Monday, August 20, 2007

Michael Harvey

by Steven Williams
Michael Harvey black and white photographMichael Harvey's first novel The Chicago Way will be released in August 2007. It is a noir thriller featuring a former Chicago cop named Michael Kelly who has become a private detective. He is hired by his former police partner to help solve a case of rape and battery. The case has remained unsolved for eight 'The Chicago Way' by Michael Harvey front coveryears because the ex-partner had been ordered to forget about it. The day after being hired to help reopen the case, Kelly's ex-partner is found murdered and Kelly has been framed for the killing. As he works to extricate himself he discovers a network of political corruption and crooked cops which seems to be protecting a serial murderer. He elicits the help of a television reporter, a forensic DNA expert, a detective with a special interest in rape cases, and someone form the District Attorney's office to pursue the case. Following the trail puts him in confrontation with Chicago's mob, the serial killer, double-crossing friends, and the mean streets of Chicago themselves.

This book has already received a Publishers Weekly starred review and has a buzz growing about the writer's ability to deliver a fast-paced, atmospheric thriller. Harvey is the co-creator and executive producer of the television show Cold Case Files, a pioneer in the non-fiction forensics genre, which has been nominated for two Emmys for Best Original Series. He has also shared an Academy Award Nomination for Best Documentary Short: Writer for the film Eyewitness: The Legacy of Death Camp Art (1999). Directed by Bert Van Bork, this is a film about the genre of art created secretly by artists who died inside the Nazi death camps during the Holocaust. It focuses primarily on the life and work of three artists who were prisoners at Auschwitz. Jan Kondki, a Polish Catholic, Dina Gottliebova, and Felix Nussbaum.

The Chicago Nighttime Skyline

Newer Article: Omelette Aurore by Alice B. Toklas, Artists' and Writers' Recipes


Older Article: John Graves and the Texas literary heritage

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Michael Harvey, debut of a noir thriller writer by Steven Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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Sunday, August 19, 2007

John Graves

by Steven Williams
John Graves black and white photographJohn Graves was a native Texan, born and educated there. Though he traveled for a brief period after graduating from college, in 1958 he returned to Texas. It was here that the core of his being as a writer developed. He had been familiar with the Trinity River as a child and in 1957 deliberately took a canoe trip down the Brazos River when the river was threatened by a dam.Goodbye to a River paperback front cover He went on to produce his best known major work Goodbye to a River: A Narrative (1960), developing it from an original magazine article about the natural state of the river.

Hard Scrabble front cover

The second of Graves' major books was Hard Scrabble: Observations on a Patch of Land (1974). By this time he had purchased land near Glen Rose, Texas and it was his experiences living there that provided the ideas and materials for the book.

From a Limestone Ledge front cover

Third in his most influential books is From a Limestone Ledge: Some Essays and Other Ruminations About Country Life in Texas (1980). It represents both a continuing thread of ruminations about his place on the land as well as his maturity as a writer. Most of the essays had originally been published in Texas Monthly magazine.

Myself and Strangers, A Memoir of Apprenticeship by John Graves front cover

The last of Graves' important writing in book form was his memoir Myself and Strangers: A Memoir of Apprenticeship (2004). It focuses on the period of time when as a young man, he had left Texas, conscously determined to be a writer. This book is notable for the craftsmanship of its author as well as what it reveals in hindsight about how important his prolonged apprenticeship as a writer was to finding his own unique voice.

Graves' body of work superficially seems brief, but on closer observation he had established himself as a professional if not outstanding writer as early as the publication of his first book. Since then, his articles, essays, and short stories have appeared in The Atlantic, American Esquire, and The New Yorker. He has also produced introductions for the work of other writers as well as the text for several books of photography. Appreciating Graves' work and cultural influence requires the reader to develop an understanding, or at least a broad impression, about the place of this author within the broader literary heritage of Texas. An important part of this continuity is the important friendship he developed with J. Frank Dobie in the 1950s. This friendship was based both on Dobie's early appreciation for the quality of Graves' work as well as their instinctive mutual liking for each other.

Additional titles by Graves include the text for Landscapes of Texas: Photographs from Texas Highways Magazine (1980), Blue and Some Other Dogs (1981), The Last Running: A Story (1990), Self-portrait with Birds: Some Semi-ornithological Recollections (1991), A John Graves Reader (1996), the introduction for the 1999 reprint of This Stubborn Soil: A Frontier Boyhood, the text for Texas Rivers (2002), the foreword for The Earth Remains Forever: Generations at a Crossroads (2002), the text for Texas Hill Country (2003), the foreword for Revealing Character: Robb Kendrick's Texas Tintypes (2005), and My Dogs and Guns (2007). (See also 'John Graves, Writer' (2007) edited by Mark Busby and Terrell Dixon.)

