All Posts By Michael Kahn

Reading and Writing: A Fun Conversation with David Alan Binder

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As my publisher and I prepare for the release this fall of The Dead Hand, the next novel in the Rachel Gold series, I had the pleasure to “sit down” (in the electronic media sense of that term) for a fun conversation about writing with David Alan Binder, the writer, musician, and prolific blogger who has interviewed dozens and dozens of authors.

TheDeadHand-cover-by-Fervor-Creative-RGB[1]My favorite question from David: “What is the most important thing that you have learned in your writing experience, so far?” It gave me a chance to talk about the joy of cage-free characters. (Thus the feral rooster shown above.)

You can read my answer, along with the rest of our conversation, here.

From Hard-Boiled Mysteries to Film Noir to the World

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Earlier this month, the St Louis Jewish Film Festival asked me to introduce the screening of Fire Birds, an Israeli murder mystery set in Tel Aviv (with English subtitles). To prepare my introductory remarks, I watched the film. Somewhere toward the middle of the movie, I had my epiphany. “Thank you, Mr. Hammett,” I said.

Let me explain.

Some of our nation’s most influential exports over the past century have been our arts and culture. In music, for example, we gave the world the blues, jazz, and rock. In fashion, our contributions have included Levi jeans and Chuck Taylor sneakers.

And in literature, one of our most influential exports has been the hard-boiled detective novel. Although Edgar Allan Poe is often credited with inventing the mystery story, by the 1920s the ascendant version was the so-called British cozy, best exemplified by Dorothy Sayers’ charming gentlemen detective Lord Peter Wimsey, a dilettante who solved mysteries for his own amusement.

And then29056[1] along came the American hard-boiled crime  novel, whose pioneers included Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James Cain. Unlike the heroes in the British mysteries, this American genre’s typical protagonist was a tough, cynical detective familiar with graphic violence and sordid urban corruption. Marked by fast-paced, slangy dialogue, the hard-boiled detective novel has been one of our most popular literary exports and now includes bestselling authors around the world.

Which brings me to Film Noir, the cinematic version of the hard-boiled mystery novel. The genre got its start in in the 1940s with film versions of those novels, including The Maltese Falcon, The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Third Man. Over the decades since World War II, the genre has spread to filmmakers around the world and has continued to evolve in this country through award-winning “Neo-Film Noir” creations that include Chinatown, Blood Simple, The Big Lebowski, and Blade Runner.

So what makes a film a Film Noir? While that question has inspired numerous critical essays, such as this one and this one, the basic elements can be simply stated as follow:movie_36549[1]

  • a crime–usually a murder–often occurring near the beginning of the film;
  • a cynical detective, usually flawed, often outside the norm (such as, say, kicked off the police force for insubordination or drug abuse);
  • at least one femme fatale;
  • the seemingly straightforward crime that turns out to be far more complex as our detective follows clues on an odyssey through the dark underworld of the city; and
  • lots of flashbacks, occasionally confusing.

Every one of these elements is on full display in Fire Birds.  As the movie opens, an old man’s body is found5543433-6950[1] floating in a river in Tel Aviv with three stab wounds to the chest and a number tattooed along his forearm. The police detective assigned to the case, himself a second generation Holocaust survivor, reluctantly accepts the case and struggles to bring it to a quick close. He soon learns that the number tattooed on the dead man’s arm actually belongs to a Holocaust survivor who died years ago.

As we learn in the flashbacks, the dead man had sought a ‘membership card’ to what one femme fatale labels the most horrible club in the world: the club of Holocaust survivors. Despite his age, the dead man’s charm was evident as he searched the obituaries for widows (a/k/a elderly femme fatales) to beguile. As the story interweaves past and present, we witness each man’s struggle to rejoin the society which rejected him.

This award-winning film certainly works on its own, but fans of hard-boiled detective fiction and Film Noir will recognize the distinctly American lineage of Fire Birds. See it if you get a chance.

