Saturday, September 29, 2012

“It rains on the just and the unjust, alike”



Though personally not religious, there are passages in the Bible that are worth quoting, worth reflecting upon, and sometimes they provide insight, other times they don’t. Whether you recognize the title of this post from Matthew 5:45, or from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen, it doesn't really matter. What that line indicates is that when it comes to morality, the consequences of our actions may or may not have repercussions.

This brings me to discuss the topic of Morality as a theme in crime, mystery and thriller fiction, as an entrĂ©e to packing this weekend for my annual trip to Bouchercon [The World Crime and Mystery Convention], which this year is being celebrated in Cleveland Ohio next week. In 2013 it’s being held in Albany NY, then in 2014 in Long Beach CA, and in 2015 it’s in Raleigh NC [where I am heading the Programming for Stacey Cochran]. Bouchercon is the biggest gathering of Crime, Mystery and Thriller readers, writers, reviewers, publishers, editors, bloggers, and enthusiasts in the world. As much as I enjoy my visits to Thrillerfest, Theakston’s Harrogate Crime, Bristol’s Crimefest, and Left Coast Crime [and there are many others], like the new Bloody Scotland – Bouchercon has a special place in my heart. Over the years, I have made many friends at these events, due to my eccentric nature and fascination with the genre.

I recall vividly when I sat at the opening ceremonies at Bouchercon San Francisco in 2010, the moment when the Chair of the convention welcomed us to her home city Rae Helmsworth, and Toastmaster Eddie Muller asked for the lights to be dimmed as he played this montage movie by Serena Bramble


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Anyway, as Serena’s movie played in the darkened room, I sat mesmerized with at least a thousand fellow enthusiasts of the crime, mystery, thriller genre from all over the world. When the sinister vocals of Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man, came on accompanying the clip from David Fincher’s Zodiac, I looked back at the audience and realized everyone appeared hypnotized. Looking back at all the movies featured by Serena, there was one common theme to them all - they all examined ‘morality’ as a theme that drove the narrative. Then again, ‘morality’ is always the theme when it comes to plotting crime-fiction, as we see the battle fought between the righteous against the evil. In some cases it can be simplistic with the good guys wearing white, and being totally righteous while the bad guys show no redeeming features at all. Though in today’s genre, like that of reality, both good and bad can merge to produce various shades and hues, many grey, some darker than others, and sometimes the good guys are only marginally better than the bad guys, or in a work such as Hannibal by Thomas Harris, it becomes hard to distinguish the good guys from the bad. I have written about Harris’ work many times, as the theme of morality is key to all Harris’s work. I consider that it was Harris’ own Southern Baptist upbringing that made him use morality as the backdrop upon which Dr Lecter views the world, as he indicated to Detective Will Graham in his novel Red Dragon

"Tell me, Will. Did you enjoy it? Your first murder? Of course you did. And why shouldn't it feel good? It does to God. Why only last week in Texas, he dropped a whole church roof on the heads of 34 of his worshippers, just as they were groveling for him. He wouldn't begrudge you one Journalist."

Getting back to Bouchercon, with up to 2,000 people attending the convention, there are so many panels, events, parties, meetings to attend, as well as clocking in some bar time; that one can get very perplexed with the choices on offer. Panels run multi-tracks, so planning ahead is essential, though due to Bourcheron’s huge appeal, they are all very well attended. I have Moderated and Participated on many Bouchercon Panels, since my first Bouchercon in Las Vegas in 2003. I’ve moderated some amusing ones, such as ‘Alcohol and Crime Fiction’ in Baltimore in 2008 [pictured at top] when I passed around some Gordon’s Gin during the debate. The same year, I also moderated a panel on Book Reviewing where I was hyped by early reads of Stieg Larsson [pictured below with Rae Helmsworth]. In San Francisco I moderated a Book Reviewing Panel, and one on Translated Crime Fiction. I took at break in Indianapolis in 2009 where I attended, but didn't present, though I caught up last year in St Louis where I moderated two panels, one on PI Fiction and one on Translated Crime Fiction, due to my early championing of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Next week, at Bouchercon Cleveland, I’m moderating only one panel but it is the topic that this feature relates to – Morality in the genre’s heroes. The panel is on Friday afternoon, and one of five events running at the 1445 – 1535 time slot. All are excellent panels, as well as a feature discussion between two internationally acclaimed writers.

In a surreal twist of fate, it was indeed John Connolly who helped me formulate some of my ideas about the role morality plays in crime-fiction -

You often cite the differences between so-called Golden Age British crime fiction and the American crime fiction of that same period. Would you care to explain?

