WHEN A WELL TURNED PARAGRAPH IS AS GOOD AS A SMILE (Adventures in Language: Third Journey)

York Square must never have had a youth; it’s little formal tapestry of a private park, its grizzled guardian corners of little castles, each with its watchful tower, surely looked old and out of place and time even when the masons laid down their trowels. And what York Square was in stone, Robert York was in the flesh. Imagine him a child if you could, and still you saw only a dwindled Robert York as he stood, in black homburg and iron-gray, with a gray cravat above an antique waistcoat (and spats before May 15th), the unrimmed glasses making him eyeless in the morning sun on his drum-skin face. Compelling Robert York to live in one of York Square’s four castles was like compelling a man to be a biped; commanding that he uphold the York tradition was like commanding that the grass in the little park grow green. They were all alike–he, the park, the castles, York Square–punctilious, outmoded, predictable. Neatly Walt worked on the grassy borders of the plaque as, neatly and to the dot, Robert York took his morning stroll about the park. 

(The Player on the Other Side, Ellery Queen, 1963)

If I threw that paragraph up there out as an unsourced abstract and asked who might have written it, sensible assumptions might include Joseph Conrad or Graham Greene. I only mention it because, as late as 1963, it was possible to encounter–maybe even expect–that level of writing even in popular detective novels written by committee.

These days, a single paragraph of that quality would get you consigned to the slush pile and the word would be passed that the writer is to be avoided at all costs.

Believe me, I know.

To make the comparison of eras a little more interesting, you can spend some time contemplating what combination of Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee (the cousins who were responsible for most of the “Queen” output), plus Theodore Sturgeon (the sci-fi writer who was called in as a hired gun on this one to relieve them of their five-year case of writer’s block and/or feuding partnership) was responsible for this, or any other element of the novel. Just know, neither individuals or committees are allowed this sort of thing nowadays. Realism belongs to the post-modernists who write way longer. Pop writing reaches for a much lower common denominator.

And, time and again, finds it.

(FYI: I’m revisiting The Player on the Other Side because, of all the Agatha Christies and Ellery Queens and Rex Stouts and Legion of Others I read in my voracious youth, it left the strongest impression. I haven’t read it since, but so far it’s holding up nicely. Of course all the writing isn’t up to the descriptive passage above–it is a popular entertainment first and foremost–but neither are such passages uncommon.)

HISTORY AND MYSTERY (Monthly Book Report: 9/16 and 10/16)

I’m still trying to get back to full speed on my reading. Maybe next month! In the meantime, after a blank September, I did manage to finish a couple in October. First up is Mark Perry’s superb history Conceived In Liberty, a look at nineteenth-century America through the prism of dual biographies of the opposing commanders at Little Round Top. Next is Josephine Tey’s first mystery novel The Man in the Queue, a well-made whodunit that points the way towards a brilliant, unconventional career in crime fiction.

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Conceived In Liberty: Joshua Chamberlain, William Oates, and the American Civil War
(Mark Perry, 1997)

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Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (b. September, 1828) was a Bowdoin College professor of classics, fluent in ten languages and destined to become the school’s president. William Oates (b. November, 1835) was an Alabama roustabout who left a farm-boy life to adventure in the west before coming home and turning to the law and local politics. Both men were destined to become governors of their home states. Like hundreds of other volunteer officers in the Civil War, each fought and commanded honorably and well for their respective sides. Lacking West Point credentials, each man had limits placed on his military advancement and might have reasonably expected to be forgotten by history except for a twist of fate which found them faced off against each other in the most famous engagement of the most famous battle in American history.

On July 2, 1863, the men of Chamberlain’s 20th Maine, forming the extreme left of the Union line established the day before, fought the men of Oates’s 15th Alabama on a rock-strewn forest floor near the summit of a hill called Little Round Top.

The Maine men, under a “no retreat” order, were aware that the ground they stood on had to be defended at all costs. The Alabama men were equally aware that the ground had to be taken at all costs. Their respective positions prohibited any chance of reinforcements for either side.

The result was some of the fiercest close-order combat ever fought, with the two lines exchanging volley after volley of single shot musket fire at the distance of a couple of first downs and finally engaging in desperate hand-to-hand fighting. Oates tried a series of straightforward assaults mingled with repeated attempts to flank the hill. Chamberlain countered accordingly, with each side’s manpower and ammunition dwindling through the long afternoon.

When the smoke finally cleared, Chamberlain’s men held. In all likelihood, they saved the Union army at Gettysburg and, with it, the American Experiment.

The fight itself has been memorably depicted in numerous other historical accounts, in Michael Shaara’s brilliant novel, The Killer Angels, and in Ron Maxwell’s superb battle film, Gettysburg.

There’s a good description of it here, too. But Perry is after a larger narrative, one that weaves the lives of his two protagonists in and around the forward march of the nineteenth century America Chamberlain and Oates both so ably and memorably represented.

It’s a tall task and Perry is up to it.