Fire Birds: An Israeli Murder Mystery Film (June 7, 2016)

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Murder mystery writer introduces murder mystery film to murder mystery fans at this year’s St. Louis Jewish Film Festival.

The writer is me.

The film is Fire Birds.

movie_36549[1]And if you’re a fan of the noire mystery movie–a rich tradition that dates back to such classics as The Maltese Falcon and The Third Man while forever reinventing itself in neo-noire gems that include ChinatownBlade Runner, and Blood Simple–then come join us  for the screening of this remarkable Israeli film at 2 p.m. on June 7 at the Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema. I will provide a short introduction before the film’s showing.

As with so many noire murder mysteries, our hero in Fire Birds is a down-on-his-luck detective faced with solving a Fire%20Birds%20_3[1]vexing crime. Specifically, an 80-year-old man’s body is found floating in the river with three stab wounds to the chest and a number tattooed along his forearm. The case is assigned to Amnon, an Israeli police detective and second generation Holocaust survivor who has returned to duty after a lengthy suspension. Living apart from his wife and daughter, he struggles to bring the unwanted case to a quick close.

The investigation leads Amnon to a tattoo parlor and a club of Holocaust survivors with a zest for life who seek solace in romantic recollections of their pre-war world. In the weeks leading up to his death, the victim sought, in the words of one character, a “membership card to the most horrible club in the world”: the club of Holocaust survivors.

As the story interweaves past and present, we witness the struggle of each man–the detective and the victim–to rejoin the society which rejected him.

Baseball Walk-Up Songs for Mystery Detectives

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Time for my annual baseball post. Last year I wrote one on the Top 10 Baseball Walk-Up Songs in Literature. For the uninitiated, a walk-up song is that hard rock, hip hop, or country tune that blares over the speakers throughout the stadium as the ballplayer walks from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box. True baseball fans can name the walk-up song for every one of their favorite players.The phenomenon has been the subject of numerous articles, including this one from (featuring the image above).

“All of which,” I wrote back then, “got me thinking about great characters in literature. What would Hamlet select for his walk-up song? Or Nancy Drew? Or Captain Ahab? Or Madame Bovary?” And so I put together a list and invited my readers to add to it.

Examples included Iago (of Othello), whose walk-up song was “Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogood, and Satan from Milton’s Paradise Lost, whose song was, of course, “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones. And then there was Dr. Pangloss from Candide, who was unable to select a walk-up song because, as he explained in reviewing the song list, “All of these are for the best in this best of all possible song lists.” So Voltaire stepped in for him and picked Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.”

sherlock_holmes_baseball_cap[1]Well, I happen to write mystery novels. And like most mystery writers, I read plenty of them, too. And thus I got to thinking about great detectives in mystery novels. What would Sherlock Holmes select for his walk-up song? Perhaps “Anarchy in the U.K.” by the Sex Pistols or maybe “A Well Respected Man” by the Kinks. What about Miss Marple? Would she be aggressive enough to pick Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First”?

I’m willing to start a list of walk-up songs for mystery novel detectives, beginning with my own creation, Rachel Gold. I’m hoping some of you can add to it. And if you write mysteries, please add a walk-up song for your character(s).

