Detective Stories: An Introduction

Helen Hufford, “Photo Smarts”
Jonathan Richmond, “The Float”
Chris Panzarella, “Out at Home”
Jason Brown, “Max Parker”
Nicole Stout, “Where’s the Canary?”

An Introduction by David Dougherty:

A couple of weeks ago at my retirement job, the vicar of a nearby Episcopal Church expressed a popular response to my current project, wrapping up a class called “Detective Fiction and Film.” The good Doctor immediately exclaimed, “What an exciting class!” But later, when she asked me to share some of the details with her spouse, a lawyer, she had undergone something of a change of heart. She questioned the legitimacy of offering a class in Sherlock Holmes over one in Shakespeare. And her husband pretty much agreed. So did a Baltimore Sun newspaperman when he interviewed me many years ago on the occasion of the very first, undergraduate, edition of this class.

Legitimate question. And for the record, I do offer a Liberal Studies class in called Shakespeare and Film, but it has never achieved the enrollments of detective fiction. Not consistently, at least. This spring, detective fiction closed on the first day of registration, and I can’t recall ever delivering this class to a less-than-full enrollment. This time, because of an anomaly in the schedule, it ran with 150% of the maximum enrollment. Although market value is a less than ideal criterion for academic legitimacy, there is something beyond merely reading about Sherlock Holmes that appeals to an intelligent, critical audience of graduate students.

And of course, that’s what our semester was about. We read a great deal more – qualitatively as well as quantitatively – than the great British sleuth, and along the way we learned that the form itself comes out of and reflects values that evolved with the Scientific Revolution. Of course, in A Study in Scarlet, John Watson, a physician returned from war in Afghanistan (plus ca change, a point brilliantly made in Martin Farrell’s portrayal of Watson in the first of the Farrell-Nicholas Cumberbatch films of 2011-2012) makes the acquaintance of an idiosyncratic chemist named Holmes. As we read Sir A. Conan Doyle, or Dorothy Sayers, we’re invited to share an artistic illusion that the human mind is sufficient to solve all our problems, be they social or even moral. And when it’s done well that’s the most comforting illusion of them all.

Most of the students, however, found themselves more at home in the native tradition, based not on science but on existential uncertainty. The detective becomes not a superior observer (and, really, some of Holmes’s observations which morph into clues are downright silly; many of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown’s are), but a determined seeker for some kind of elusive mystery – not necessarily truth with a capital T. The supreme value ceases to be scientific objectivity, but rather perseverance, integrity, and the willingness to abide by a code that has no experimental certainty (wouldn’t be a code it if did, would it?). Along with a batch of critical apparatus the class studied the “big four” American detective writers (Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald and Robert B. Parker), and the filmmakers who tried, with varying results, to bring their creations to the screen without too much dumbing down, as well as two brilliant contemporary writers who bring the question of gender to the enterprise, Sue Grafton and Laura Lippman — perhaps America’s answer to the “Queens of Crime” — Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngiao Marsh and Margery Allingham.

One thing we learned was that popular culture probably tells us as much about ourselves as haute couture does. Only the rarest person has her life significantly changed by reading Virginia Woolf, and that person probably has some pretty serious problems if she sees her experience reflected in Woolf’s brilliant characters, rhetoric, and situations. But in the world of pop culture, we often experience what Herman Melville called “the shock of recognition.” For many of us, seeing our beloved broken Baltimore through Lippman’s eyes in Butchers Hill was a revelation of the many problems we all face, and of the humor, idiosyncrasy, and even decency that lurks behind the crime statistics and headlines. And although that point has the liability of being another quantitative argument – many more people read Robert B. Parker than James Joyce, who, in this country at least, is read mostly by students who have assignments to complete – there’s a current of truth behind it as well. We see our times and our conditions reflected in the fictions people actually consume.