Are you trying to cause to trouble? [Laughs]

No. But what I'm alluding to here is that the British crime fiction of the early 20th century was very class-conscious, focusing on the mechanics of upper-class society, whereas U.S. crime fiction focused more on the blue-collar world. What are your thoughts on this difference?

Well, in most panel debates and discussion groups, when this theme is explored, people very rarely argue, as there seems to be this happy consensus about things. I think people are often frightened to offend someone, as if you can't say anything bad about people who write mysteries set in the vicarage, or cat mysteries. I am quite happy to say bad things about some of them, as some are simply awful, just as some hard-boiled mysteries are. ...

In terms of my own reading, I've read [Agatha] Christie as well as [Dorothy L.] Sayers, and they are the kind of things that you pick up in a library when you're younger. They are books about class, but more importantly, they are very conservative. These novels are predicated upon belief in "the system" and "the society" that they are set in. So crime is seen as an aberration to the system, and all it takes is someone with a bow tie, bowler hat and perhaps a fancy mustache to come in and sort it out. The hero cuts out the crime like a surgeon operating on a cancerous nodule that needs removing, restoring order to the perfect world. There are, naturally, exceptions to this, but I'm not sure that even those works were prepared to look into the fact that evil is endemic to society, part of the natural order of things.

That is not the only thing I dislike about the Golden Age "cozy." Christie may have some very good qualities, but carefully crafting characters is not one of them, apart from Miss Marple and perhaps [Hercule] Poirot and the odd guy who turns up in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which was quite interesting. That wasn't her real concern, as she was in fact writing puzzles, and she was writing books that had the ethos that "bad things happen to bad people." People who die in Christie's and Sayers' novels have been asking for it. The classic example is in Sayers' The Nine Tailors, where the guy who dies in that book dies because of divine retribution, and his death is connected to a vision of a God who only punishes bad people. Therefore, there is no need to become emotionally engaged with the people who die in those novels. ... You shouldn't give a damn about them, but perhaps focus on the puzzle that lies in the center of the book.

In the American crime novels of the same period, the situation is completely different. There is an understanding that people suffer due to no fault of their own, particularly with Ross Macdonald, who was a big influence on my own writing. There is not the same "perfect world" setting, particularly with the books that came out of California in the 1920s and 30s. [California back then] was a dreadfully corrupt place. It was a place of immense wealth, and with that came power, and that brought the law, and with that, justice was predicated upon how much money you had. In that environment, you needed someone from the outside to establish order, because the police were not going to do it -- especially if you were poor, or an immigrant. ... I think that [situation] appealed to me, because it brings a great deal of other things into the frame. There is a sense of indignation at the state of the world, and also of compassion; there is recognition that for evil to triumph, as the political philosopher Edmund Burke said, [all that is necessary is] for good men to stand by and do nothing. There was an understanding in that fiction, that you just had to act. In someone like [Dashiell] Hammett -- he went through an almost 180-degree turn in his political and social viewpoint. Hammett was a strike-breaker for the Pinkertons, but towards the end of his life he got jailed for refusing to name names [during America's "communist scare" of the 1950s]. Hammett took it upon himself to act, as he felt that "the order" as it stood was not satisfactory.

Read More from my 2003 interview with John Connolly from January Magazine

If you are interested to see the panel we've assembled, here’s the details –

MORALLY CHALLENGED HEROES
Date: Friday, October 5, 2012
Time: 2:45 p.m. - 3:35 p.m.
Location: Whitehall Room

The panelists are –

Elizabeth Hand In the 1970s, Elizabeth Hand flunked out of college and became involved in the nascent punk scenes in DC and NYC. From 1979 to 1986 she worked at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air & Space Museum, and eventually received a BS in cultural anthropology. She is the author of eleven novels and four collections of short fiction. Her work has received numerous honors, including the Shirley Jackson Award, World Fantasy Award, and Nebula Award, and her novels have been New York Times and Washington Post Notable Books.  A regular contributor to the Washington Post, LA Times, Salon, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, among others, Hand divides her time between the Maine coast and North London.

Her novel Available Dark [2012] is a foray into crime fiction and a sequel to her highly regarded 2007 Novel Generation Loss, which received the inaugural Shirley Jackson Award for best work of psychological suspense.   Both books feature her antihero Cassandra [Cass] Neary who she describes “as your prototypical amoral speedfreak crankhead kleptomaniac murderous rage-filled alcoholic bisexual heavily tattooed American female photographer.” Perfect for our panel on amoral heroes!

