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Agatha Christie is the master of the mystery novel. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd she delivers another brilliantly clever plot told in subtle, succinct prose that leads you down every garden path on the way to the surprising resolution. I read this one because it made #1 on the Guardian list of the best Christie novels. It lived up to the billing.
The Little Sister is all atmosphere and attitude. Chandler’s protagonist, Phillip Marlowe, more observes the action than drives it forward. He is pessimistic and tired, even as he cracks wise at any opportunity. Women throw themselves at him, but he can’t seem to marshal the energy to do more than kiss them once or twice and keep up the banter. He’s a step behind every murder, and the loosely knit plot keeps the reader feeling even further behind. (I repeatedly found myself looking back in the book to see what I’d missed, only to realize that I didn’t miss anything; the details weren’t there to notice.)
At the same time, having just read The Maltese Falcon, it was hard for me not to notice that many of the plot devices were similar. If, as some commentators suggest, Little Sister is partly a response to Chandler’s experience in the movie business, I think it’s also paying homage to Hammett’s classic.
Dashiell Hammett tells this classic story in terse, punchy sentences that take the reader around San Francisco and through a twisty plot with Sam Spade, private eye. Spade is worldly, jaded, at times childish, and always chauvinistic. Despite his shortcomings, his ability to assess people and their motivations is remarkable, his insights and intuitions not perfect, but close enough to do the job. In the end we see that, for Hammett, Spade’s flaws are reflections of the world in which he lives.
It took me a long time to read Have His Carcase. Sayers’ detailed style is, perhaps, a little slow for the contemporary ear. On the other hand, it speaks to the real pace of most police work. They laboriously check every lead, slowly eliminating possibilities till they narrow it down to the real killer. It’s not exciting, but it is satisfying because it works.
In Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris uses straightforward clear prose to tell the story of an aspiring FBI agent, Clarice Starling, assigned to help track down a serial killer by interviewing the brilliant sociopath, Hannibal Lecter. When the serial killer kidnaps the daughter of a US Senator, the chase is on to rescue the daughter before she dies a gruesome and lonely death.
The novel is part procedural, but the best moments are personal. The dynamic between Starling and Lecter is brilliantly rendered. I found myself waiting for more.
I never saw the Academy Award-winning movie adaption. The book is good enough on it’s own.
Jay Fitger is a middle-aged professor of English and creative writing at Payne (pun intended) University, by his own admission a “second-tier,” liberal arts college. Though fully-tenured, he is sagging under the pressures of a writing career in neutral, a personal life in reverse, and the general neglect of the liberal arts in academia.
Nevertheless, numerous students and colleagues request letters of recommendation from him for things ranging from administrative positions at the college to jobs in paintball emporiums to $400 scholarships. Fitger completes these letters and does mention the recommendee, but feels free to add whatever else he wants. Personal issues, critique of the institution to which he writes, and praise of the traditional letter as opposed to the electronic form are common themes.
A representative sample:
Dear Committee Members,
This letter recommends Ms. Stella Castle to your graduate institution in the field of public policy. And to begin the recommendation on the proper footing: no, I will not fill out the inane computerized form that is intended to precede or supplant this letter; ranking a student according to his or her placement among the “top 10 percent,” “top 2 percent,” or “top 0.000001percent” is pointless and absurd. No faculty member will rank any student, no matter how severely lacking in ability or reason, below “top 10 percent.” This would be tantamount to describing the candidate in question as a witless beast. A human being and his or her caliber, intellect, character, and promise are not reducible to a check mark in a box. Faced with a reductionist formula such as yours, I despair for the future, consoling myself with the thought that I and others of my generation, with its archaic modes of discourse, won’t live to see the barren cyberworld the authors of your recommendation form are determined to create.
Even if you sympathize with Fitger’s sentiments, it’s hard to see how such a letter can help Ms. Castle regardless of what praise he heaps on her after this first paragraph.
In my own life as an academic, I have known my share of Fitgers. They are pompous, self-centered, and not very nice. The (mostly unacknowledged) privilege they enjoy is matched only by the degree to which they feel persecuted and powerless. It is a potent brew. In Dear Committee Members, Julie Shumacher has captured them in all their delicious irony. I see it as a cautionary tale: there but through compassion, love, and hopefully humility go I.
The Maxie family is English, landed, and cash-poor. The son works as a doctor in London. The daughter is divorced and living at home with her mother. Together with a long-faithful servant, they can barely keep up the house and nurse the invalid father, near death. When they hire an unwed mother with an infant son and some attitude above her station, it’s not hard to see who will die. Who did it is another story.
With more red herrings than a fish market and P. D. James’ cheeky, understated prose, it’s a pleasure to read. If, in the end, she implies that the victim is to blame, I put that down to a previous generation’s sensibility (the novel was published in 1962) and the class differences that so often pervade English literature. If you like British mystery shows like Father Brown or Midsomer Murders, you’ll enjoy the book.