Brazos River panorama photo

Newer Article: Michael Harvey, debut of a noir thriller writer


Older Article: Dave Oliophant, Texan poet and Jazz historian

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John Graves and the Texas literary heritage by Steven Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available by contacting Steven Williams through Bookmarc's BookmarcsOnline.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Dave Oliphant

by Steven Williams

black and white photograph of Dave Oliphant

Dave Oliphant is a native Texan poet, a recently retired (2006) professor at the University of Texas in Austin, a noted writer on the history of Jazz in Texas, and editor/publisher of Prickly Pear Press.

Jazz Mavericks of the Lone Star State front coverThe newest book by Dave Oliphant is Jazz Mavericks of the Lone Star State (2007). It is a collection of sixteen published and previously unpublished essays on Jazz in Texas. Several of these essays describe the contributions of Jazz musicians Eddie Durham, Kenny Dorham, Leo Wright, and Omette Coleman. He also expands on earlier work on the history of swing to discuss Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies as well as Duncan McLean's Lone Star Swing. He also discusses the relationship between British Jazz criticism and Texas Jazz while covering the work of Texas folklorist Alan Lomax's biographical work on Jelly Roll Morton. There is also discussionn of the links between Jazz and literature in Texas, particularly Texas poets.

William Carlos Williams poet (black and white photo)

Regarding Oliophant's poetry, his style is noted for the influence of William Carlos Williams including an adaption of similar techniques, including free-verse rhythms, and his concern with 'place'. The poetry published by Oliphant include the books Backtracking (2004), Memories of Texas Towns and Cities (2000), Maria's Poems (1987), and Austin (1985), and Footprints, 1961-1978 (1978), Lines and Mounds (1976).

Lines and Mounds (1976) is considered a particularly Southwestern influenced collection of work. It reflects the early direction his career as a poet took towards a regionalist attitude emphasizing the interpretation of the history of a place from its origins on into the present. Footprints, 1961-1978 (1978) is noted for its non-regional subjects in addition to the author's concern for the history, culture, and feeling for the 'place' where he has lived, much like his previous book "Lines and Mounds" (1976). Austin (1985), a book-length poetic history of the city, has been compared to William Carlos Williams' approach in "Paterson."

Maria's Poems front cover

Maria's Poems (1987) is named for a sequence of nine poems Oliphant has written about his Chilean-born wife. The author frequently acknowledges the influence of his feelings for his wife in his work as well as his attitude towards life.

Memories of Texas Towns and Cities front cover

Memories of Texas Towns and Cities (2000) was begun in 1974 and is an epic poetic sequence that collectively creates an portrait of Texas. The images and broad range of subjects include Texas places, world history, regional history, historical figures, contemporary people, and literature. This book as one complete work functions as both a remembrance and a celebration of place and people by its author. Some of the material has appeared previously in Oliphant's earlier collections, but this book represents the author's complete Memories sequence, a wide-ranging picture of Texans and Texas places.

Backtracking, poems by Dave Oliphant

Backtracking (2004) is an eclectic collection of contemporary American poetry about Texas landscapes and people. Many of the pieces are explorations of the influences and inspirations that have influenced his poetry. This includes most significantly the impact of both Spanish culture and his native Chilean wife of thirty-seven years. The collection includes pieces celebrating such diverse literary, artistic, and musical influences as Charles Ives, Van Gogh, The Blues, and Jazz music.

Oliphant met his wife in Chile when he was teaching there. The resulting deep cultural connection to Chile explains, in part, Oliphant's work as translator from the Chilean Spanish Figures of Speech: Poems of Enrique Lihn (1999) and Love Hound: Poems by Oliver Welden (2006).

Figures of Speech front cover

Figures of Speech (1999) is a representative bilingual collection of sixty-two poems by a Chilean poet of international stature. They bilingual presentation allows readers of Spanish to enjoy and appreciate the original works as well as Oliphant's accurate and evocative renditions. Oliphant divides the book into six sections, broadly categorized by style and subject. The book also includs an introductory chapter by the translator in which he discusses Lihn’s interest in the function of language. This collection was chosen by the translator after the poet's death.

Love Hound, Poems by Oliver Welden front cover

Love Hound: Poems by Oliver Welden (2006) is bilingual republication of a collection of poetry by a noted Chilean poet who 'disappeared' during the Pinochet dictatorship which subsequently suppressed his work. He was Editor of the Chilean poetry journal Tebaida and a winner of the Luis Tello National Poetry Award of the Society of Chilean Writers.