  • Rachel Gold: Walk-up song: “Hollaback Girl,” by Gwen Stefani.
    • Explanation: Rachel’s buddy, Benny Goldberg, made this choice for her, explaining that an obnoxious opposing counsel had made a huge mistake in trying to intimidate Rachel. “To quote the great philosopher Gwen Stefani,” Benny said, “you ain’t no hollaback girl.” To which Rachel replied, “Huh?”
  • Philip Marlowe: Walk-up song: “Sharp-Dressed Man” by ZZ Top.
    • Explanation: My inspiration for this choice comes from the opening paragraph of The Big Sleep, which happens to be one of the greatest opening paragraphs in modern American literature:”It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.”
  • Jack Reacher: Walk-up song: “Ramblin’ Man” by the Allman Brothers Band.
    • Explanation: If you’ve read any of Lee Childs’ Reacher novels (which my daughter-in-law Amy labels “man porn”), no explanation is needed. Reacher is a former Major in the U.S. Army Military Police Corps who quit that job and now roams the country taking odd jobs and investigating suspicious and frequently dangerous situations. As Childs explained in an interview, “I thought that I would do a book that’s not the same as everybody else’s. Everybody else had their guy working: a private guy in Boston, or a police lieutenant in L.A., or wherever. I thought, ‘Well, he won’t be working, and he won’t live anywhere, and let’s just take it from there.'”
  • Cletus Purcel: Walk-up song: “Light My Fire” by the Doors.17323869[1]
    • Explanation: Cletus is Dave Robicheaux’s hot tempered sidekick in the James Lee Burke novels. Other possibilities for Cletus: “Wild Thing” by the Troggs, “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed, or “Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf.
  • V.I. Warshawski: Walk-up song: “Born in Chicago” by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
  • Harry Bosch: Walk-up Song: “Another Day in L.A.” by Indigo Swing.
    • Explanation: Oh, boy, this was a tough one. I eventually opted for this jazzier song because of Harry Bosch’s love of jazz, but others that made the final list include: “West L.A. Fadeway” by Los Lobos (a cover of the original Grateful Dead version); “2 a.m. on Mulholland Drive” by The All-Stars; and “L.A. Woman” by The Doors.
  • Marlow: Walk-up song: “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses.
    • Explanation: Yes, that Marlow. The narrator/detective from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. A few years back I wrote a series of blog posts on great works of literature that happened to fit the definition of a mystery–and I gathered links to all those posts into a compendium post entitled “Nine Mysteries for Literary Snobs.” There you will find a link to my take on Heart of Darkness, and why it fits the model for a classic mystery novel about a detective retained to find a missing person, such as, for example, The Big Sleep, where a detective named Marlowe is retained to find a missing person. Marlowe’s jungle is the dark side of L.A. Marlow’s jungle is, in fact, the jungle.

Okay, your turn. Who should we add? So many possibilities. What would Nero Wolf pick as his walk-up song? Or Easy Rawlins? Or Kinsey Millhone? Or Sam Spade? And so on and so on. And, if you’re a mystery writer, what would your detective pick?

And finally, which hapless detective gets the U2 song, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”?

In Praise of the Lowly Weed

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If, like me, you have a lawn out your front door, then taking a Word Association Test using “dandelion” will likely trigger an array of negative terms, including perhaps Weed B Gon and other chemical warfare products offered by Scotts, Ortho, and Monsanto.

Thus imagine my surprise at the nearly childlike wonder I experienced earlier this week as I was walking past an untendedDandelions 1 lot that was teeming with dandelions. I was so struck by their beauty that I stopped, leaned in close for a better look, and took a few pics with my iPhone. (I’ve posted one of those photos to the left.) The joy and awe of that moment continue to reverberate as a reminder of the beauty of everyday objects of nature.

But dandelions? I asked myself. Really? After all, just that past weekend I’d dug up several that were scattered across my front lawn.Nevertheless . . .

And the aesthetics of those weeds are in no way diminished–indeed, may even be enhanced–when the flower heads transform into those spherical seed heads known as bl800px-Dandelion_seed_head_(Taraxacum_officinale)[1]owballs, several of which were on that untended lot. Next time you come across one, in your lawn or out on a stroll, take a moment to gaze at the perfect symmetry and alignment of those seed heads.

As James Russell Lowell wrote, “A weed is no more than a flower in disguise.” Even so, it’s easy to forget that, in the words of Walt Whitman, “a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.”

Fortunately, it’s a lesson our children and grandchildren remind us of whenever we take them out for walk. We adults dutifully repeat the cliche about the need to “stop to smell the roses,” but it’s no cliche to a child. It’s their modus operandi.

