Somehow last week, though, I did make it to an evening event: A panel up at Columbia of authors/academics discussing crime fiction with great gusto. The participants were Charles Ardai, Leonard Cassuto, Jenny Davidson and George Stade, mediated by Jean Howard, chair of the English Department. The Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences was also on hand to make some opening remarks; his name escapes me but George Stade calls him Hank. Even though he is a mathematician, he is well versed in the crime genre, especially the French --le polar (policier + noir). I felt almost like I was back in school again--and I mean that in a good way. One of the first topics was the transgressive, liberating experience of reading crime fiction; a paradoxical way to see murder done safely, with of course perspective on how the genre has changed over time in terms of protagonists, structure, etc. There was also some discussion of why crime fiction should be considered serious literature, which is to me a moot question, and certainly was to everyone there.
Stade did a recap of his discussion of Mickey Spillane that I remembered from his course on popular fiction lo these many years ago. After giving many examples of the laughable hamfistedness of I, the Jury, he asked the question why this book was so popular in the late 1940s. The beginning of his answer to this question was, "The news is not good." Indeed Spillane was arguably the most popular American novelist of the 20th century. An audience member suggested the in the post-WWII era, Mike Hammer embodied a fascistic impulse that the masses unconsciously needed to discharge after having fought against fascism itself in the war. Hmm, transgression isn't always so great, is it?
I gathered many names of crime authors I must check out, especially the late Donald Westlake, who also wrote under the name Richard Stark, and one of whose books was recently published by the University of Chicago Press. Jenny Davidson and Charles Ardai are both authors I plan to read; Ardai is also the publisher of the Hard Case Crime books--a great, retro-looking bunch of reissues and new noir titles. Leonard Cassuto wrote a book called Hard-Boiled Sentimentality that I picked up. I also have added to my blog list Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, to try to keep up to date with crime fiction. Too many books, not enough time--that leads to my next topic: libraries! Coming soon.