Roundup, An Anthology of Texas Poets front cover

Roundup: An Anthology of Texas Poets (1999) was edited by Oliphant and this collection also contains some of his work.

Texan Jazz front cover

The interest in Jazz music expressed in Oliphant's Backtracking, is another important aspect of his work as a writer and educator. Texan Jazz (1996) is one of his nonfiction books and it reflects an enthusiastic study of Jazz that has been ongoing for fifty years. The artists discussed in "Texan Jazz" include Scott Joplin, Hersal Thomas, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sippie Wallace, Jack Teagarden, Buster Smith, Hot Lips Page, Eddie Durham, Herschel Evans, Charlie Christian, Red Garland, Kenny Dorham, Jimmy Giuffre, Ornette Coleman, John Carter, and many others. The book has been critically well received because of its meticulous research and is considered an overview of Jazz as a whole as well as a definitive history of Texas Jazz.

The Early Swing Era, 1930 to 1941 front cover

The Early Swing Era, 1930 to 1941 (2002) is an important work of Jazz scholarship on the subject and is presented in a style that is accessible to the general reader. Oliphant's book provides information on 'Swing' style Jazz artists that covering their methods, innovations, and recordings. This includes recommendations for important performances available on compact disc. It is organized biographically covering both individuals and groups signficant to this Jazz style's development. This reference work is also especially interesting for its discussion of the precursors to the Big Band Era of Swing Jazz style, providing fuller discussion of some individuals and groups than has previously been available.

Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five (Louis Armstrong, Johnny St. Cyr, Johnny Dodds, Kid Ory, and Lil Hardin-Armstrong) black and white photograph

Newer Article: John Graves and the Texas literary heritage


Older Article: Betty Crocker, the origins of an American pop culture icon

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Dave Oliphant, Texan poet and Jazz historian by Steven Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Betty Crocker

by Steven Williams

Betty Crocker has been a widely recognizable Pop Culture icon in the US since the 1930s. The facts that she has never existed as a real person and while at the same time representing the marketing arm of General Mills has not and should not detract from cookbook collectors' interest in Betty Crocker cookbooks and related emphemera. Students of American social and cultural history as well as those interested in food history or even those just interested in how important food has been in their lives will find this an interesting collector's specialty.

Betty Crocker circa 1927 from an unatributed sourceBetty Crocker was the 1921 marketing creation of Washburn-Crosby Company of Minneapolis/St. Paul, one of the six major flour milling companies that eventually merged to become General Mills in 1928. Betty's first name was chosen for her because it was considered to be both warm and friendly as well as reassuringly 'American'. Her last name, Crocker, was chosen to honor William H. Crocker, a well-loved and recently retired company director at Washburn-Crosby. Initially Betty was intended to provide a warmer, more intimate way to answer consumer mail which by the early 1920s already numbered in the thousands of pieces each year for the company. For this purpose, a Betty Crocker was given also given a signature at this time. This signature was picked from the submitted entries in a 'Betty Crocker' signature contest held among all Betty Crocker's 1921 'signature'of the female employees of Washburn-Crosby. This signature has remained essentially the same ever since and even now part makes up an important part of the trademarked logo used on General Mills' Betty Crocker products.

Betty Crocker logo

In 1924, Washburn-Crosby acquired the failed Minneapolis/St. Paul radio station WLAG, changing the station's call letters to WCCO (i.e., Washburn-Crosby Company) and establishing it as one of the oldest radio stations in Minnesota. WCCO is notable in advertising history because it was was the media thorugh which unique and groundbreeading advertising and promotiions were introduced in the 1920s and 1930s. In broadcasting history it is just as significant. WCCO was part of a trend in commercially motivated radio development which aggressively worked to engineer and use better and more powerful radio transmitters. It 1932 WCCO reached a watershed when the station completed construction of a 50,000-watt tower, the maximum power licensed in the United States. With the construction of two additional 300-foot towers, WCCO's signal srength was increased even more making it one of the nation's most powerful "clear channel" broadcasters and allowing it to be picked up as far away as Hawaii, the Caribbean, and Mexico.

It was in 1924 at this radio station that Betty Crocker was first given a voice for the debut of the nation's very first cooking show, The Betty Crocker School of the Air, a typical example of WCCO's innovative use of radio marketing. This voice was first provided by just a single actress working out of the WCCO radio station. Because the show was an immediate success, it expanded to thirteen regional stations the following year with thirteen different actresses in thirteen differend radio studios providing Betty's voice. Betty returned to being just one 'person' when the program joined the fledgling NBC national newtork in 1927. The Betty Crocker School of the Air program ended up being broadcast for twenty-seven years making it a fixture in mainstream American culture.