The principal assignment for this class was the creation of an original detective story, using and building on the formulas as the great detective writers have done. The goal was to make students aware, though practice, how hard it is to write a really good detective story, whether of the cerebral or the existential sort. And how very much revision is needed to hide the clues almost successfully, to bring the resolution to a surprising and satisfying conclusion. Many of the students learned a lot from the assignment, but some – nearly a third of the class — produced stories that, with successive revisions, deserve to be read. Partly because they showcase the talents and determination of Liberal Studies students at Loyola. These folks revised and revised and revised after they got their A’s. But mostly, because they’re really good.

In the tradition of the great British sleuths of the turn of the twentieth century, Helen Hufford’s heroine isn’t a detective at all, but a gifted amateur like Sayers’ Lord Peter or Chesterton’s Fr. Brown. Herself a high school teacher, Hufford creates Ginny King as a working mom with two part-time jobs, one as a teacher of photojournalism in a girls’ high school and the other as a journalist for a community newspaper. In this Hufford may be influenced by Baltimore’s own Lippman, whose “Accidental detective” Tess Monaghan turned to sleuthing after the newspaper on which she worked went out of business. King has amassed a reputation as the school’s resident sleuth, using her powers of observation and digging beyond the obvious to help the assistant principal discover truants, vandals, cheaters and the like. In the case before us, King also has a vested interest in solving the crime.

The problem in “Photo Smarts” is small, a missing memory card. Then again, for adolescents, there are probably no small problems. As she works through this plot, Hufford connects this trivial matter with the larger, troubling, issue of controlling boyfriends, with a background narrative that is tragic rather than trivial. And one thing I especially like about “Photo Smarts” is the sub-plot that acknowledges that not all the things that go wrong in a girls’ school are the result of crime or evil intent. Some happen because of forgetfulness, overwork, or lack of attention to detail.

A much darker world provides the context for Jonathan Richmond’s “The Float,” a smarmy Baltimore of gentlemen’s clubs, divorce lawyers, and short-term payday loans. One minor character is so bereft of meaning that she welcomes an interview with a phony Sun Journalist, hoping for what Andy Warhol so famously dubbed her fifteen minutes of fame. Himself an economics teacher, Richmond connects the practice of “Floating” bad checks with the recent economic melt-down that so completely undermined America’s economy. His detective, Ben, wanders to Bethany Beach, Delaware, where the lucky ones hide behind gated communities from the consequences of their avarice, while those cashing checks at Lexington Market have to bear those consequences daily and exhibit baseball bats and sidearms to deter robbers, to learn more about his missing banker and the Mercedes with the vanity plate.

A tender scene happens in Bethany Beach, when Ben meets and actually communicates with another outsider, a man who really loves the boat for what it can do rather than for the envy or respect it can impose on one’s fellows. Unfortunately, Ben falls off the wagon for ex-smokers while he’s there, and again the next day. We can only hope that aspect of the mean streets (or the habits of traditional PIs in American fiction) doesn’t rub off on him permanently. Like much of the better crime fiction we studied during the semester, Richmond’s story deals with the ubiquity of material greed, and the devastating effects this has on our community and ultimately our souls.

Most private detectives in American literature are ex-policemen, often, like Chandler’s Marlowe, having been fired for insubordination. One, Lippman’s Tess Monaghan, is an ex-journalist. Robert B. Parker’s Spenser is both an ex-cop and an ex-prizefighter. But not many are ex-baseball players. Mathematician Chris Panzarella’s “Out at Home” successfully combines two literary/pop culture subsets, the detective story and sports fiction. With the murder of a detested owner of a fictional baseball team, Panzarella’s Mark Nelson, though he has suppressed (not quite successfully) his past as a ballplayer, gets access to information the police have to struggle for because the community of ballplayers and coaches still trusts him as one of their own. And, as is true in so many American detective stories, the police and the press have credibility problems with the athletes.

But as he digs into the team owner’s murder, Nelson probes into one of the staples of American sports fiction, the tension between patrician owners and proletarian players and coaches – a motif central to Bernard Malamud’s The Natural (1952) and the 1984 Barry Levinson film. Upon hearing about the murder, Nelson quips that the list of suspects might include all the Bayhawks’ fans because it is widely believed that the owner is more interested in his profit margin than in the team’s fortunes. In a clever scene in a public library Nelson uncovers the clue that cracks the case, and in doing so once again invokes a core motif of sports fiction, the tension between the organic or natural and the technological.

