Inspector Maigret: A French Sense of Justice

Providing food for thought for authors and readers alike is a recent New Yorker piece by Adam Gopnik that probes the enduring popularity of Belgian author Georges Simenon and his police inspector Jules Maigret (portrayed above by Michael Gambon).

Anyone who can write five hundred books—seventy-five about his most famous invention, Maigret—must have something to say to us. Simenon attributed his massive output to his stripping away of everything “literary” from his work—no adjectives! no adverbs! But, as Gopnik points out, his books are full of simple modifiers. What he does not do is comment on the narrative. You might have, as in Gopnik’s example, “The lethargic blonde cashier”—two adjectives right there—but not “The lethargic blonde cashier, of a kind you find in every bar of this sort, usually a former dancer . . .” She’s lethargic, she’s blonde. Leave it at that.

Unlike the modern police procedural (which I quite like, because I’m fascinated with the details of how people do things), Maigret relies more on manipulating the psychology of his suspects. Gopnik suggests they confess out of a sort of collaboration between them and the inspector, rather than because of the weight of forensic evidence. Possibly, in countries where people believed in the power of the confessional, where a priest could intercede with God, a police inspector could intercede with the State.

He says, “Maigret knows that people want to tell their stories, and, if prompted, will. Listening, not inquiring, is the detective’s gift.” Here’s where Maigret’s pipe-smoking becomes an investigatory tool. The long drawn-out process of finding a pipe in some pocket, then the tobacco, filling it, finding the matches in some other place, and getting the pipe properly lit, offers ample realms of silence that a suspect may feel compelled to fill.

Marked differences exist between Maigret’s world and that of detectives in typical American police procedurals. You may have noticed these peculiarities in your reading or capitalized on them in writing set outside the United States. Mostly, as Gopnik says, Maigret is “so French!” What makes him so? He’s a salaried government employee, a functionary, and proud to be one. He doesn’t see the system itself as a problem, just those who try to keep it from working. (No structural problems there. No Don Winslow’s The Force.)

American detectives tend to be independent spirits, chafing under official policy, threatened with demotion for insubordination, and the like. With Maigret, it’s the opposite. Maigret is frustrated not by his bosses, but by his underlings, with their inefficiency and dullness of brain.

Maigret also is not afflicted by a mania for justice, or at least he sees that justice comes in many guises, one of which may not be the need for conviction and incarceration. On this point, Gopnik’s argument reminded me of Inspector Montalbano, which, in several episodes, the Sicilian detective decides not to follow down a particular case where the situation is resolving itself. Stories set in the U.S. rarely go that way, perhaps only when there’s a particularly worldly-wise sheriff who’s seen it all. “Sanctimony and self-righteousness, favored American traits, are disfavored in Simenon’s world.” (This is leaving aside the implacable Inspector Javert, of course.)

Put it like this: it’s a world not dominated so much by black and white, but by gray.

Penguin has released newly translated paperback versions of the full Maigret series, with covers resembling that of his first Inspector Maigret novel, Pietr the Latvian.

The Brooklyn Book Festival: A Washout

Following the book promotion dictum to “say ‘yes!’ to everything,” I volunteered to help out for an hour at the Brooklyn Book Festival yesterday. What fun (it should have been)!  Alas, the windy weather put people and tents and books at risk, so as much as possible was moved indoors, and the Mystery Writers of America and other booths in the Marketplace were cancelled. I’m looking forward to next year now.

Sunday was day seven of the eight-day festival—a free event, being held on the street and in the parks and plazas surrounding the Brooklyn Korean Veterans Park (at the entrance to the pedestrian access to the Brooklyn Bridge), all the way down to Brooklyn’s Borough Hall. It advertises “more than 100 literary events over 9 days.” And that’s not even counting my planning to be there to sign copies of Architect of Courage, a major missed opportunity (yes, I’m kidding).

With the goal of celebrating published literature and connecting readers with authors and booksellers, the festival began in 2006 as a one-day event involving some 300 authors. Except for today, it also hosts a Marketplace with 250 book publishers and literary organizations, including Mystery Writers of America. My would-have-been co-hosts at the MWA booth were Tim O’Mara (Crooked Numbers, Sacrifice Fly) and Phillip Cioffari (novels, story collections, a movie, and plays). Sorry to have missed becoming acquainted with them.

Sunday was Festival Day, a highlight of the event. Included were US and international authors, including such well-known names as Jonathan Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn, The Feral Detective), Gary Shteyngart (Our Country Friends, Lake Success), Jennifer Egan, (The Candy House, A Visit from the Goon Squad), Geraldine Brooks (March, Horse), and many, many others.  

