Paris: The Early Detectives

Paris in the 19th and early 20th century was in creative ferment and in love with modernism—and the scandalous. In areas like Montmarte, “people went to abandon their inhibitions”; low-rent neighborhoods attracted people on the brittle edge of society; guillotinings were held at odd hours in the vain hope of reducing the crowds of spectators; crime stories were insanely popular; and real-life criminals and anarchists were hailed as heroes. The Crimes of Paris: A True Story of Murder, Theft, and Detection, by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler describes this world and the ongoing war between the criminals and the Sureté detectives intent on stopping them. They anchor their story with the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa and loop backward from there to trace the increasingly scientific methods used to identify malefactors. One of the most successful was a system of measuring and classifying facial and other physical features created by Alphonse Bertillon. By 1900, detectives throughout Europe and the United States used “bertillonage” to identify criminals until the system was replaced by fingerprinting. A reference to Bertillon even appears in The Hound of the Baskervilles, as a rival to Sherlock Holmes. History, in its tendency to repeat itself, is reviving Bertillon’s concept as biometrics; in today’s incarnation, computers much more accurately measure facial data points. The Mona Lisa was recovered in 1913, and the Hooblers present several plausible “who, how, and why” scenarios, but it’s clear that if the man who possessed it hadn’t turned it over to art experts in Florence, the skills of the detectives of a hundred years ago would never have found it!

Genealogical footnote: When the Mona Lisa went missing, the authorities stopped all ships leaving France and notified destination ports of ships recently departed. When the German liner Kaiser Wilhelm II steamed into New York harbor some days later, U.S. authorities searched the ship and passengers thoroughly. The Kaiser Wilhelm II was the boat on which my grandfather emigrated from Hungary in October 1906. Alfred Stieglitz’s famous photograph below, The Steerage, suggests what his voyage would have been like.


The Sufferer in the Mirror

Memoir-writers would appear to have it easy. After all, whom do they know best, in theory, but themselves? The key to this question is “in theory.” Hollywood and sports stars can sail by with superficial “and then this bad thing happened, but I learned a lot” memoirs, because they are, well, stars, and in some misguided sense, we already feel we know them. The rest of us have to dig way deeper.

Aspiring memoirists may be encouraged to expose their most “gut-wrenching secrets” right up front. Chapter one. Even page one. But parading a set of difficult experiences—drug addiction, infidelity, abuse—across the literary stage like cardboard scenery is not sufficient. We’ve all read that. Seen the movie. More than once. The writer’s unique persona and individual reaction to these stock situations are what makes a new version of this play worth mounting. It may take a few—even quite a few—pages to create the character for whom these traumatic experiences have meaning. Writers who merely put their emotional debris on display treat readers like voyeurs. Less experienced writers, encouraged to reveal their darkest moments, may not have the self-understanding that is as much a part of the story as the drug-addled sex in the seedy hotel room.

Author and writing teacher Susan Shapiro in her recent essay, “Make Me Worry You’re Not O.K.,” supports the idea of immediately sharing emotional traumas, of hooking readers early in order to make readers care. Another memoir teacher and literary agent—Brooke Warner—responded to Shapiro with her own essay, “Memoir Is Not the Trauma Olympics.” Warner counters that “real misery memoir works when you drip in the painful stuff little by little.”

Following these two essays, journalism teacher Katie Roiphe wrote “This Is How Your Write a Memoir” for Slate. Her common-sense advice ends with the observation that “expressing yourself is not enough.” Just because an event is true, doesn’t mean it can be written about without the care and attention to salient detail of any other literary endeavor. In other words, it’s hard work after all.

In their words: The recent essays by Susan Shapiro, Brooke Warner, and Katie Roiphe.

