Monday, November 18, 2013

Is the American Detective Still a Knight



I sometimes teach detective fiction, and a really easy place to start any discussion is with the idea that the American detective is usually a knight.

The usual interpretation goes that American detective writers were helping to continue a tradition that began with the myth of the American cowboy. We were trying to create a mythology that every culture has -- knights, samurais, soldiers, cowboys, detectives -- the lone figure with little more than courage and a moral code as a guide.

The Europeans didn’t need to make their detectives knights because after all they had ... well ... knights.

I’ve been teaching Chandler and Stout and Hammett, and to a greater or lesser degree (lesser with Hammett) this stands up. But the world has changed and with the advent of new voices and smaller presses and a mythology that has been created, the detective as knight is disappearing or being replaced in many circles.

Just to be clear, the detective as knight still exists. Kinsey Milhone is a favorite among so many, and she’s a great example of the type. However, more and more writers are moving away from that kind of detective.

On television, so many of our detectives are the hyper-geniuses who are isolated from society -- the hallmark of the European detective. House, The Mentalist, Monk, Psych, and Bones  are just a few of the shows that highlight these kinds of detectives. It’s as though we as a society no longer have the need to define ourselves in this way.

In fiction, there has been a larger change, especially in the small press world. The Christy Bristol novels by Sunny Frazier for example follow an astrologer who occasionally works for the police and there have been a number of psychics who work for the police.

Where does this fit into the knighthood trope? If we were going to try to push this into some kind of shape that fit the updated medieval idea, well, I suppose they’d be the witches or the wizards taking over the job of knight. Good for them. Those characters have been sidekicks and villains too long already.

There are others too like William Doonan’s archeologist detectives from The Mummies from Blogspace 9, just out on Kindle this last week, and the serious professor in Horona Finkelstein and Susan Smiley’s Walk-In. These characters are both geniuses and knights.

What I always kind of hated about the knight trope is so many writers made their knights slightly stupid. The idea among these lesser writers was (I think) no amount of intelligence was needed as long as someone had the right morality.

The message now is different. What is it? Well, with so many people reading and writing now, it’s far too complicated to say.

That’s a trend I love.



Monday, November 11, 2013

Finally, a Day to Breathe

Finally, A Day to Breath

I took my first day off in a long time yesterday. It's been Writers' Week at Mt. San Antonio College where I teach and help to run the creative writing program, and that means chaos for me. Writers, students, and teachers have differing needs. All of those needs make a lot of sense, but it just means that I'm working like crazy all the time. I'm hoping everything slows down now. I have some editing work to do.

But I took yesterday off. It's nice to have a Saturday off. What did I do? Well, if you know me, you know that I Nero Wolfe-ed out. I took a morning run on a treadmill at a blank wall listening to a novel. Then I came back and watched a Nero Wolfe DVD with my wife Ann and my dog who’s name after one of the characters in the books. Then I read a couple of the novellas.

So why in the world would I spend the day doing that? How does that mellow me out?

I've talked to a lot of people who have said that they don't like mystery novel series because in each novel, everything needs to be reestablished. That is, of course, true, but what they don't get is that the reestablishment of the setting and character is the joy.

A mystery series like Nero Wolfe is all about the danger outsiders bring to the paradise of the novel. We who love these novels love being in that safe and fantastic place. We fantasize about being there. That sounds strange, but it's easily translatable into any genre that you love.

SciFi fans love the starship Enterprise. The joy of that show is returning again and again to the helm to watch the paradise of the crew working together to find morality in a world of chaos.

Fantasy fans love Rivendell. It's a place of permanent peace and art and music, completely safe from Sauron, and whatever is going on at the office.

Romance fans have the stability of the home that all of their characters journey towards.

That's the joy. That's the comfort.

The tension and conflict that the novels have is with the idea that the paradise might be destroyed. That's what keeps us reading the Lord of the Rings. Rivendell might fall. Hobbiton might be destroyed. That's the conflict in every single Star Trek episode. The Enterprise is under attack. It's the reason after I've had a hard time, I read my Nero Wolfe novels. There aren't a lot of guaranteed safe places in this world, but Nero's office is certainly one of them.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Kneeling Before Shakespeare

I took a group of students from the college where I teach to England a few years ago for a study-abroad program. One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon for the theater there and to see the sights.

Shakespeare is buried in the local church. He’s never been moved to Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner because he left a curse on his grave forbidding people to move him. The gravestone is at the front of the church just beyond the altar rail, and at a funny angle, so to see it clearly and well, you have to kneel at the altar rail, kneel to the great poet and playwright.

There’s something sacrilegious here, not that it stopped me from looking at the famous grave and then buying a rubbing of it. But kneeling before a man because he had talent seemed wrong, and that’s not all that was wrong with it either. For me, it symbolized the way that some people come to reading, it’s the way that a lot of my colleagues teach reading. Everything was very quiet, very somber, very boring, and we must kneel before these unquestioned gods of literature.

That’s not who Shakespeare was though, and it’s not the way that writing should be approached. I spend so much of my time as a college creative writing professor trying to convince students that they can and should be a part of the greater literary world. I spend so much time showing them that it’s not a distant thing for people who have some kind of mystical genius. That’s one of the effects of making them read long dead poets who don’t use the same kind of language as they do. They’re left intimidated and confused.

And then I and they knelt before Shakespeare.

How to undo that kind of lesson? It’s not easy, but it takes trips to poetry readings with people who are reading modern poetry. Not inaccessible black-turtled-necked poets smoking their cigarettes and speaking vaguely of Baudelaire, but people reading about love and loss and all kinds of things.

And then it took a trip to the Globe Theater, where the students were groundlings. Where real actors interacted with them and knocked into them and performed their parts.

That’s when my students started to love Shakespeare. After all, Shakespeare and poetry and books in general aren’t meant to be read in the silence of a church. They’re meant to be a vital part of life that makes all the rest of your life meaningful and even tolerable.