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Posts Tagged ‘genre fiction’

Nancy Drew in Starlight

October 14, 2015 | by

Who is Nancy Drew, really? The instability of the girl detective.


An illustration from The Mystery at Lilac Inn.

The writer Bobbie Ann Mason once described the Nancy Drew novels as sonnets, or “endless variations on an inflexible form.” The same could be said of Nancy herself: though outfitted with a few baseline characteristics—her freedom, her wile, her supreme politesse—she’s perpetually shape-shifting throughout the series. Alternately sixteen and eighteen, Nancy Drew is a scholar of ancient languages and an amateur archaeologist; a flawless cook, an expressive painter, and a dynamite prom date. She can dance in a corps de ballet and scuba dive fathomless depths. On separate occasions, her friends have walked in on her tap dancing, learning Morse code, and tap dancing in Morse code. Even her hair color is famously inconstant—from book to book, it flickers from blonde to strawberry blonde to her most distinctive shade, Titian, so named for the rosy apricot color used in many of the sixteenth-century Italian’s paintings.

And yet, there are some things Nancy Drew simply does not do. In her decades-long original run of more than fifty books, she never once goes to the movies or mentions an actor by name. Her only brush with Hollywood comes in 1931’s The Mystery at Lilac Inn, where she meets the diabolical Gay Moreau, a washed-up actress who’s also a Nancy Drew impersonator, committing petty crimes to defame the detective. Nancy approaches the case with some amusement at her resemblance to a “blonde actress,” but things take a turn for the weird when the starlet kidnaps Nancy, binds and gags her, and, to Nancy’s horror, begins to actRead More »

Curtains for the Editor

August 24, 2015 | by

Editors beware.

Over the weekend, I was attracted by the cover of a 1940s pulp paperback for sale on upper Broadway. The book was called Curtains for the Editor, and featured a bleeding body sprawled over a giant manuscript, so obviously I was sold before I’d even picked it up. But then when I turned it over, it was to find that the edition had even more to recommend it than the terrific title and vivid cover art: it was a Dell Mapback!

As any pulp lover knows, Dell produced these thrift editions—often mysteries, often hard-boiled—between 1943 and 1951. Each one was characterized by the detailed map on its back cover: often a “scene of the crime,” showing, say, the layout of a police station, a blueprint of a mansion, a neighborhood peopled with suspects and characters. There’s some variation depending on the artist, the plot, and the era; some maps are more stylized, others more colorful and precise. But all of them are “accurate” insofar as the plot goes, and they do give as good and tantalizing a glimpse into a book’s plot as any more conventional flap copy. Read More »

Strandelion, and Other News

April 2, 2015 | by


From a 1960 German postage stamp.

  • The politics of genre fiction: “the current preoccupations of the crime novel, the roman noir, the krimi lean to the left. It’s critical of the status quo, sometimes overtly, sometimes more subtly. It often gives a voice to characters who are not comfortably established in the world … The thriller, on the other hand, tends towards the conservative, probably because the threat implicit in the thriller is the world turned upside down.”
  • Mark Strand’s final interview takes a fittingly existentialist turn: “I don’t know why I was born ... here I am: a sentient being, talking about life. I had the luck to be born a human being who can speak. I might have been a dandelion or a goldfinch. I might have been a buffalo in the zoo. A fly! I don’t know why I’m here.”
  • Philip Pullman has a transcendently simple (and hyperrealist) way of working through writer’s block: “If you’re stuck, if you’re really desperate—dialogue: ‘Hello.’ ‘Oh hello.’ ‘How are you?’ ‘Not too bad, thanks. How are you?’ ‘Not too bad.’ Half a page already.”
  • Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes “was one of the only books that James Joyce, his eyesight fading, allowed himself to read while taking breaks from Finnegans Wake.” (Other admirers: Edith Wharton, William Faulkner, E. B. White, Sherwood Anderson, William Empson, and Rose Macaulay.)
  • Before he decamped for England and a lifetime of Anglophilia, T. S. Eliot “spent his formative childhood summers in a wood-shingled, seven-bedroom seaside house on Gloucester’s Eastern Point, built for his family in 1896.” The T. S. Eliot Foundation plans to turn the house into a writers’ retreat.

