Friday, May 30, 2008

Still Lives

I just finished Still Life by Louise Penny, which I started on Tuesday night. I'd heard so many good things about it and I really must say it (mostly) lives up to the hype. It's a classic cozy set in rural Quebec and it captivates, with its taut, clever puzzle and refreshing sense of place. Plus, it has a spinster!

The author clearly likes W.H. Auden, as she quotes him all the time, which was very timely and interesting to me because I just read an essay of his (more on that later) so I had Auden on the brain anyway. Penny adroitly works in numerous literary references into her book without seeming snotty about it, though her gay characters constantly referencing Oscar Wilde seems a little on the nose. (Her depiction of gay men is quite funny. Apparently they like Bed and Breakfasts, antiques, Wilde, and "It's Raining Men." Who knew?)

"Evil," says Auden,"is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and eats at our own table." This sentiment seems to be the driving force behind the book and it is still singularly chilling no matter how accustomed we may have grown to the idea of evil in a small town. Other themes are explored, like greed and avarice, which are resoundingly condemned as the ultimate evil. There's a marvelous character named Yolande who embodies pretense, avarice and all things evil, as evidenced by her too-clean house (Lemon Pledge = pure evil).

Penny's character of inspector Gamache has drawn praise from authors like Reginald Hill, who compare him to Inspecteur Maigret, and he's not far off the mark. Both inspectors share an endearing humbleness and humanity, a gentle optimism in the face of unspeakable crimes. Penny also introduces another element to the team of police trying to solve the case: Agent Nichol, a rookie who actually stymies the case with her pig-headedness and bad attitude. I found myself wondering if this type of personage had appeared in other detective novels, if there was precedent. I wondered about her role in the case and if she would ultimately find redemption. She was a very interesting foil to Gamache, and created a great deal of suspense by blundering the case. If anyone knows more about her character I'd love to hear it. It would be the first question I'd put to Penny, actually.

So, while Still Life conforms to the rule of the cozy sub-genre closely enough to satisfy even Auden, it also manages to bring number of new and refreshing angles to the narrative. I'm also interested in reading the Temperance Brennan series now, since apparently she's a forensic investigator in Montreal. I guess I'll stay on my Quebec kick for a while. (Also, I guess the author of the books was the inspiration for the character in Bones, a show I'd love to watch if only I had more time ... sigh. Note to self: quit job and become full-time blogger/TV watcher. Pay bills later.) Quebecois crime has been in the news lately too, which makes everything seem all the more timely. This fun Jezebel commentary has lots of cute people exclaiming, "You guys have crime in Canada? How quaint!" To which I say, yes, duh, we have crime, both organized and random. But it's all in the spirit of fun: Canuckisms are always entertaining, and I enjoyed stumbling upon them in Penny's book, like when characters say "Tabernacle" and stuff, which is pretty much the best swear word ever.

Auden says, in his essay "The Guilty Vicarage," that we like detective stories because they return us to Eden, a state of innocence (everything is rectified after the fall) and that in turn this desire is born out of guilt: "The magical satisfaction [the detective story provides] ... is the illusion of being dissociated from the murder. The magic formula is an innocence which is discovered to contain guilt; then a suspicion of being the guilty one; and finally a real innocence from which the guilty other has expelled, a cure effected, not by me or my neighbors, but by the miraculous intervention of a genius from outside who removes guilt by giving knowledge of guilt."

To which I say, perhaps. But this is rather highfalutin. I just like something that absorbs me completely on my long, dreary commutes. And I found that, prior to getting really into the genre, I was beginning to suffer from narrative fatigue. I was growing tired of books where people share and grow and learn and talk about their feelings and families and angst. I was tired, more than anything, of any story with a romantic angle. I was tired of stories that went nowhere, dammit. Mysteries, I found, had an inherent narrative drive, and could not, must not, meander slowly and pointlessly and navel-gaze solispsistically at the main characters' interior impulses and drives, or else they would be ... suspense thrillers. I just very quickly and suddenly developed extreme impatience with anything that didn't

a) make me laugh
b) tire me out with relentless and rapid page turning

I became the human equivalent of Homer Simpson sitting on the couch yelling at the TV during an episode of McGarnagle -- "It means he gets results, you stupid chief!"

And, although Auden denies it, I think we still do watch/read mysteries because of that whole catharsis thing. As Rex Banner says, "It's not up to us to choose which laws we obey. If it was, I'd shoot everyone that looked at me cock-eyed." See? Everything in my psyche can be explained by the Simpsons.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

I prefer Bombay Sapphire

According to a report published Monday in The Journal Of Gender Studies, many American women are bucking centuries of traditional gender roles by placing stunted, emotionally unfulfilling relationships on hold in order to pursue mind-numbing careers devoid of any upward mobility.

Dr. Gillian Detweiller, a professor of women's studies at the University of Maryland and coauthor of the report, said that the data suggests a cultural sea change in how women choose to experience lifelong disappointment.

Once again, The Onion manages to laugh at life's horribly depressing realities.