Getting into Brooklyn from where I live in Central New Jersey takes some time—an hour plus on New Jersey Transit, then connecting to the subway to Borough Hall in Brooklyn. Just enough enforced sitting to work up a good appetite. For excursions like this, my friend Joanne is often my companion and chaperone, and we’d worked out a good schedule and picked an enticing place for lunch. Next year!

Looking for Great Reading? It’s my quarterly newsletter. Sign up here and receive three prize-winning short stories!

Book Clubs are Authors’ Friends

So far, three library book clubs and one “unaffiliated” club in three states have decided to read my mystery/thriller, Architect of Courage, and give their members a chance to ask me questions about it. The first one of these occurred last week, when my “home” club—the mystery book club at Princeton Public Library—read the book.

This is one of those activities that Zoom has made much more doable! The group not only includes ten or so members from the Princeton area, but one of us has moved to Maine, one is here now but for some months was based in Richmond, Virginia, and I think one or two of us are Florida snowbirds.

Group leader Gayle Stratton and I agreed that, in the interest of candor, the group would have about 45 minutes to discuss the book before I joined the call for the second half of our meeting. That apparently was an unnecessary precaution, because it seems they were unanimous in reporting they enjoyed the book! Their questions covered plot, intent, research strategies, publishing, favorite characters—a whole array of issues.

In promoting the novel through interviews and book events, I’ve found I most enjoy the q&a. It’s always fun to see how different people interpret the same things. It’s a challenge authors frequently face. They have to walk the fine line between explaining too much and explaining too little. Although I work hard to make the text clear, questions still come up. In general, I’m a big believer in trusting the reader. When I’m reading, I hate the feeling I’m being spoon-fed. If an author tells the character’s dog died, she doesn’t need to tell me the character stayed in bed all day because she is sad. I know why she did that.

Just after Labor Day, I spent two days at the Library of Virginia genealogizing, and saw a big poster for its book group. The club was planning to discuss SA Cosby and Razorblade Tears on September 14. I’ve listened to the audiobooks of Razorblade Tears and its predecessor, Blacktop Wasteland, both of which delve into what Cosby has called “the holy trinity of Southern fiction—race, class, and sex.”

This was an opportunity not to be missed! Another Zoom success, I thought; I could call in from New Jersey. Disappointingly, he wasn’t on the call, so I missed my opportunity to ask whether part of his process is reading his books out loud. His dialog is so spot-on perfect, I figured he must do that. Then his publisher hires the genius narrator Adam Lazarre-White for the audio versions (highly recommended). I’ll just have to wait for another chance to ask Cosby my question.

If your book club reads fiction—be in touch!

The Demands of Craft: Why Details Matter

Handwriting, boredom

In an interview published a few years ago, but well worth this second look, author Alexander Parsons provided considerable useful advice (and support!) for other writers. Now an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Houston, Parsons is the author of the award-winning Leaving Disneyland and In the Shadows of the Sun.

New writers, he believes, are lucky they don’t know what they don’t know about writing. It looks deceptively easy. “The more you commit to it, the more time you spend learning the craft, the more overcoming your ignorance feels like an extended alpine stage of the Tour de France,” he said. Good writing—and isn’t that what we all aspire to?—isn’t a skill, or a practice that you just “pick up, like learning to throw a Frisbee.”

Parsons would probably endorse the idea that a good writer is always learning the craft. There’s so much to know, so many craft details, that you can’t take it in all at once. In my own case, I have gradually tried to teach myself to recognize my own writing tics—you know, the weak sentence structures and repetitive word patterns that appear in a first draft, as I’m setting the story down, but need to be scrubbed out later. (Examples: “There is,” “there are,” “things” instead of more concrete nouns; sentences with too many adjectives or too few.)

In the Shadows of the Sun included portions that take place in the Philippines and Japan, neither of which he’d visited at the time he wrote about them. Research—in books and photographs—let him visualize the setting, but he believes the lack of first-hand knowledge also freed him. “The landscape of fiction is always the landscape of imagination,” he says. “Fiction organizes and alters the factual to serve the larger truths embodied in the work.” I interpret this to mean not just the larger facts of plot and character development, but also reaching down to the sentence and word level. Possibly many readers gloss over the precise details, but I cannot help but think that at some level, they sense the difference between a red dress that the author describes as “cherry” versus “ruby” versus (god forbid) blood-red.

