Monday, August 31, 2020

The Lessons of Crime Fiction

Teaching about the Black Lives Matter movement offers many opportunities. Opening the classroom to conversations about racism, justice, activism, and healing allows a teacher to touch upon a multitude of lessons and helps create resolution and positive action. Perhaps surprisingly, crime fiction can play a part in these lessons.

Dr. Anjili Babbar and Dr. Myron T. Strong consider how crime fiction can be used to explore racism, its history and its current incarnation. 

Dr. Anjili Babbar

 Dr. Myron T. Strong

In June of this year, as protests erupted across the country in response to the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, our students were actively discussing Dashiell Hammett’s short story, “The Gutting of Couffignal,” in their online discussion board. This story follows the Continental Op as he tries to get to the bottom of a seeming riot on an elite island. He eventually discovers that the perpetrators are formerly wealthy Russians, forced to flee their country after the Communist Revolution, now living in destitution. “This really relates to the Black Lives Matter movement,” one student noted. “The Russians have been disenfranchised, and they’re voiceless. When people aren’t heard, they turn to methods that can’t be ignored. Like the protests that led to riots in Baltimore after Freddie Gray. Martin Luther King said that ‘A riot is the language of the unheard.’”

Was this Hammett’s intention in the story? It’s difficult to say. On one hand, Hammett had sympathy for the Communist movement, and the Op does not hesitate to use violence against the ringleaders of the Couffignal looting. On the other, Hammett’s inclusion of the Czarists’ motives suggests a willingness to consider responses to injustice—whether real or perceived—as ubiquitous, common to all people. In the classroom, the imperative point was that the story inspired the students to situate current socio-political events in a broader context.

Later in the semester, the same students read Sarah Paretsky’s “Skin Deep,” in which V.I. Warshawski maneuvers a discriminatory criminal justice system on behalf of her Black friend, who has been falsely accused of murder. Even with this premise, the students were disappointed by the main character. “She doesn’t see the forest for the trees,” one student asserted. “She tries to pressure her friend’s boss to help her by threatening to expose the undocumented immigrants working there.” Not only were the students broadening their context of specific social concerns; the approach had become second nature to the extent that they were criticizing a character for not doing the same.

The obstacles to approaching diverse perspectives in the classroom have long been the elephant in the room of undergraduate academia. The curriculum long offered little diversity in readings and assignments, instead focusing on canonical white, often male, writers. That has shifted in recent years, but approaches remain problematic. Some students report discomfort about white professors guiding students of color in discussing their lived experiences, and about a focus on oppression narratives, at the exclusion of other lived experiences of marginalized people. Following nation-wide responses to the murder of George Floyd, academic departments across the country have scrambled to find better ways to promote “own voices” narratives and to address systemic racism and corruption – yet professors of crime fiction have been tackling these topics for decades, even as their focus has sometimes been dismissed as “genre fiction,” rather than “real” literature.

The use of crime fiction to explore diverse perspectives and systemic social challenges overcomes many problematics. Rather than being spoon-fed interpretations that might seem restrictive or alienating, students can apply critical thinking skills to analyze issues of justice invoked by crime fiction narratives and draw their own conclusions. Likewise, these narratives naturally encourage students to recognize specific social issues as part of a broader socio-historical framework, and thus to approach justice-related concerns outside of the contemporary biases of political discourse. This, in turn, helps them to develop empathy for disparate perspectives – an empathy which is underscored by the inclusion of marginalized characters who are individuals with agency in the pursuit of justice.

In our classes, students discuss gender-socialized power dynamics (Nikki Dolson); they discuss “othering” and its relationship to criminal justice (Peter Robinson, Agatha Christie); they discuss police discrimination and reform (Adrian McKinty); they discuss immigration (Angie Kim), classism (Colin Dexter), racism (Walter Mosley), and the politics of war (Anthony Horowitz). By examining these topics outside of the contemporary, location-specific contexts to which they are habituated, students can approach them on their own terms, at least partially unconstrained by the politically-charged discourse that surrounds them on social media. In turn, they are able to build the tools to return to these specific, contemporary issues with the wisdom, logic, and critical thinking supplied by a broader context. 


Dr. Anjili Babbar is a writer, scholar, and professor of crime fiction, British and Irish literature, and folklore, and president of the Dashiell Hammett Society. Upcoming publications include Finders: Justice, Faith, and Identity in Irish Crime Fiction (Syracuse University Press) and “‘This Isn’t F*cking Miss Marple, Mate’: Intertextuality in Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy Series” (in Guilt Rules All: Mysteries, Detectives, and Crime in Irish Fiction, edited by Elizabeth Mannion and Brian Cliff, Syracuse University Press).

Dr. Myron T. Strong is an award-winning sociologist and writer, whose areas of expertise include the sociology of race, gender, Afro-futurism, and comics. He is Academic Outreach Coordinator for the Dashiell Hammett Society, Executive Council Member for the Eastern Sociological Society, and Co-Chair for the Committee on Community Colleges of the American Sociological Association. Recent publications include the co-authored textbook, Sociology in Stories: A Creative Introduction to a Fascinating Perspective (Kendall Hunt).