By far the darkest vision in the collection is Jason Brown’s “Max Parker.” I eventually discouraged Jason from revising further because the vision only darkened with each re-write. The story blends the pessimism of Chandler and his mentor Ernest “Winner take Nothing” Hemingway, as well as the ambiance of cinema noir, which found amenable narratives (and screenwriters) among America’s detective writers, with the even darker, post-modern nihilism of graphic novelists like Frank Miller. Perhaps it’s the final scene, but the cynicism of Sin City seems to pervade “Max Parker.” It’s also a take on the mean streets Chandler so eloquently defined, with whores, druggies, crooked doctors, and union bosses who preside over criminal trafficking.

Chandler famously said that “down these mean streets a man must go who is himself neither mean nor afraid” and concludes that the essential quality of the realistic detective novel – as opposed to the whodunit – is honor. But it seems a stretch, perhaps post-modernly so, to think of Max as a man of honor. He’s more a burned-out-case, a former DEA agent who went rogue after being betrayed by his nemesis, Big Charlie, and serving time. Parker’s status as a felon, who therefore cannot get a license as a private detective or a carry permit, presents challenges Brown cleverly meets. But Parker’s status is fluid, and that’s where the post-modernist angst comes in. He’s both the detective and the hunted; the person who finds the missing prescription pad and the man who wants and needs illegal drugs; the naïve idealist about the love of an ex-whore and the enraged avenger when he can’t escape the fact that her sexual favors were a means of playing him; and a vigilante who plays god when all the systems fail. Whereas Marlowe confesses, in The Big Sleep, that he’s (and we’re) “part of the nastiness now,” Parker emulates Huck Finn and “lights out for the territory” in a boat he bought with ill-got gains, a small slush fund (ditto) and a few days’ supply of painkiller. We have to wonder, at the story’s end, how far any of it is going to get him.

Finally, New Jersey native Nicole Stout combines the cerebral with the existential, positioning her point of view with the client, who has a complicated relationship with both her missing lover and the detective she consults to track him down. It’s a complex world of underworld connections — Adriana’s missing lover and the detective she consults to find him are both connected, and she freely confesses that she’s a “goomata” who has a token hostess job at a restaurant that serves the mob, a Cadillac, a high-end apartment, and a designer cat named Fido.

With all this emphasis on Mafia culture in New Jersey, including an amusing scene in which Adriana and her detective hide out in a closet while some of the leaders of the local Mafia eat and meet to discuss business, one might expect a story reminiscent of The Sopranos. But while “Canary” has some of the association of luxury and a life of crime associated with the cable tv show and its predecessor, The Godfather movie franchise, the story relates to the British sleuth tradition by virtue of its clever clues and complex mystery. Adriana, not her detective, recognizes the key clue in the office of a vet for designer cats, and the mystery’s solution creates, not the despair of a Chandler novel or stories by Jon Richmond and Jason Brown, but actually a love story reminiscent of a Holmes yarn like “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange,” or even “A Scandal in Bohemia” if we follow it as advertised, as the story of a truly exceptional woman. Though the denouement of “Where’s the Canary?” might shock the pious Victorians of Sherlock’s – or our own – time, it’s a modern version of an ancient narrative, the triumph of true love.

So here they are – five of the finest from a class that learned there’s a lot more than Sherlocking to this stuff – even if most of us learned to admire the Cumberbatch/Farrel modernization of the great British detective and perhaps to look forward to Lucy Liu as Watson in a forthcoming television series. They learned that in the hands of Chandler, Macdonald, or Lippman, the formula becomes a way to bridge the gap between popular narrative and serious literature. And they’ve achieved quite a lot by bridging it for themselves.

An extra special thanks to the five students who worked far beyond the semester’s end to bring their excellent stories to publication-readiness. And to Dr. Randy Donaldson, who sees the document the rest of the way to publication.