Lou Berney is an accomplished writer, teacher, and liar. He is the author of WHIPLASH RIVER (William Morrow, 2012) and GUTSHOT STRAIGHT (William Morrow, 2010). GUTSHOT STRAIGHT was nominated for a Barry Award and named by Booklist as one of the best debut crime novels of the year. Often compared to Elmore Leonard with a dash of Carl Hiaason, his short fiction has appeared in publications such as The New Yorker, Ploughshares, and the Pushcart Prize anthology, and he has written feature screenplays and created TV pilots for, among others, Warner Brothers, Paramount, Focus Features, ABC, and Fox. Currently he teaches writing at the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma City University. Berney’s antihero Charles "Shake" Bouchon, is a professional wheel man [aka getaway driver] and is described as “too nice a guy for the life he's led, but not nice enough for any other”

Chris F Holm - was born in Syracuse, New York, the grandson of a cop with a penchant for crime fiction.  It was punk rock and Star Wars, two influences that hold more sway over Holm, than perhaps his wife would like.  But it was books [like many of us] that defined his childhood, from his grandfather’s Wambaugh and Lawrence Sanders paperbacks, to the timeworn pulps picked up secondhand from the library. Apparently, he wrote his first story at the age of six.  It got him sent to the principal’s office and he’d like to think that right then is when he decided to become a writer.

Since then, he’s fared a little better. His stories have appeared in a slew of publications, including Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Beat to a Pulp, and Thuglit.  His novella “The Hitter” was selected to appear in THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2011, edited by Harlan Coben and Otto Penzler. He’s been an Anthony Award nominee, a Derringer Award finalist, and a Spinetingler Award winner.  His Collector novels, DEAD HARVEST [Feb 2012] and THE WRONG GOODBYE [Sept 2012], recast the battle between heaven and hell as Golden Era crime pulp. They feature Sam Thornton a collector of souls from the damned and sends them into eternal misery. So it should have been straightforward to collect the soul of 17-year-old mass murderer Kate MacNeil, but something isn’t right; her soul is too pure. The collection of an innocent soul can throw off the balance of good and evil and spark a chain of events that leads to the end of the world, biblical style – hence the moral / amoral dimension.
Wallace Stroby – I first met Wallace on a late night drinking binge at Bouchercon Las Vegas in 2003, in a bar called ‘The Peppermill’, which was featured in John Ridley’s amoral novel ‘Everyone Smokes in Hell’, and we’ve been bumping into each other at Bouchercons ever since. Stroby is an award-winning journalist and the author of the novels
"Kings of Midnight," "Cold Shot to the Heart," "Gone 'Til November," "The Heartbreak Lounge" and "The Barbed-Wire Kiss.".

A Long Branch, N.J., native, he's a lifelong resident of the Jersey Shore. "The Barbed-Wire Kiss," which The Washington Post called "a scorching first novel ...full of attention to character and memory and, even more, to the neighborhoods of New Jersey," was a finalist for the 2004 Barry Award for Best First Novel.

A graduate of Rutgers University, Stroby was an editor at the Star-Ledger of Newark, Tony Soprano's hometown newspaper, for 13 years. In Stroby’s latest KINGS OF MIDNIGHT, Crissa Stone, the cool-headed professional thief from Stroby's acclaimed COLD SHOT TO THE HEART returns and when reviewed at Kirkus she is described - "Crissa Stone may be crime fiction's best bad girl ever."

Seth HarwoodBoston born but now residing in California, Seth is the author of the Jack Palms novels. In 2005, Seth Harwood began writing his debut novel, Jack Wakes Up. No stranger to the literary scene, Harwood had graduated from the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop just a few years earlier and his short stories had been published in numerous literary magazines and anthologies; getting attention from publishers for Jack Wakes Up, however, proved more difficult. So in July of 2006, Seth recorded a podcast of Jack Wakes Up and posted it on his website, SethHarwood.com, for free download. The podcast was a major hit and the Jack Palms Crime Podcast Series was born. Soon JACK WAKES UP was published by Three Rivers Press Paperback Original [Random House]. Since then he has written This is The Life [Jack Palms #2], Czechmate [Jack Palms #3], Triad Death Match [A Jack Palms Novella], A Long Way from Disney [a short story collection], In Broad Daylight [a Jess Harding FBI thriller]. The Jack Palms’ novels feature the eponymous anti-hero, former Hollywood one-hit wonder and ex-drug addict now has cleaned up his act, and is sorting his life out, but aspects of his amoral past still lay in his mind, and Palms is described by some as “half-likeable and half-asshole”. Though it is his 2010 novel Young Junius, that is perhaps his most intriguing, taking the 14 year old Junius Posey, who sets to track down his brother’s killer in a rundown area of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Junius ends up a killer, crossing the line but it’s the amorality he’s learned that allows him to sort out the dangers around him.

Seth teachs English and writing at CCSF [City College San Francisco] and Stanford University, and previously at UMass Boston and the University of Iowa.