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Caught on Tape

By Claire Booth

My last tape player died this month. It was random and rarely used—our 2004 Honda CRV came with both that and a CD player. Maybe that was the year Honda couldn’t decide whether to switch over to the newfangled CD technology. Give ’em both, make everybody happy.

I hadn’t used it in quite a while; it was my husband who was cleaning the car, found two dusty tapes in the glove box and decided to pop one into the player. No luck. Did I want him to throw them away?

God, no. Those were—are—precious. They were gifts that required both thought and time. Given to me back when there were no algorithms pointing to similar songs, no already curated playlists, no point-and-click-and-you’re-done convenience.

Back when a mix tape was a declaration of love, or a gesture of friendship, or a reward for beating someone at a certain beverage consumption game popular on college campuses.

My two tapes have more miles on them than the Honda does. They took me across the country multiple times: Missouri-to-California and back; Missouri-to-Washington, DC, and back; Missouri-to-Florida; Florida-to-Seattle; and Seattle to the Bay Area. It’s a miracle they didn’t give up and curl into a tangle of weary ribbon somewhere in the middle of Kansas. I couldn’t possibly throw them away.

So now they sit on a shelf—obsolete but essential. I’m going to get on iTunes and put together a playlist of all the songs, even though I know them by heart. But I’ll keep the brittle plastic, too—as a reminder of all those miles, and the extravagant effort someone put into keeping me company along the way. 

Saturday, August 29, 2020

The Summer of Bosch


Scott D. Parker


A few weeks ago, I wrote about watching the Amazon Prime TV series Bosch. Based on Michael Connelly’s novel series, there are now six seasons, 60 episodes of excellent television.

And I’ve gone through them all.

Now I’ve caught up with the rest of the folks who watched Bosch live as it aired. I’m not a binger. I still have the weekly airing of TV episodes ingrained in my DNA. But with streaming, I have modified my viewing. With about an hour a day for TV, my wife and I watch a show at 9pm every night. Thus, a 10-episode season of Bosch typically took about ten days, more or less.

Except the last couple of seasons.

Now, work nights, I still have only an hour for TV, but when the viewing bled into the weekends? Well, we might watch two or (shocker) three a night. I know that sounds funny to some of y’all, but I don’t like to blow through TV shows and have nothing left.

Early on this summer, we watched season 1 of Bosch then switched to another show. Prodigal Son. Happened again after season 2 (although I forgot the other show). Then the magic happened. After season 3 as we were discussing which show to watch next, the wife suggested Bosch season 4.


And we didn’t look back until we had finished the entire series to date.

I wrote earlier about the cast and they remain the best thing about the show. But as the series went on, I particularly liked the relationship between Bosch and his daughter who, by season six, is a college student finding her way through life. Titus Welliver and Madison Lintz have such good chemistry that you’d almost think they really are father and daughter.

The one thing I dislike about binging is the sudden void after you’ve reached the end. Tis why I like to watch shows slow. When we reached episode 60, there was a moment where we looked at each other and questioned if that was it? (We had purposefully avoided looking up anything on the internet because we didn’t want any spoilers. My wife spoiled herself when she was reading about the show and learned the fate of one of the major characters.)

Yes, there will be a season 7, but that’ll be it. Amazon has cancelled the show, but allowed it to end gracefully.

So it turned out that the Bosch TV show was our through line during the summer of 2020. I couldn’t be more satisfied.


BTW, our next show is Glitch (Netflix), an Australian show with an interesting premise: a few dead folks crawl out of their graves one night without any memories but in perfect health. 

Thursday, August 27, 2020

A savage pick from Beau

This week, Beau shows some love for Savages.

Part-time environmentalist and philanthropist Ben and his ex-mercenary buddy Chon run a Laguna Beach–based marijuana operation, reaping significant profits from their loyal clientele. In the past when their turf was challenged, Chon took care of eliminating the threat. But now they may have come up against something that they can’t handle—the Mexican Baja Cartel wants in, and sends them the message that a “no” is unacceptable. When they refuse to back down, the cartel escalates its threat, kidnapping Ophelia, the boys’ playmate and confidante. O’s abduction sets off a dizzying array of ingenious negotiations and gripping plot twists that will captivate readers eager to learn the costs of freedom and the price of one amazing high.


Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The Familiar Dark


This week, Beau takes a look at The Familiar Dark by Amy Engel.

A spellbinding story of a mother with nothing left to lose who sets out on an all-consuming quest for justice after her daughter is murdered on the town playground.

Sometimes the answers are worse than the questions. Sometimes it's better not to know.

Set in the poorest part of the Missouri Ozarks, in a small town with big secrets, The Familiar Dark opens with a murder. Eve Taggert, desperate with grief over losing her daughter, takes it upon herself to find out the truth about what happened. Eve is no stranger to the dark side of life, having been raised by a hard-edged mother whose lessons Eve tried not to pass on to her own daughter. But Eve may need her mother's cruel brand of strength if she's going to face the reality about her daughter's death and about her own true nature. Her quest for justice takes her from the seedy underbelly of town to the quiet woods and, most frighteningly, back to her mother's trailer for a final lesson.