Jake 1982Indeed, one of my favorite photos is of our son Jake, taken more than 30 years ago, back when he was just 18 months old. We were walking through our Chicago neighborhood and came upon a patch of wild flowers growing along the sidewalk. Without any prompting from me, Jake stopped to smell the flowers. Little Jake is now 6’4″ and the father of three children of his own, including little Charlie. (Shown in the photo below.) Like his father and two older sister, Charlie always stops to smell the roses.

The point of all this is to remind me–and perhaps you–of how easy it is to travel through life, head down as we text and email and Facebook and Google while walking past a canvas far more beautiful than anything ever created by man. For me, taking a stroll through the woods with my wife Margi (a/k/a the World’s Most Enthusiastic Nature Lover) is an aesthetic experience that surpasses a stroll through the finest art museums in the world. She reminds me–and I do need reminding–that even the lowliest leaf or twig is a thing of beauty to be treasured.

And so I end this meditation with some quotes on the topic from those who came before us:

Jake and Charlie
Jake and Charlie
  • “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.” Frank Lloyd Wright
  • “My profession is to always find God in nature.” Henry David Thoreau
  • “Nature is the art of God.” Dante Alghieri
  • One touch of nature makes the whole world kin. William Shakespeare

Well, actually, I end this meditation with a somewhat embarrassing disclosure: at sometime over this coming weekend, you will probably find someone who looks remarkably like me prowling my front lawn, shovel in hand, scanning the area for the stray dandelion poking up from all the grass.


Dylan, Hemingway, and a Peek Behind the Curtain

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“Chimes of Freedom” lyrics (via the Bob Dylan Archive)
Bob Dylan made headlines this month when a group of Oklahoma institutions announced their acquisition of an extensive archive of Dylan’s private work. According to the Bob Dylan Archive website at the University of Tulsa,  the trove includes 6,000 items of “never-before-seen handwritten manuscripts, notebooks and correspondence; films, videos, photographs and artwork; memorabilia; personal documents; unrecorded song lyrics and chords.”

As the New York Times article on the announcement explains:

Classics from the 1960s appear in coffee-stained fragments, their author still working out lines that generations of fans would come to know by heart. (“You know something’s happening here but you,” reads a scribbled early copy of “Ballad of a Thin Man,” omitting “don’t know what it is” and the song’s famous punch line: “Do you, Mister Jones?”) The range of hotel stationery suggests an obsessive self-editor in constant motion.

That last sentence caught my attention, along with this other one: “There have long been rumors that Mr. Dylan had stashed away an extensive archive.”

8df50c_4bc27f9e706f45a9bcb7230eb8431e1f[1]It reminded me of another obsessive self-editor–Ernest Hemingway–and an equally tantalizing rumor. I refer to the mystery of the discarded drafts of the final page of A Farewell to Arms.

Near the end of his life, Hemingway sat down with George Plimpton for an interview published in The Paris Review in 1958. When Plimpton asked, “How much rewriting do you do?”, Hemingway famously answered: “It depends. I rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.”

39 times!

Over the next half a century, those 39 discarded endings became part of literary lore, the Holy Grail of 20th Century American literature. And then, in 2012, Scribner announced publication of a new edition of the novel with an appendix containing all of the discarded endings. Turns out there are actually 47, and all had been preserved for decades in the Ernest Hemingway Collection at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.

Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway

Well, I couldn’t resist. After reading that article on the Dylan archive, which reminded me of the Hemingway archive, I picked up a copy of that new Scribner edition of Farewell to Arms. I started by re-reading those sad final two pages of the novel: Frederic’s beloved Catherine goes into labor, suffers complications, undergoes an emergency Cesarean operation, the baby boy dies, and then, after multiple hemorrhages, Catherine dies. Frederic goes out in the hospital hall to talk with the doctor. When he returns to Catherine’s room, one of the two nurses tells him he can’t come in yet. “Yes, I can,” he says, and orders both nurses out of the room. They start to leave, and the book ends with this paragraph:

But after I got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good. It was like saying good-by to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.