Terry Pratchett, 1948–2015

March 12, 2015 | by


The T-shirt Pratchett wore to conventions. Image via Fashionably Geek

The BBC has just reported that Terry Pratchett has died at sixty-six. Pratchett wrote more than seventy books, most of them part of his Discworld series: satirical, philosophical fantasy novels that earned him a wide readership, sometimes at the expense of the critical attention his work merits. “Terry Pratchett is not one to go gentle into any night, good or otherwise,” his friend Neil Gaiman wrote of him last June, as he was beginning to slip away to Alzheimer’s. “He will rage, as he leaves, against so many things: stupidity, injustice, human foolishness and shortsightedness, not just the dying of the light … Terry Pratchett is not a jolly old elf at all. Not even close.”

Here’s a bit from Pratchett’s 2007 essay, “Notes from a Successful Fantasy Author: Keep it Real.” It speaks to genre fiction’s unique position as a vehicle for social commentary, and to the set of logic puzzles a fantasy novelist faces in trying to build a new world. You can find it in A Slip of the Keyboard, a collection of his nonfiction published last year. Read More »

Pulling a Rabbit Out of a Glass Hat

February 11, 2015 | by

Richard Price and the evolving role of pseudonyms.


From the cover of The Whites.

Richard Price’s new novel, The Whites, isn’t by Richard Price, except that it is. It’s by Harry Brandt, Price’s pseudonym, but it’s also not really by Brandt—Price’s name is on the cover, too, and so Price is Brandt, obviously, and it follows then that Brandt is Price, and thus, uh …

Let’s start over.

Richard Price’s new novel, The Whites, is by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt. It says so right there on the cover. Big deal, you might say; another author slumming it in genre fiction by creating a false identity for himself. But by publishing both his name and his pseudonym on the cover, Price has parted with centuries of pseudonymous convention. He hasn’t just pulled back the curtain. He’s brought up the house lights and waved to the audience. And he did it all, according to the New York Times, because he got sort of annoyed. Read More »


A Dissatisfaction with Life

January 19, 2015 | by


Patricia Highsmith on After Dark, 1988. Photo: Open Media Ltd.

You don’t agree with George Bernard Shaw’s idea that the artist is very close to the criminal?

I can think of only one slight closeness, and that is that an imaginative writer is very free-wheeling; he has to forget about his own personal morals, especially if he is writing about criminals. He has to feel anything is possible. But I don’t for this reason understand why an artist should have any criminal tendencies. The artist may simply have an ability to understand … I would much rather be an entertainer than a moralizer, but to call murder not a social problem I think is ridiculous; it certainly is a social problem. The word existentialist has become fuzzy. It’s existentialist if you cut a finger with a kitchen knife—because it has happened. Existentialism is self-indulgent, and they try to gloss over this by calling it a philosophy … I once wrote in a book of mine about suspense writing, that a criminal, at least for a short period of time is free, free to do anything he wishes. Unfortunately it sounded as if I admired that, which I don’t. If somebody kills somebody, they are breaking the law, or else they are in a fit of temper. While I can’t recommend it, it is an awful truth to say that for a moment they are free, yes. And I wrote that in a moment of impatience, I remember distinctly. I get impatient with a certain hidebound morality. Some of the things one hears in church, and certain so-called laws that nobody practices. Nobody can practice them and it is even sick to try … Murder, to me, is a mysterious thing. I feel I do not understand it really. I try to imagine it, of course, but I think it is the worst crime. That is why I write so much about it; I am interested in guilt. I think there is nothing worse than murder, and that there is something mysterious about it, but that isn’t to say that it is desirable for any reason. To me, in fact, it is the opposite of freedom, if one has any conscience at all.

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