknowledged passion often echoes in the epigraphs of Lethal White’s chapters, all of which come from Ibsen’s play, Rosmerholm. Because the theme of Rosermerholm is that while progress means change, it conflicts with the immutable past.  See, people change as they age They either continue to learn and grown or they stultify.  They become more or less tolerant with time.  And none of us are exactly alike, to begin with.  So change drives formerly close friends apart, even as their history and affection bind them.  And that creates conflict.  This conflict between changing outlooks and unchanging ties can fuel a lot of misery and drama.  And, as entertaining as those fights can be, they can also harbor a lethal distraction.  Because, when we’re being whipsawed by change and conflict, we may not see the puppetmaster manipulating us through our connections. The shadowy one who trades in secrets.  The bad guy who smiles and smiles and still remains a villain.

Lethal White has a large cast of characters, layers of story, and a definite point of view.  It’s not a quick read but it is entertaining.  It’s worth re-reading too, just to sort out the ties and the secrets.  And discover the smiling villain.

The Odd Kid On the Block

Whatever happened to the Odd Kid on your block?  Everybody grew up with at least one; I’m talking about those kids who seem to be born outsiders, who say and do unpredictable things and never fit in well with the rest. The kids that even surprise the adults when they talk. You know the ones I mean.  And if you don’t have one of these kids in your memory, you might have been the class misfit. God knows I was one.

So what? I can verify that most of us card-carrying weirdos eventually discover friends of our own.  We become reasonably functional adults.  But time has stood still for Eleanor Oliphant.  At thirty, she’s still the Odd Kid on The Block, although now she’s an Oddball at Work.  She doesn’t have any friends (unless you count Vodka and Mummy). And, despite the title of Gayle Honeyman’s brilliant first novel, Eleanor Oliphant is NOT Completely Fine,

Stuck in a Rut

Eleanor is, if anything, stuck in a rut, one she’s carefully constructed.  Every morning, she dons black pants, white shirt.  She does (and eats) the same thing each day on her lunch break.  Eleanor always takes the same bus.  She talks to Mummy on the same day of every week and drinks from Friday night until well into Sunday.  Part of this is a habit, but part is how Eleanor copes with the world, a place that has rarely been kind.  She’s constructed routines for protection.  But even Eleanor doesn’t realize all the things she’s hiding from or how much good there is in life to uncover.  And it’s a joy to discover it with her.

No Filter/No-Nonsense Girl

Listening to Eleanor describe her own life is by turn hilarious or incredibly painful as she is the original No-Filter-Girl.  She describes some horrors from her past with such emotional detachment that you wonder what ails the poor girl.  Anyone else recounting this kind of personal experience would be sobbing all over themselves.  But Eleanor reports her history with such matter-of-fact acceptance that many readers debate whether her response is due to Autism or the profound abuse she’s endured.  Whatever the reason, we become mesmerized by her voice.

For Eleanor does have a voice, stunningly original and perceptive about the human condition. “These days, loneliness is the new Cancer” she observes, “a shameful, embarrassing thing.” And for all of her independence, Eleanor is a lonely woman.  But the story of how this unusual woman starts breaking her self-imposed isolation is the hit of the year.  Eleanor can make you laugh and cry but most of all she makes you glad you’ve found her. Eleanor Oliphant may be the Odd Kid on the Block but she’s also a good person and friend.

 

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.

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