Parsons’s first novel, Leaving Disneyland, explored prison culture and its effects on inmates, current and former. Learning enough detail about that world to write about it forcefully, honestly, and authentically took him several years, he says. Despite the amount of effort involved, he believes mastering the details of a character, a place, an environment let you write “from a point of view that takes you out of your comfort zone.” Scary, but possible.

When writers take on that challenge, they not only connect with the story they’re trying to tell, but also with their readers. It’s easy to create characters that are thinly disguised versions of oneself, but they are ultimately thin, not very satisfying, gruel.

Travel Tips: The Poe Museum, Richmond, Virginia

Contributing stories to Quoth the Raven (contemporary works inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s writings) and Sherlock Holmes: Adventures in the Realms of Edgar Allan Poe rekindled my interest in the much-misunderstood poet, literary critic, and inventor of the detective fiction genre. A recent Virginia trip (history, Busch Gardens, genealogy) offered an occasion to visit the Poe Museum, a tiny jewel of a museum located in several small Richmond houses connected by gardens.

The house where you enter and buy tickets has a nice selection of Poe souvenirs and books. When you leave that, you cross a small lawn whose paths lead to a memorial (pictured). The granite benches along the paths came from a rooming house where Poe once lived, and the ivy lining the paths originated with cuttings from Poe’s mother’s grave—a fittingly macabre touch. Two black cats laze about, darkly.

Possibly you remember that Poe was the middle child of three born to actors David Poe and English-born Elizabeth Hopkins. Their father abandoned him when he was about a year old, and his mother died of consumption when he was three. He was taken in, but never adopted, by the family of John Allan, a successful Richmond merchant, who paid for his education in Scotland and London before the family returned to Virginia. At 15, Poe served in a youth honor guard during a visit to Richmond by the Marquis de Lafayette. Poe was admitted to the fledgling University of Virginia, but his gambling debts cost him place at the university, as well as his relationship with his foster-father. He lasted only a year there.

The main building of the Museum is the “Old Stone House,” built around 1740 and the oldest original residence in the city (several major fires destroyed much). It contains some furnishings—bed, desk, fireplace mantel—from Poe’s boyhood home, as well as his sister’s piano. The memorial building contains original copies of his writing and editing, including editions of the Southern Literary Messenger, which he edited for several years. A bound collection of that magazine was open to one of Poe’s own short stories—“Berenice”—which coincidentally was the inspiration for my two Poe-adjacent stories.

The museum displays some pages in Poe’s own hand (tiny writing) that are hard to read, as they can’t be subjected to bright light, pictures of some of the women he allied with, including his cousin and much-loved wife Virginia who, too, fell to the ravages of consumption. Thirteen years his junior, she died at age 24, after an eleven-year marriage. (Yes, married at 13.) Her death was a considerable blow to Poe, who believed nothing was more romantic than the death of a beautiful woman, and clearly was a partial inspiration for some of his melancholic poems and stories, including “Berenice.”

Upstairs in this house is a “reading room” with books by and about Poe and artists’ interpretations. Lots of ravens. In another building you can find items from closer to the time of Poe’s death (in Baltimore, age 40), including a portrait of Rufus Wilmot Griswold, Poe’s literary executor, who took advantage of the death of his rival to sully Poe’s reputation. Not for many years were Griswold’s scurrilous accusations of madness and depravity seen for what they were—the product of an intense jealousy. The recent Julian Symons biography, The Tell-Tale Heart (reviewed here) is a well-researched, highly readable summary of a complicated and sad life.

More Information:

The Poe Museum 1914 East Main Street, Richmond. Open Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10-5; Sundays, 11-5; free parking. Tours, educational programs, shop.

For Quoth the Raven (contemporary stories and poems inspired by EAP), click here.

For Sherlock Holmes: Adventures in the Realms of Edgar Allan Poe (Holmes and Watson on the case), click here.

You Can Help the Authors and Books You Love

You Can Help the Authors and Books You Love!

Raymond Chandler, Philip Marlowe, Humphrey Bogart
(art: wikimedia.org)

Friends and family members can be incredibly patient when they ask an author in their circle solicitous and innocent-sounding questions—like “How’s the book coming?”—and are met with blank looks, or, worse, groans and sighs.

Most authors today—OK, James Patterson’s an exception, and so’s JK Rowling—find that reaching “The End” is just the beginning of their work. Now they have to let the world know about it.  

If you have a sense of how much time and effort authors invest in their books, maybe you’ve wondered “What can I do? How can I help?” Yes, indeed, there are things you can do that will help! And, whatever you find time to do, you can be sure it will be greatly appreciated!