A cool and passionless conclusion–quintessential Hemingway. Except for the word “good,” a final paragraph with no adjectives, adverbs, or even commas.

And then I turned to the Scribner appendix, to those 49 discarded endings. They range in length and breadth from just a sentence to several paragraphs.

Perhaps the most haunting is the first, which he labeled “The Nada Ending.” It reads:

That is all there is to the story. Catherine died and you will die and I will die and that is all I can promise you.

More intriguing is No. 7, which he labeled the “Live-Baby Ending”:

I could tell about the boy. He did not seem of any importance then except as trouble and God knows I was better about him. Anyway he does not belong in this story. He starts a new one. It is not fair to start a new story at the end of an old one but that is the way it happens. There is no end except death and birth is the only beginning.

Several endings reference a funeral for Catherine, such as No. 10:

When people die you have to bury them but you do not have to write about it. You meet undertakers but you do not have to write about them.

And then there is No. 34, which he labeled the “Fitzgerald ending,” suggested by his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, according to Hemingway’s grandson Sean:

You learn a few things as you go along and one of them is that the world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. Those it does not break it kills. It kills the very good and very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

When George Plimpton asked him in that Paris Review interview what had stumped him about the ending of A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway answered:, “Getting the words right.” After reading those 47 discarded endings, I’d say he got the words right.

Jellyfish and Herrings and Bombs, Oh My!

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I have a chronic condition that many of you share. What is it? A  nagging curiosity about the origins of certain words and expressions.

Jelly_cc10[1]The most recent flare-up occurred last week on a family vacation along the Riviera Maya south of Cancun, Mexico. As I walked with my grandson Oliver down to the beach, we passed a sign featuring an image of a jellyfish with a notice in English and Spanish. The English version read: “This is jellyfish season.” The Spanish version read: “Esta es la temporada de medusas.”

Medusa by Caravaggio (1597)
I stared at the Spanish word for jellyfish–simultaneously realizing the inaccuracy of the English word (a fish made out of jelly?) and the vivid metaphor of the Spanish word, evoking that monster of Greek mythology with the living venomous snakes in place of her hair. Clever! (Turns out the Spanish are not alone. The Portuguese word for jellyfish is also medusa, and the French version is méduse.)

A few days later, I was reading an article about a recent movie that had become, in the writer’s words, a “blockbuster.” Blockbuster? I had seen or used that word countless times to describe a popular movie or book without ever considering its origins. Indeed, I’d rented videos for more than a decade from Blockbuster Video without ever once wondering, Why ‘blockbuster”?

So I turned to the dictionary, where I learned that the term “blockbuster,” coined during World War II, referred to a multi-ton aerial bomb containing high explosives for use as a large-scale demolition device, i.e., a bomb whose explosive power could “bust” an entire city “block.” So how did it evolve from a powerfully destructive bomb to, according to the dictionary, “a motion picture or novel, especially one lavishly produced, that has or is expected to have wide popular appeal or financial success”?

Blockbuster_logo.svg[1]I will save you a trip down that etymological “rabbit hole” (thank you, Alice in Wonderland) and tell you that I found two explanations for the evolution of the term from destructive bomb to hit movie or book. One explanation, cited by several (including the Oxford English Dictionary) focuses on the fact that a blockbuster bomb makes an enormous hit on its target. Thus a movie or book that is a big hit is a blockbuster. The other explanation, which seems a little more strained, traces the origin to a popular movie or play that was so successful that competing theaters on the block are “busted” and driven out of business.

Jaws-movie-poster[1]Regardless of the correct pathway from destructive bomb to a super-grossing motion picture, the language gurus point to Steven Spielberg’s 1975 movie Jaws as the occasion when “usage of ‘blockbuster’ for films coalesced” and “became perceived as something new: a cultural phenomenon, a fast-paced exciting entertainment, almost a genre. Audiences interacted with such films, talked about them afterwards, and went back to see them again just for the thrill.”