Though a greater number of women have decided to waste their fleeting youth toiling away in unrewarding jobs, other statistics have shown that a growing faction are embracing the more traditional alternative of slipping quietly into a painless death with a handful of sleeping pills and a bottle of Gordon's gin.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

What A Joy it is to Dance and Sing!*

The late works of Howard Hawks series is coming up at Anthology. I'm planning to sit through a double bill of Hatari and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and I'll try to restrain myself from singing along to the latter. Speaking of singing, there's a nice defense of "My Rifle, My Pony and Me" in Rio Bravo in the AV Club:

"It’s front and center and performed by the actors, with no apparent deeper meaning beyond the pure enjoyment of watching them. I don’t think the actors are even supposed to be in character here. We’re not meant to see Dude and Colorado, we’re meant to see Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson, and bask in the effervescent glow emanating from their collective star power. "When you've got some talent, your job is to use it,” Hawks said of the scene, deflecting criticism he was being self-indulgent with his stars by shoehorning an unnecessary musical number into a western. Of course Hawks was being self-indulgent. Why would Hawks let a little thing like plot get in the way of giving the audience pleasure?"'

So true. I love song and dance numbers, or even just songs, in my movies -- and I feel no real need to defend them, due to the fact that anyone who can't enjoy them is too dull to bother with. If I had to rank my favorite songs in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, I'd have to say "When Love Goes Wrong" is right up there, just because I love how seamlessly it's woven into the scene in the cafe in which our heroines commiserate over being broke with broken hearts. The big showstoppers are great too, but I can't help loving the scene where Lorelei and Dorothy cheer themselves up with a little song and dance number in a cafe.

* Angela Carter, "Wise Children"

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Birthday Resolutions

As is my custom on my birthday (and most of my unbirthdays), I got tipsy at dinner. Sobering up now, I notice I wrote the following on a scrap of paper while mildly inebriated:

Birthday resolutions:

1. Touch toes

2. Organize photo albums

3. Be more businessy

I think these are all very sound.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


I'm feeling very scattershot today, seemingly without the ability to concentrate on anything. As such this post will be appropriately unfocused.

I've been reading short stories; I read an Ellery Queen story in which the perp was a man named Harry Potter. This pleased me. I never know when I read these stories if it was written by the "real" Ellery Queen (two cousins from Brooklyn) or one of the many hacks they farmed the house name out to. Resorting to Wikipedia for research purposes doesn't help, but it does yield this little tidbit:

"In earlier novels he is a snobbish Harvard-educated intellectual of independent wealth who wore a pince-nez and investigated crimes because he found them stimulating. He derived these characteristics from his mother, the daughter of a rich aristocratic New York family who had married Inspector Queen, a bluff, man-in-the-street New York Irishman, and died before the stories began. His mannerisms in the first nine or ten novels were apparently based on those of the then-extremely popular Philo Vance character of the same era. As time went on, however, these mannerisms were toned down or disappeared entirely."

Which leads me to ...

I've been watching season one of "Hart to Hart," the 80s television series and brainchild of Aaron Spelling, and it rather neatly epitomizes the genteel amateur detective, a figure without whom the genre as we know it would not exist. Wealthy industrialist John Hart and his wife Jennifer (a sassy jet-setting author) solve crimes in their ample spare time, aided by their butler, Max. Definitely a fun series. In the last episode they foil a corrupt health farm rife with blackmailing, murderous hypnotists, cheat at a hand of poker and bilk a wealthy sheik out of gas money to propel their private jet to the diamond mines of South Africa, where more adventure awaits.

Update: Watched two more episodes of Hart to Hart and decided I like Jennifer Hart very much. She's quite sassy. Am also inspired to watch The Thin Man now, which I have bumped to the top of my queue. Husband-and-wife sleuthing teams are very much of interest to me right now.

Marge: Is this what you thought marriage would be like?
Homer: Pretty much. Except I thought we'd drive around in a van solving mysteries.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Je Suis Retournee!

I've just completed my Mabel Normand script. After ten months of investing countless molecules of emotional energy into creating a parallel universe in which Mabel Normand solved a series of murder mysteries in Hollywood in 1917 (yes, you read that right), I feel empty and drained, somehow on the verge of tears. This project meant a lot to me and now that it's over I can't imagine what I'll do with my mind, where it'll want to wander in moments of leisure. No longer needing to endlessly restructure and tweak my little film, what will I do to fill the empty spaces in my cerebellum?

What does one do when one is no longer completely consumed? As Rupert Giles says, I believe ice cream is usually appropriate for these sorts of things. Though even ice cream makes me think of Mabel! So I will watch "The Extra Girl" and clips on YouTube instead:

I will also share with you one of my favorite Mabel Normand quotes, from a Photo Play World interview in 1918:

"Nothing in the world is more vital to me at this moment than chocolate cake. I am expecting a four-storied one from the only shop I trust -- or that will trust me. But there is a maddening doubt in connection with it. "Will it or will it not,” I ask myself, "be iced on the sides as well as the top?” The sugar shortage forces economy and I have been warned to expect the worst ... Please go. I must be alone when is arrives. With great sorrows or great joys I seek solitude. I am not like other girls, you understand."