The Familiar Dark is a story about the bonds of family—women doing the best they can for their daughters in dire circumstances—as well as a story about how even the darkest and most terrifying of places can provide the comfort of home.

Amy Engel is the author of The Roanoke Girls and The Book of Ivy series. A former criminal defense attorney, she lives in Missouri with her family.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Lee Matthew Goldberg's The Ancestor

Scott's Note: Lee Matthew Goldberg guest blogs today, talking about his new novel, The Ancestor.  It's a story set in Alaska, in cold cold weather, and in this piece, Lee tells us about the influences -- literary, cinematic, and musical -- that went into its creation.

Take it away, Lee... 


Ideas tend to materialize in different ways for me. My last book, The Desire Card, was written around the time of Occupy Wall Street when I imagined a one-percenter unable to secure a new liver he desperately needed, despite having all the money to pay. For my second book, The Mentor, I was hired to write a Cape Fear tale set in the publishing world. My debut, Slow Down, came from seeing a tattoo of a yellow circle on the small of someone’s back. I pictured a city where a group of actors had the same tattoo, all of them appearing in a mysterious film. For my newest novel, The Ancestor, I was listening to the song “The Ancestor” by the band Darlingside. I had heard the opening lines where it describes a person being buried, but they will find their way out of the dark someday. From there, the book began to download. I pictured a man buried under ice in the Alaskan wilderness. He wakes with amnesia but has his survival skills intact. He can kill a wolf and skin it to keep warm with its fur. He has a mirror around his neck and sees a reflection of a giant beard consuming his face. There is a hunter named Travis nearby who appears to be his doppelgänger. He follows him home and sees Travis’s wife, Callie, and child, which brings forth a flood of memories of his own family, except they are from the late 1800s—meaning he’s been frozen in time for a century, immersed in ice, and that he may be Travis’s ancestor.

The song “The Ancestor” evoked the mood I was looking for while writing: one of isolation. The ideas marinated for about two years, something I tend to do as the characters become living and breathing. The fictional town of Laner formed, a tiny speck in the middle of nowhere filled with fishermen and those fleeing to the edge of the world. Folks escaping their pasts to a place that freezes for most of the year. The main character, Wyatt, searches for who he truly is, but he’s not the only one. The book is populated with those in flux: a woman working at the local brothel who longs for more, Travis’s wife Callie who’s uprooted from California but has never fit in, Travis’s father Stu, a sheriff whose son drowned due to a criminal underbelly on the outskirts. Each character has something they cannot reconcile. 

Alternating between the past and the present, Wyatt remembers more of his life when he was a prospector leaving his family to seek gold in Alaska and the terrible things that led him to his fate. I did extensive research on the Alaskan Gold Rush era. The books Klondike by Pierre Barton and The Floor of Heaven by Harold Blum were a great help along with Dawson City: Frozen Time, a documentary film about a town just south of the Arctic Circle that brought a hundred thousand prospectors to the area. Unlike the California Gold Rush, the Alaskan one was very perilous and many lost their lives in pursuit of gold, adventurers unwilling to give up the lawless days of the Wild West, unable to settle into regular lives. It’s this dogged quest that Wyatt brings back into the present time, remembering the gold he may have hidden before he froze, along with his newfound desire to take Travis’s family as his own when he falls in love with Callie. Despite being partially a historical tale, I wanted the book to bleed from genre to genre. All of my books have thriller elements, but I aspired for this one to read as a literary tale and a historical journey with a sprinkle of the supernatural. If Wyatt isn’t crazy and he really was frozen, what otherworldly presence made this occur, or has it always been inside of him?

In terms of fiction, since The Ancestor mixes genres, I was reading a vast array of titles. Cormac McCarthy is one of my favorite authors and his poetic but sparse prose mimicked the type of tone I needed for The Ancestor, so I read Child of God, The Orchard Keeper and Outer Dark, a few of his earlier works. Exclusively, I also read books set in frozen landscapes like The Ploughmen by Kim Zupan, Wintering by Peter Geye, Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers, and The Revenant by Michael Punke. For films, I watched a lot of cold weather thrillers like Wind River, Fargo, The Grey, The ThingThe Hateful Eight, The Shining and The Revenant again. With any project, I work best when I immerse myself in similar influences. The winter of 2018 was also a very cold one in the Northeast with temperatures dropping below freezing for many days in a row, so it was easy to imagine myself in Alaska in the present time, or during the Gold Rush. It would’ve been impossible for me to write a book like this at any other time of the year and not feel what my characters were experiencing on some level.  

Of all of my works, I think this is my deepest novel, a mediation on love lost and unfulfilled dreams. It delves into the idea of identity. If our mind gets stripped away, who are we really? Are we a make-up of our memories and our pasts, or something deeper, passed down through generations from our ancestors that unite us? 

I’m excited to finally release The Ancestor into the world.  


You can get The Ancestor here.