Rittererry Clitic, the Early Years

November 8, 2009

Over the years, a number of people have asked how I came to write book reviews for BookPage, some of them just out of passing curiosity, others no doubt entertaining the secret notion of embarking down a parallel path, and hoping for sage advice (or a road map). I have always told the 45-second condensed version of the story, but recently a couple of folks have asked me for greater depth of detail, so here goes (give or take a lie or two): 

One of my good friends is author Michael Sims (Darwin’s Orchestra, Adam’s Navel, Apollo’s Fire). I knew him before he was “author” Michael Sims, or at least before the rest of the literary world knew him by that appellation. We first met when my ex-wife Cyndi, who managed the temporary employment agency at Vanderbilt University, hired him on as a temp. This would have been perhaps 1990 or thereabouts. Cyndi thought Michael and I might enjoy one another’s company, and indeed it turned out that we amused one another immensely. We were both a bit on the uppity side for Nashville (truth be told, we probably still are…), and we took unnatural delight in being the high-minded outcasts, especially now that we each had an appreciative audience for our dubious cleverness. One afternoon, and I am a little hazy on this part, either Michael phoned me to ask for a ride, or we were going somewhere else and he asked me to take a detour, so he could go to BookPage and pick up some books. “What’s BookPage?” I asked. He replied that it was a magazine for which he did some book reviewing, mostly weighty tomes on science or natural history (yawn…). Anyway, I agreed to serve as chauffeur, so the two of us headed over to the BookPage home offices adjacent to the Vanderbilt campus. 

Unsurprisingly, the place was overrun with books. Fiction, nonfiction, review copies, hard cover books, cookbooks, personal fitness books, Lonely Planet guidebooks, reference books of every stripe, religious texts, you name it, it was there. In the entry hall stood a pair of floor-to-ceiling bookcases crammed to overflowing with the newest releases. “Oh, those,” Michael said offhandedly as he made his way upstairs to meet with his editor. “Those are just for the taking, the stuff that nobody else wanted.” A quick perusal of the shelves turned up gems by John McPhee, Amy Tan, John Updike and the like. “Nobody wants these?” I thought. “I want them…” Michael interrupted my reverie by coming back downstairs with a double armload of books and his editor in tow. Her name was Ann Shayne (I didn’t just intuit this; Michael introduced us). He went on to mention that I did some writing as well (thankfully, he didn’t mention that the writing I usually did was in the nature of instructing physician office staff members how to get paid for insurance claims). Ann jumped at the bait. “Really? Because we have a book we are dying to have reviewed, and nobody to do it. Do you want to give it a try?” I believe the book was by Mary Morris, although I can’t seem to find it in the BookPage archives (that should give you some idea how long I have been doing this!), so don’t quote me on that. I took on the assignment, agonizing over every tiny detail, finally turning in something that undoubtedly looked like a tenth-grade book report, earnest and eager, likely to a fault. I still cringe at the thought. Apparently it was okay, though. A) It got published, and B) I got paid for it; and the following month, Ann phoned me to ask if I would like to do another one. Why not, I thought. It didn’t pay a lot, to be sure, but it did gain me unlimited access to those wonderful entry hall bookcases! 

Stay tuned for part two, the middle years, coming soon to a blog near you…

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Second Bananas Redux

November 5, 2009

A short time back, when writing a blog column about second bananas, I mentioned Archie Goodwin, able bodied assistant to sedentary sleuth Nero Wolfe, the hero of a multitude of mid-century mysteries by author Rex Stout. Last year, Bantam put out a twofer reissue of Stout’s first Wolfe/Goodwin book, Fer-de-Lance, and the second, The League of Frightened Men. I have been reading it in my spare time, and admiring the pair of novels greatly for their cleverness, their patina of genteel aging, and the insightful introduction by contemporary mystery writer Loren D. Estleman. Estleman brought up a point he felt was central to the success of the series, and I found myself in strong agreement: “Series are seldom read in order. By the time the average reader discovers a continuing character the chronicle is usually well advanced, and except in the case of those dreary series whose titles are numbered prominently on the covers, he has no way of knowing at what point in the saga the book he has just acquired takes place. This can cause confusion, particularly if the next book he reads is an earlier entry in which the hero he knows as widowed appears with his wife, or having quit smoking and drinking is seen puffing and guzzling happily away with no explanation for his relapse. Rex Stout avoided this situation by the simple expedient of never changing his characters. The Nero Wolfe and Archie of A Family Affair, the 46th (and last) book in the epoch of West 35th Street, are essentially the same thought-and-action team we meet for the first time in Fer-de-Lance.” Remarkably, even in the first book, the reader gets the sense that Wolfe and Goodwin have quite the history, with the reader dropping in somewhere in the middle years, and that their relationship of curmudgeonly employer and smart-aleck factotum/narrator has been polished to a fine lustre over time.

The stories are told in the first person by Archie Goodwin, detective by trade but wiseacre by avocation, who takes an inordinate delight in poking fun at his portly and deskbound employer, occasionally to his face (albeit quite obliquely) but more often in the narrative (“He shook his head, moving it a full half-inch right and left, which was for him a frenzy of negation.”). A certain amount of sharp-edged badgering on Archie’s part is called for, to be sure; Wolfe abhors working, and requires constant reminders of the dwindling state of his finances in order to get him motivated to take a case. Left to his own devices, he would while away his time gourmandizing, tending his beloved orchids, and making cranky observations about the progress of technology (“I turn on the television rarely, only to confirm my opinion of it.”).

Many of the references to events or personages are quite dated, of course: the girls are compared in beauty to Greta Garbo rather than Scarlett Johansson; the high rollers drive not Rollers, but powerful Pierce Arrows; a pay phone costs a nickel (although that rises to a dime later in the series). That said, the prose is quite contemporary, and not at all stilted, an easy read for someone weaned on modern-day mysteries, particular those of the wisecracking first-person persuasion. If you think about it, it is a fairly short list of writers who manage to sound contemporary even when far removed from their time, particularly so in genre fiction which tends toward caricature much of the time. Rex Stout figures prominently among the small handful of mystery writers (along with fellow luminaries Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain) who comprise that elite group.