Ten ways you can help promote an author or book you admire:

  1. Buy the books! The author may have written it with readers like you in mind.
  2. Don’t be too quick to pass around a book; instead, encourage others to buy it. Amazon, or book stores, and the author’s publisher keep most of the price of the book. If a book sells for $16, the author receives $2 to $4.
  3. Remember, books make great gifts! Maybe a friend or family member needs a thank-you or has a special day coming up.
  4. Word of mouth is the most powerful form of book marketing. So, tell people about a book you’ve loved.
  5. What you say about the book in an Amazon or Barnes & Noble review will influence other would-be purchasers. No need for cringy flashbacks to high school book reports. Just say the two or three things you’d tell a good friend who asked, “Read any good books lately?”
  6. Share a few words about what you’re reading on social media—GoodReads, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc.
  7. If you enjoyed a book, your book club might too! Many authors are willing to participate in book club discussions in person or by Zoom, etc.
  8. You can “follow” your favorite authors on Amazon. Search for one of their books, click on the author’s name, and their author page will come up.
  9. If your author has a newsletter, sign up! Author newsletters often include interviews, reviews, and favorites.
  10. An author’s blog and website are another way to keep track of their new releases and to learn more about them.

Many thanks, and happy reading!

Rules for Writing Fiction – Part 2

draft

The Guardian’s intrepid pursuit of writers in their dens produced yet more fiction-writing “rules.” Such lists are excellent for those–surely rare–times when you really don’t want to write, but feel you should be Doing Something related to your work-in-progress. If nothing else, you can assess how many rules you’ve broken already.

Some of these are helpful, some insightful, and a few may bring a chuckle. Last week’s Part 1 is here. [My comments in brackets.]

  1. Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant (Hilary Mantel). Later she says “you can’t give your soul to literature if you’re thinking about income tax.” ! [I suppose by freeing herself of the tedium of arithmetic and spreadsheets, she has more time to engage in her preferred character-development strategy: having imaginary interviews with them. Would have loved to be a fly on the wall for her conversations with T. Cromwell.]
  2. Description must work for its place (in your story). It can’t be simply ornamental (Hilary Mantel).
  3. Find an author you admire and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters (Michael Moorcock). [So crazy, it just might work!]
  4. Think with your senses as well as your brain (Andrew Motion).
  5. Don’t try to anticipate an “ideal reader”—there may be one, but he/she is reading someone else (Joyce Carol Oates).
  6. To ensure that you proceed slowly, write by hand (Annie Proulx)[I do this sometimes when I’m stuck.]
  7. The writing life is essentially one of solitary confinement – if you can’t deal with this you needn’t apply (Will Self).
  8. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else (Zadie Smith).
  9. Stay in your mental pyjamas all day (Colm Tóibín).
  10. If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane (Colm Tóibín).
  11. In the planning stage of a book, don’t plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it (Rose Tremain) [A useful defense for us pantsers.]
  12. Respect your characters, even the minor ones. In art, as in life, everyone is the hero of their own particular story; it is worth thinking about what your minor characters’ stories are, even though they may intersect only slightly with your protagonist’s (Sarah Waters).

Now, get out there and break a few rules!

Advice from Raymond Chandler

Author Raymond Chandler, considered the godfather of hardboiled crime—don’t call it noir—stepped out of his fictional mean streets and into the real world on occasion and wrote some rather charming and forward-thinking essays of workplace advice: “Notes to an Employer” and “Advice to a Secretary.” Thank The Strand Magazine for reprinting these a few months back.

Chandler’s secretary at the time he wrote “Advice to a Secretary” was Juanita Messick, and it’s down-to-earth, simultaneously encouraging and, on some points, demanding. Chandler is expressing very clearly his own needs and starts by saying, “Never pretend to know something which you do not know, or only know imperfectly.” This dictum is routinely ignored in social media, but Chandler says it’s a prescription for misunderstanding.

It sounds as if he’s run up against sticklers of various types and considered it a bad experience. He didn’t welcome input about grammar, literary usages, and punctuation, believing there’s more latitude than purists might think, “Punctuation is an art and not a science.” It has to replicate, insofar as possible, the natural cadences of speech, which vary from what precise rules might suggest.

He tells Messick to never take anything for granted. Ask questions if something isn’t clear. “Demand an explanation.” Being my own secretary, I admit to interrogating myself frequently about sentences I wrote a month, or a week, or an hour before: “Yes, but what do you mean here? What are you trying to say?” Amazingly, words that seemed perfectly clear when I wrote them somehow manage to shed all significance. It’s the one advantage of a short attention span; every time I read something I’ve written, it’s new to me.