Another symptom of this language affliction is that once you start down that rabbit hole, you can’t stop. Notice use of the word “bomb” above in describing a “blockbuster.” And thus my next question. If blockbuster somehow evolved from a bomb into a big hit movie, how did “bomb” evolve from a big hit to a dismal failure, namely, a dud? Or, even odder, how did the term for a destructive explosive device evolve into the expression “the bomb,” which is a term to describe something totally cool. Here is one explanation I found:

People have been dropping the word bomb in many different ways for years, and it’s easy to see why: because it’s such a short and evocative word, it’s perfect for slang. At times bomb has meant a large sum of money, a marijuana cigarette, a nice car, and an old beat up car. Americans traveling in England might be confused, because in the UK, a performance that is a bomb is a tremendous success, whereas a performance in the US that bombed is a failure. Both meanings play off the idea of explosive impact, but one focuses on the positive (it was exciting!) and the other the negative (it was disastrous!). By the 1990s in the US, the British slang had rubbed off on speakers of American English, and for a time anything cool could be called “the bomb.”

And while we’re on the subject of bombs, how did the noun “bombshell” evolve from an explosive device to a shocking development to an extremely attractive woman? As the etymologists explain, all three meanings include the notion of a head-turning, eyes-wide moment.

Which moves us on to “rubber-necking,” which edges us close to a “red herring,” and which promises us no exit from this particular rabbit hole. But rather than “tilt at windmills” or “burn any more bridges,” it’s time we “talk turkey.” But first let me grab a “brewski” or two. But don’t worry. I’m not a “navel gazer,” although I like my maritime slang. So even if you join me at a “kegger,” I promise I won’t get “three sheets to the wind.” And if things get “dicey,” we can always “cut and run.”


Some X-Rated Thoughts

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As an intellectual property lawyer by day, I can confirm that my area of law is, to quote Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, “the gift that keeps on giving the whole year.” Not a month goes by without the arrival of yet another quirky case.

Copyright law? Hard to top JCW Investments, Inc. v. Novelty, Inc. 482 F. 3d 910 (7th Cir. 2007), which opens:

Meet Pull My Finger® Fred. He is a white, middle-aged, overweight man with black hair and a receding hairline, sitting in an armchair wearing a white tank top and blue pants. Fred is a plush doll and when one squeezes Fred’s extended finger on his right hand, he farts. He also makes somewhat crude, somewhat funny statements about the bodily noises he emits, such as “Did somebody step on a duck?” or “Silent but deadly.”

What was the copyright issue? Believe it or not, another farting doll. As the Court explains:

Fartman could be Fred’s twin. Fartman, also a plush doll, is a white, middle-aged, overweight man with black hair and a receding hairline, sitting in an armchair wearing a white tank top and blue pants. Fartman (as his name suggests) also farts when one squeezes his extended finger; he too cracks jokes about the bodily function. Two of Fartman’s seven jokes are the same as two of the 10 spoken by Fred. Needless to say, Tekky Toys, which manufactures Fred, was not happy when Novelty, Inc., began producing Fartman.

And then we have the joys of trademark law. One recent example: a ruling by the Trademark Office’s Appeal Board on whether a trademark that includes a slang term for a male body part should be deemed “scandalous” under the Trademark Act and thus inappropriate for federal registration. What was that two-word term? See if you can spot it in the microbrewery’s label for its brown ale, displayed above.

The Board’s decision to allow that registration–a decision that acknowledges society’s changing standards for what constitutes “scandalous” matter–got me thinking about the evolution of taste in literature and arts.

For example, on my first date with my future wife, we saw an X-rated movie. She loved it. So did the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which awarded it the Oscar for Best Picture of themidnight-cowboy-movie-poster-1969-1020142677[1] Year. And in less than a year, the rating for Midnight Cowboy was lowered from X to R. If it premiered today, it would probably be rated PG-13.