The Reading Challenge

Books I read 002

Here’s a resolution for 2013 that I haven’t broken yet: to read all the books in the pile on the left. The pile on the right comprises books read in 2012—not counting more than a dozen audio books and Mr. X, courtesy of the West Windsor Library. The number of notable books from last year near the top of the unread pile (holiday gifts) suggests I’m way behind. And some of the books near the bottom are carryovers from 2012. I hadn’t counted on needing to read 2000 pages of Dickens for my class last fall! If you’re wondering which were my favorites, they were Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies—those Tudors are irresistible—and two nonfiction volumes: Counterstrike and In the Garden of Beasts. (The latter, by Erik Larson, startlingly echoed the plot and characters in Herman Wouk’s 1971 novel, The Winds of War, which I happened to be listening to at the same time, all 46 hours of it. Although the novel begins shortly before the Nazi invasion of Poland—six years after the period covered in Larson’s book—they are probably hopelessly muddled in my mind. It would be interesting to learn whether the diplomatic family Larson portrays figured into Wouk’s planning, even if fictional daughter Madeline did not go as seriously off the rails as real-life Martha Dodd.) These favorites aside, audio books provided my most enjoyable “reading” experiences this year: The Lotus Eaters, State of Wonder, The Submission, and the truly thrilling Macbeth: A Novel. I’ve recommended that last one endlessly. Despite all the words that have passed through my brain via eyes and ears, picking up a new book is still exciting. It may hold a character to love or despise; it may offer a memorable phrase or insight or image, whose creativity I can strive to emulate. My stack of 29 books is paltry beside the average goal of 61 books that participants in the Goodreads 2013 Reading Challenge have resolved to read. I note that 32 challenge participants have already met their reading goal for the year, which must have been one book or, possibly, none. That may be an easy resolution for them to keep. Not for me.

It’s the Chills that Count!

Two weeks ago, this blog started a discussion of the differences between mysteries and thrillers. As reader David Ludlum pointed out, there can be elements of mystery in thrillers and vice-versa, since both contain suspense. Here are a few items from Carolyn Wheat’s handy list of the differences: mystery is a puzzle, suspense is a nightmare; in a mystery, the detective has skills, and in a thriller, the hero learns skills; mysteries have clues, while thrillers have surprises; and a mystery offers red herrings, whereas a thriller contains “cycles of betrayal.” John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy comes immediately to mind.

This week, I’m reading a mystery—Maze in Blue, by fellow U. of Michigan alumna Debra Goldstein—and the pages are littered with clues, potential clues, and red herrings. The fun is sorting them out, not to mention the familiarity of the Ann Arbor setting!

Coincidentally, the book mentions a real-life murder I was familiar with, one in a serial killer spree that began shortly after I graduated. A law student was murdered and her body draped over a tombstone in a local cemetery. Reading about the case several months after I moved away, I had a horrible flashback. On a warm spring evening in my senior year, I was pacing my second-floor apartment in a chopped up Victorian house, talking on the phone to a friend. I noticed a man standing across the street looking up into my tall second-floor windows, open to the fresh air. I didn’t pay much attention until he crossed the street, headed toward my house. The back of my neck tingled. “I think he’s coming over to look at my mailbox,” I said, slightly embarrassed to sound so paranoid. My friend and I talked a little longer, and the man recrossed the street, disappearing into the apartment building opposite. As soon as we hung up, my phone rang. “You don’t know me, but . . .” and he gave me his name. Yes, he had read my name on my mailbox, and he asked me out. “I don’t think this is a very good way to meet people,” I said and hung up, shaking, even though in those days such a casual meet-up was common. I called my friend back. “If I’m not in class tomorrow, here’s the name he gave”—the same name written in the calendar of the murdered law student on the day she disappeared. So Goldstein’s book has some resonance with me.

The most recent thriller I’ve read is Alan Furst’s latest, Mission to Paris, and while I don’t have the same kind of personal connection with pre-World War II Europe, Furst’s evocation of the era through his wonderful series of books immediately puts me there. In this one, Hollywood actor Fredric Stahl find himself enmeshed deeper and deeper in the snares of opposing spy machines and Carolyn Wheat’s “cycles of betrayal.”

Another superb read this year in the pre-war thriller mode is Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, with one big difference: it’s all true.

In their Words: Interviews with Carolyn Wheat, Alan Furst, and Erik Larson on the books mentioned here.