Chandler was uncomfortable with the employer-employee relationship and there’s no stronger egalitarian impulse today, seventy years later, than when he said, “If he (always a he in Chandler’s piece) is talking nonsense, tell him so; you can do him no greater service.” And he encourages the secretary to stick up for herself when she’s tired or late or must leave on the dot: “We are both just people.”Strand editor Andrew Gulli discovered “Advice to a Secretary” in a shoebox at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library.

Gulli was engaged by it in part because, he says, writers whose work embodies very dark themes often” are among the most friendly and benign people around.” In my experience, gatherings of mystery and crime writers bear out this impression. Certainly, “Advice to a Secretary” suggests a considerate and accommodating employer. Or, as Cynthia Conrad wrote in BookTrib, “For a moment we see the big-hearted softie under the tough-guy trench coat.”

A Valentine to Agatha Christie

The Guardian has a new monthly guide to the works of selected authors and their first pick recently was the creator of the intrepid Miss Marple and Belgian dandy Hercule Poirot, the original queen of cozy crime, Agatha Christie. Modern-day crime novelist Janice Hallett wrote the commentary, which amounted to a love-letter to the Dame of Detection.

Early on, Hallett reveals her pick for the “best” Christie: And Then There Were None. You may  I remember it by the title Ten Little Indians, which was used in the 70s paperback edition and as the title of two films. Says Wikipedia, it’s the world’s best-selling mystery, with more than 100 million copies sold. Christie said it was the most difficult book she ever wrote.

If you really want to go down a rabbit hole, the Wikipedia article includes a chart showing how each of the characters died and how the manner of their demise matches up with the nursery rhyme. You get a little peek into Christie’s head as she made those associations.

The isolated setting, the group of friends, a shocking death. That staple of crime fiction today was debuted in Christie’s lesser-known Sparkling Cyanide, and it’s the best story to refer to at a dinner party, says Hallett. (Remember to strike her from your invite list.) Echoes of both of these books are apparent in many modern tales—One by One by Ruth Ware and two books by Lucy Foley—The Hunting Party and The Guest List.

Hallett dubs 1934’s Murder on the Orient Express and its many cinematic and theatrical adaptations as Christie’s “classic.” The photo above shows the (movable) set created for a brilliant production of the theatrical version of the story at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre. Real-life events—the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapping and a stranded train in Turkey—were Christie’s inspirations.

The one Hallett calls “the shocker” is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, whose sudden, violent death is investigated by his neighbor, Hercule Poirot. It was voted best crime novel ever[!] by the British Crime Writers’ Association in 2013. The title, alas, always reminds me of a famous 1945 essay by American critic Edmund Wilson, no fan of detective fiction. His article, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”, expressed an opinion generations of mystery fans have gleefully ignored.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Successful Reading Experiments: 2021 Edition

I read a lot.  Forty to fifty just-published books a year that I review for the U.K. website CrimeFictionLover.com, Audiobooks of prize-nominees and winners. And books that have been out a while picked by my mystery readers book club. And a few books that have nothing to do with crime or espionage or the Dark Side.

Here are a half-dozen authors, debutantes and established, that I “discovered” last year. Maybe you would enjoy them too.

Two New Jersey writers who not only write with style and precision, they offer a nice dose of humor are Bill Baer, who has two books in his New Jersey Noir series, and experienced writer but new-to-novels Fabian Nicieza, with Suburban Dicks.

The unlikely team of characters in Chris Brookmyre’s The Cut—an elderly woman who spent her career devising grisly stage makeup for horror films and a young Black guy who’s the consummate horror fan—were a delight to chase around Europe with.

If you asked, I’d say I’m not a horror fan, but Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians presented horror in a way that made it work for me. One of the best books I read last year. (If you can, listen to the audio version, narrated by Shaun Taylor-Corbett. Genius.) Jones has a number of others, including My Heart is a Chainsaw, which NPR picked as a best book of 2021. Will have to get to that!

Liz Moore’s Long Bright River, nominated for a number of prizes, is the painful story of two sisters—one a cop, the other a drug addict—and the corners they’re forced into. She has more where that came from too.

About once a year, I scrub sentimentality out of my brain with the caustic prose of authors like Cormac McCarthy. The book that accomplished that job this year was Australian author Paul Howarth’s Dust Off the Bones. This year, maybe his Only Killers and Thieves.

Did you find a favorite new author last year?