Why I chose…The Big Knockover

I am not generally a fan of Facebook “challenges.” Nonetheless, when my friend Rebecca nominated me for the seven-day book challenge, I accepted.

The rules were simple: on each of seven consecutive days, post a book cover, with no explanations, while also nominating another person for the challenge.

On May 16, 2018, I completed the challenge (other than only nominating one person, my wife Nell).

Just bear with me as I explain my seven choices.

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I quickly decided not to choose my seven “favorite” books, however defined. There are books, like Stephen King’s The Stand, with which I was once obsessed (my 9th grade Latin teacher and I spent hours casting a hypothetical film version), that clearly had an enormous impact on my life, but excite me far less now. This also eliminated key influences from my childhood like the Encyclopedia Brown books, The Tower Treasure, The Absurdly Silly Encylopedia and Fly Swatter and, the books I reread most often, Charlotte’s Web and The Ghosts.

I also wanted to avoid picking only works of detective/crime fiction, or only books on film noir, or only true crime books, or only books on politics, or seven editions of The Baseball Encyclopedia, or …well, you get the idea.

Finally, I deliberately excluded books by friends/mentors, including David Mayhew, Edward Tufte and Eddie Muller.

In the end, therefore, I chose seven books that were both meaningful and influential in their own right, but that also represented a distinct area of interest. And even then there were entire fields (baseball, epidemiology/statistics, random gems like Ten Restaurants That Changed America).

Other than getting the easiest selections out of the way, I posted these books in no particular order.

And that is the order in which I will explain my choices (with up to five “honorable mentions”) in a series of posts, starting with…

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When I was an undergraduate at Yale, there were 12 residential colleges; I was in Ezra Stiles College (class of 1988). These were intended to be smaller communities—each with its own residential building(s) with interior courtyard, dining hall, library, seminar rooms, Master and Dean, etc.—within the larger community of undergraduates.

At the time (and probably still) there were course offerings called “college seminars.” These seminars, in which we met once weekly for two hours to discuss assigned readings, were housed within a residential college and offered instructors (many, like former Central Intelligence Agency [CIA] Director Stansfield Turner, from outside the Yale faculty) the opportunity to teach something outside the regular curriculum.

I thus had the opportunity junior year to take CSBR311b (College Seminar, Branford College, #311, spring semester): “Power and Pleasure in Modern Crime Fiction,” taught by the contagiously-enthusiastic Richard S. Lowry, now on the faculty of the College of William and Mary.

This was one of those courses that grabbed me by the collar, shook me and forcibly expanded my literary horizons. Up to that point, I had been comfortably settled in the “golden age” of detective fiction (John Dickson Carr, Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie, Charlie Chan, Sherlock Holmes, etc.); I was particularly devoted to Carr, to the point that I struck up a correspondence with his biographer, Douglas Greene. I even based my could-have-been-much-better final project (detective fiction course syllabus with detailed justification) on Carr’s work. I still managed to earn an A-, though.

But it was in this course that I read my first ever works by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler (two pioneers of the “hard-boiled school” of detective fiction): their first novels, Red Harvest and The Big Sleep, respectively.

As much as I enjoyed them (more than I did Mickey Spillane’s debut I, the Jury or the ultra-violent Strega, by Andrew Vacchs, which I could not finish), it would be a few years before I sought these authors out again.

Once I did, though, I was hooked. And while I have read nearly everything I can find by both authors (as well as Sara Paretsky, whose debut Indemnity Only I also read in Lowry’s seminar[1]), it was ultimately Hammett—whose tight, spare verisimilitude reflects his own experiences with the Pinkerton Detective Agency—who I came to admire most.

Simply put, Samuel Dashiell Hammett is my favorite author, and “detection” is my favorite fictional form. This superlative collection of short stories (written 1925-29) featuring unnamed detective “The Continental Op,” accompanied by a fragment of the autobiographical novel “Tulip” and a biographical essay, lovingly curated by long-time lover Lillian Hellman, is my favorite combination of the two.

For a good sense of Hammett the short-story writer, I recommend the 1982 Wim Wenders film Hammett, in which Hammett (played by Frederic Forrest) himself becomes embroiled in a story he could have written (and then does…).

Honorable mentions:

Trouble is My Business by Chandler.

This volume contains four of Chandler’s best stories, including my favorite detective fiction short story, “Red Wind.”

Deadline At Dawn by Woolrich (as William Irish)

This tale of just-met lovers racing against time (and a palpably sinister Manhattan seemingly determined to thwart them) to clear a sailor’s name of murder is Woolrich at his breathless, suspension-of-disbelief best.

The Three Coffins by Carr

Not only is this my favorite Carr novel, hands down, it is the only detective (or any) novel I know in which the detective (Dr. Gideon Fell at his most incisive) literally addresses the reader with his chapter-length lecture on locked room mysteries.

And Then There Were None (aka Ten Little Indians) by Christie

Upon reading this locked-room tour-de-force in high school, I memorized its central poem (“Ten little Indians, sitting down to dine/One went and choked himself, and then there were nine”). I even bought a copy for a friend to read. Christie was the undisputed master of the innovative solution, and this is one of the best…ever.

A Surfeit of Lampreys (aka Death of a Peer) by Marsh

What makes this novel so good is that you get about a third of the way into a gripping story of a young New Zealand woman living with a family of English peers and suddenly you say, “Oh, right, this is a detective story!”

To be continued…

[1] In 2003, I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Paretsky at a book-signing (Blacklist) in Bryn Mawr, PA. After discussing some superficial similarities with her detective V. I. (Victoria Iphigenia) Warshawksi, she graciously signed my book thus: Matt: To a Black Label-drinking Cub-loving mystery-reading dog-walking guy Sara N. Paretsky. 

5 thoughts on “Why I chose…The Big Knockover

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