He merges his biographies and battle accounts with not just useful histories of abolitionism and Reconstruction but the other burning issues of the century: women’s rights, temperance, the death penalty, the meaning of citizenship for freed slaves and much more. The writing is fluid and organic, enabling Perry to build a narrative that captures the romance of our bloodiest conflict–the one that had to be fought before any other issue could be fully confronted or the direction of our Experiment determined–without selling the tragedy and terror short.

Even more admirably, Perry takes a layered approach which never lets the reader forget that, then, as now, the world did not run in a straight line.

Chamberlain was much more the romantic, Oates the hard-headed realist, though neither was easily pigeon-holed.

Oates, a strict segregationist was nonetheless the first Confederate officer to argue forcefully and publicly for slaves to be given emancipation if they would agree to fight for the South, insisting, “If we don’t free them, the Union will.” Chamberlain, an ardent abolitionist and pre-war intimate of Harriet Beecher Stowe, nonetheless argued against full citizenship for freedmen after his war heroism elevated him to the governorship of Maine. Perry does a commendable job of placing both men in the full context of their times, stressing their contradictions without obscuring their very real (and, in Chamberlain’s case, history-altering) merits.

Highly recommended in any event, but especially urgent and poignant in this year when the cracks in our foundation are once more staring us in the face.

The Man In the Queue
(Josephine Tey, 1929)

themaninthequeue2“Josephine Tey” was the nom de plume Elizabeth MacKintosh adopted for her crime novels after she dropped “Gordon Daviot.”

Irrespective of name or genre, she was one of the twentieth century’s most interesting novelists.

After revisiting her devastating Miss Pym Disposes a few months back, I’ve decided to start re-reading her in order (there are only six more).

The Man in the Queue is, for her, atypical. It’s the only one of her novels that hues anywhere close to formula, having her Scotland Yard detective, Alan Grant, chase clues to the murder of an unidentified man, committed in theater queue.

Even here, Tey isn’t quite satisfied with the conventions. Among other devices, she narrates in gender neutral first person, from the perspective of an unnamed friend of Inspector Grant’s, who disappears for such long intervals that his/her occasional reassertion of “I” amounts to what, in theater or film, would be called breaking the fourth wall.

If it’s formula–nothing is done with the plot that Agatha Christie couldn’t have delivered at least as well– it’s satisfying formula. And more or less adhering to it leaves Tey room for side-trips into interesting places. The Scottish moors and London streets have been rendered many times, before and since (though never better), but who else has got so far inside the broken field running bound to dominate the mind of a Yard man who is no Sherlock Holmes but merely a dogged detective, prone to a flash of inspiration now and again, who knows his job?

Why had the man hidden his identity? Was it perhaps mere accident? Nothing but the tailor’s name had been obliterated from his clothes, and the maker’s name had been left on the tie–surely a most obvious place if one had been deliberately eliminating identification marks. But if it were a mere accident that eliminated the tailor’s name, how account for the scantiness of the man’s belongings? Small change, a handkerchief and a revolver. Not even a watch. It spoke loudly of intended suicide. Perhaps the man was broke. He didn’t look it, but that was no criterion. Grant had known many paupers who looked like millionaires, and beggars with large bank balances. Had the man, at the end of his resources, decided to end it rather than sink slowly into the gutter? Had the visit to the theatre with his last few shillings been merely a snapping of fingers in the face of the gods who had defeated him? Was it merely the final irony that the dagger had anticipated  his own revolver by an hour or two? But if he were broke, why had he not gone to the friend for money?–the friend who was so free with his bank-notes? Or had he? and the friend had refused it? Was it conscience, after all, that had prompted that anonymous twenty-five pounds? If he decided to accept the presence of the revolver and the absence of clues as evidence of attempted suicide, then the murder resolved itself into the outcome of a quarrel–probably between two members of a race gang. Perhaps the Levantine had shared in the dead man’s downfall and had held the dead man responsible. That was the most reasonable explanation. And it fitted all the circumstances. The man was interested in racing–probably a bookmaker–he was found without watch or money and evidently prepared for suicide; the Levantine was heard to demand something which the dead man either could not or would not give, and the Levantine had stabbed him. The friend who had refused him help in life–probably tired of pulling him out of tight places–had been seized with such a fit of remorse on learning of the man’s end that he had provided lavishly, if anonymously, for his burial. Pure theory but it fitted–almost!

There’s more, but it’s that “almost”–a standard device used here to punctuate a very non-standard stream of consciousness (which, in turn, is too diffuse to be the norm for the usual detective fiction, too linear–too much like a keen mind navigating a sea of confusion and too much a replication of the conscious mind at the expense of the subconscious–to impress the literati, who really do believe such things are simple)–that keeps us on our toes.

Combine that with a writer who could capture, in stark outline, an entire milieu of cultural, familial and psychological assumptions with a swift aside…

“I’m so glad you didn’t wait Agnes,” Mr. Logan said, in a tone which clearly said, I think you might have waited. 

…and it becomes obvious, even as early as a first novel written in 1929, that the web of convention she so ably replicated here, could never have held her.