The same is true, of course, in literature. What was once obscene–such as James Joyce’s Ulysses–is now passé. There are passages of dialogue in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls that will seem silly to a modern reader because of the way Hemingway substitutes non-obscene words for the actual ones. The words “muck” and “mucking” appear throughout the novel. They rhyme, of course, with another pair of words that start with a consonant closer to the beginning of the alphabet. That was then. Nearly a half century later, the expression Erica Jong coined in her novel Fear of Flying was not “the Zipless Muck.”

So, too, throughout For Whom the Bell Tolls various exasperated characters use a common Spanish curse that Hemingway “translates” as “I obscenity in the milk of thy mother.” In the original Spanish, “obscenity” is a verb that rhymes with “skit,” and “thy mother” is a shortened reference to your mother and her work in the world’s oldest profession. By contrast, the opening chapter of Don Winslow’s recent, critically acclaimed Savages consists of exactly two words, the second of which is “you.”

forwhomthebelltolls-744380[1]And in the grand scheme of things, that’s life. Standards change. The 1913 premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in Paris caused a near riot in the concert hall and received scathing reviews from music critics. Within a year it was viewed as a masterpiece. The art critics of Paris derisively labeled the paintings of Monet, Renoir, and Pissaro mere “impressionism.” And in Elvis Presley’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, the camera stayed above his waist to avoid shocking the nation with the sight of those wiggling hips–a far different camera angle than the one for the halftime performances of Beyonce and Bruno Mars at Super Bowl 50.

What’s more interesting to me, though, are the reasons standards change. And for that, the Trademark Appeal Board, in approving the NUT SACK DOUBLE BROWN ALE trademark, offered a nuanced explanation for why slang terms are often less in-your-face than the proper terms:

“[M]any slang terms come into the lexicon because the formally correct, clinical word for the thing itself is deemed uncomfortably potent. This seems to be particularly true with respect to parts of the human body, in which case speakers adopt the slang terms precisely because they seem less intense, less indelicate, than the formally correct or technical terminology.”

Then again, if Ernest Hemingway were running the Trademark Office, his response would be: “I obscenity in the nether regions of thy fermented beverage.”

“You Can’t Make This Stuff Up”

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Fiction versus reality.

I have written occasionally, and contemplated more often, the profound wisdom behind the old saying that truth is stranger than fiction. The laws governing the real world are, in fundamental ways, different than the laws governing the world of fiction. Coincidence is a fact of life–right out there in the open, obvious and accepted. In fiction, however, coincidence must be disguised or your audience will reject it. In life, the cavalry occasionally does arrive just in time to prevent a massacre; try that trick in a work of fiction and you’ll be mocked. In life, a U.S. Congressman who sends photographs of his penis to female admirers can be named Wiener. Give him that name in your 51k02psI2sL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_[1]novel and your editor will make you change it.

“You can’t make this stuff up.”

I’ve heard that line twice this past week, each time from someone recounting a life experience so outrageous and sad that it could never be included in a work of fiction. In one of those cases, the man’s beloved father had been rushed to the hospital with a near fatal heart attack. The doctors had saved his life, the father had spent a week in the ICU, and as he was being transferred to a rehab facility where his family was waiting to greet him, a truck collided with his ambulance and killed him. True stories like that are so infused with pain and sadness that it almost makes you question the purpose of art in a world filled with such tragedies.

And yet.

And yet.

Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche

Think of those works of literature that have helped you make sense of your world. One friend who grew up in a household dominated by a narcissistic father finds comfort in Shakespeare’s King Lear. How many trapped in an unhappy marriage find resonance in Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary? Whether it’s Balzac or Vonnegut or Hammett or Faulkner or, occasionally for me, James Lee Burke, great authors and their works help us make sense of this world.

And thus I will let Friedrich Nietzsche have the last words: “We have art in order not to die from the truth.”

Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction . . . Usually

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We who toil in the field of fiction soon learn that truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Specifically, the laws of fiction prohibit the incredible coincidences that occur all the time in the real world. The key word here is “incredible.” Yes, there actually were twin girls, separated at birth, who found one another decades later on a train ride through the south of France, and yes, there really was an Illinois farmer, about to lose the family farm, who bought a lottery ticket with his last dollars and, lo and behold, won the Illinois lottery the day before the bank was scheduled to foreclose. But try to use either of those coincidences as a key element of your plot and you will never get published.

And it’s no use telling your editor, “But this really happened.” That’s because readers of fiction view obvious coincidences as pathetic plot devices. One of my favorite author cartoons is entitled Novelist At Work. The author is seated at his computer, and on the wall is a sign reading “10 Days without a Contrived Coincidence to Forward the Plot.” Every novelist who sees that cartoon smiles knowingly.

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene Review 5 stars phistars wallpaper[1]And while truth is stranger than fiction, every once in awhile fiction can be stranger than truth. Specifically, sometimes you invent a character or a situation that you later discover actually exists in the real world. Graham Greene creates that experience in his black comedy, Our Man in Havana, which is set in the 1950s in pre-Castro Cuba. James Worwold, an ordinary vacuum cleaner retailer in Havana, is improbably recruited by the British secret service to provide espionage services in Cuba. Because he needs the money but has no information to send back to London, he fakes his reports, sprinkling them with names he finds in the newspapers. To liven up those reports, he includes sketches of vacuum cleaner parts, which he claims are sketches of a secret Russian military installation in the mountains. The British spy agency falls for his imaginary accounts hook, line, and sinker.

gg56031772[1]A key figure in those reports is a fictional pilot named Raul, who is Worworld’s imaginary mole. To Worwold’s dismay, the Brits send over an agent to meet with Raul. But just when Wormwold is about to be exposed as a fraud, a real pilot named Raul is killed in a car crash.

I loved that novel, and particularly the seemingly improbable way that an imaginary person in the novel could turn out to be a real person. Well, a “real” person within the fictional world of the novel.

And then it happened to me. In real life.

constantin-guys-girls-in-a-bordello[1]In one of my novels, which shall remain nameless here for reasons that will become apparent, I created a character–a bad guy–who was the son of a highly respected physician. I needed to create his backstory, namely, why would the scion of a wealthy and esteemed family go bad? I sought guidance from Honore de Balzac, who wrote that “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.”

And thus I created a family tree stretching back four generations to its shady origins at the turn of last century. The family founder was an itinerant linen peddler who’d immigrated from Russia in the 1890s and eventually settled in St. Louis in 1900, where he established a linen service. Ever the entrepreneur, he realized the unique economic opportunities presented by the upcoming World’s Fair in 1904, especially since he was now the sole supplier of clean sheets and towels to all of the city’s whorehouses. By the time the World’s Fair closed, he was a wealthy man who not only controlled several of the town’s most profitable bordellos but had ownership interests in the suppliers of alcohol, drugs, and gambling in St. Louis. His son became a prominent criminal defense lawyer, and eventually a state court judge. His grandson became a renowned surgeon. And his great-grandson became the bad guy in my novel.

Six months after the novel was published, my secretary answered a call from a local heart surgeon who wanted to speak with me. That he had the same last name as the surgeon in the novel was a fact that didn’t register when I answered the phone.

“I’m curious,” he said. “How did you find out about my grandfather?”

“Your grandfather?” I said. “What do you mean?”

“All that stuff about how he got his start in the linen business, how he supplied linens to the whorehouses during the World’s Fair. I didn’t know that anyone outside our family knew about that.”

Turns out that all of the basic facts about my fictional linen supplier–right down to his first and last name–matched up with a real man by that name who did indeed supply linens to the St. Louis whorehouses during the 1904 World’s Fair.

Eerie. But true.