Ali Karim [Moderator] – I’m the Assistant Editor at Shots eZine, a contributing editor at January Magazine & The Rap Sheet and I write for Crimespree magazine, Deadly Pleasures, Strand Magazine, and Mystery Readers International and am an associate member of  The Crime Writers Association [CWA], International Thriller Writers [ITW] and the Private Eye Writers of America [PWA]. I contributed to ‘Dissecting Hannibal Lecter’ ed. Benjamin Szumskyj [McFarland Press] a critical examination of the works of Thomas Harris; The Greenwood Encyclopedia of British Crime Fiction [ed. Barry Forshaw] and the Edgar and Anthony Award nominated ITW 100 Thriller Novels ed David Morrell and Hank Hagner [Oceanview Publishing]. At the Anthony Awards held at Bouchercon St Louis, I was presented with the 2011 David Thompson Memorial Award for Special Services to the Crime and Thriller Genre, and am the programming chair for Bouchercon 2015 in Raleigh, North Carolina headed by Stacey Cochran.

We have some interesting topics on the theme of ‘morality in our heroes’ to discuss and I am sure references will be made of Clarice Starling, and the Dr Moriarty style villain / anti-hero Dr Hannibal Lecter, Carol O'Connell's Kathleen Mallory, Larsson’s  Lisabeth Salander, Fleming’s James Bond, Richard Stark’s Parker, Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, David Morrell’s John Rambo as well as Batman, Watchmen, Clint Eastwood’s Spaghetti Westerns, Dirty Harry, Bullitt, The Magnificent Seven, Tarantino movies, The Dirty Dozen, et al

When considering writing about amoral heroes, what happens when a writer / creator feels perhaps their anti-hero has crossed the line between the fantasy world and become a tool for the mentally unstable in the real world? Does the writer creator have a duty to society to keep the amorality behind a line? [Examples being Stephen King withdrawing RAGE, an early book published under his name Richard Bachman which allegedly was linked to some school kidnappings / shootings, Stanley Kubrick withdrawing A CLOCKWORK ORANGE in the UK as it allegedly inspired anti-social gang violence as some youths copied Alex and the Droogs, now available again on DVD following Kubrick’s death, and more recently the BATMAN massacre in Denver], so what responsibility does the writer / creator have when walking the morality line?

Is there a response to amorality by subversion? When Austrian Michael Haneke
wrote and directed ‘FUNNY GAMES’ in 1997 [which was remade for US audiences a decade later], it was deeply shocking. Many found it hard to watch. Haneke in an interview said that his film was in direct response to the laughter he heard from a teenage cinema audience when they viewed some of the random and amoral violence and death in Pulp Fiction. 

The teenage laughter chilled him, so in response, he made FUNNY GAMES, where the two psychopaths that terrorise and torture [and murder] the couple and their young son, are portrayed as charming, well dressed and their madness / amorality masked by their charm and joyful natures. We see that amorality is not funny, and the camera lingers over the violence and no one laughs. Other examples of subversion of morality are Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, where the cops are corrupt while the mob appear to be the good guys in the neighborhood, or in ‘Mute Witness’ by Robert L. Fish which became Bullitt, or the Dirty Harry Movies where amoral [fascistic] cops are better [or less worse] than the politicians that should be our protectors, even James Bond and Batman are psychopaths, hence why their enemies border on the surreal in terms of evil.


So we hope to see some of you at Bouchercon Cleveland, and if you come to the Morality panel on Friday afternoon, make sure you bring a raincoat as it rains on the righteous as well as disingenuous, in equal measure.

And finally as I titled this article from a line that Alan Moore used from Matthew 5:45 for Watchmen, let’s leave the last laugh to Rorschach, telling an anecdote overlaid upon the murder of The Comedienne -

Heard joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he's depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says "Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up." Man bursts into tears. Says "But, doctor...I am Pagliacci."


Good joke. Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains. Fade to black




4 comments:

  1. Or as someone, maybe Ogden Nash, said, "The rain falls upon the just and on the unjust fella, but mostly on the just because the unjust steals the just's umbrella."

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  2. Interesting post. I had not thought of how Christie and Sayers had victims who "were asking for it" until you pointed it out, but thinking back on some of the stories, I see what you mean. This whole question of how authors approach morality and ethics in their stories and characters is fascinating. I wish I was able to come to Bouchercon to hear the panel. Thanks so much for posting the article to give us a taste of what will be discussed.

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  4. “The rain, it falls upon the just,
    and also on the unjust fella—
    But mostly on the just because
    the unjust steals the just’s umbrella.”

    -ogden nash

    ReplyDelete