For cookbook collectors, it is in publishing that the Betty Crocker label is important. General Mills published various promotional pamphlets by Betty Crocker from 1930 to 1950 culminating in the 1950 publication of the most widely known one, "Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book." This book is in its 10th edition and is now published under the title "Betty Crocker Cookbook: Everything You Need to Know to Cook Today."

1950 Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book front cover

During the 1930s, the Golden Age of Radio, cooking shows continued to proliferate. In addition to Betty Crocker the most important of these real cooking personalities Winifred Carter, Frances Lee Barton, and Mary Ellis Ames.

In 1936 Betty Crocker was given a face by the artist Neysa McMein. This official likeness was created by blending the features of all the women in the company’s Home Service Department. Over the years this official likeness has occassionally been updated to reflect changing times and attitudes towards women and American home life.

Betty Crocker circa 1936 color painting by Neysa McMein

Generally, there are thus two major influences drawing cookbook colletors to Betty Crocker publications. One is the practicality of the Betty Crocker cookbooks themselves. From their beginning, their recipes have triple-tested as well as being illustrated with pictures and step-by-step instructions. From this, Betty Crocker cookbooks earned a reputation for recipes that are simple, economical, and tasty.

In addition to collecting a cookbook for its practical use, nostalgia has brought many collectors to Betty Crocker. Many people begin to acquire or collect Betty Crocker cookbooks because they love them. Some look for old cookbook editions that they remember their mother using. Some are drawn to Betty Crocker by memories by family cooking traditions. Certain cookbooks or cookbook editions are saught out because they provide a way to pass on these traditions to children or else involve them in developing new ones. Some collectors also seek out cookbooks that contain particular recipes that they prize because of an association with an important relationship to a relative. Nostalgia, the familiar flavors of childhood, and family memories associated with food reflect the success of Betty Crocker cookbooks. They popularized classic American recipes such as Snickerdoodles and Pigs-in-a-Blanket and went on to become the icon of tradional American food for many.

Norman Rockwell’s painting, Freedom from Want

Newer Article: Dave Oliphant, Texan poet and Jazz historian


Older Article: 2007 Barry Award Nominations

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Betty Crocker, the origins of an American pop culture icon by Steven Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available by contacting Steven Williams through Bookmarc's BookmarcsOnline.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Barry Nominations

by Steven Williams

The nominees for the 2007 Barry Awards have been announced. The Barry Awards were created by "Deadly Pleasures," the American premier fan-oriented mystery magazine and named in honor of Barry Gardner, a noted fan reviewer. Finalists are selected by a nominating committee and voted on by the readers of "Mystery News" and "Deadly Pleasures."

Best Novel:
• White Shadow, by Ace Atkins (Putnam)
• Oh Danny Boy, by Rhys Bowen (St. Martin’s Minotaur)
• The Last Assassin, by Barry Eisler (Putnam)
• The Prisoner of Guantanamo, by Dan Fesperman (Knopf)
• City of Shadows, by Ariana Franklin (Morrow)
• The Night Gardener, by George Pelecanos (Little, Brown)

Best First Novel:
• The Faithful Spy, by Alex Berenson (Random House)
• Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn (Shaye Areheart Books)
• The Berlin Conspiracy, by Tom Gabbay (Morrow)
• King of Lies, by John Hart (St. Martin’s Minotaur)
• Still Life, by Louise Penny (St. Martin’s Minotaur)
• A Field of Darkness, by Cornelia Read (Mysterious Press)

Best British Novel:
• Priest, by Ken Bruen (Bantam Press)
• Dying Light, by Stuart MacBride (HarperCollins)
• Sovereign, by C.J. Sansom (Macmillan)
• The Case of the Missing Books, by Ian Sansom (Fourth Estate)
• Mr. Clarinet, by Nick Stone (Michael Joseph Ltd./Penguin)
• Red Sky Lament, by Edward Wright (Orion)

Best Thriller:
• Killer Instinct, by Joseph Finder (St. Martin’s Press)
• The Foreign Correspondent, by Alan Furst (Random House)
• Relentless, by Simon Kernick (Bantam Press)
• Cold Kill, by Stephen Leather (Hodder & Stoughton)
• The Messenger, by Daniel Silva (Putnam)
• Kill Me, by Stephen White (Dutton)

Best Paperback Original:
• Bust, by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr (Hard Case Crime)
• The Last Quarry, by Max Allan Collins (Hard Case Crime)
• The Cleanup, by Sean Doolittle (Dell)
• Live Wire, by Jay MacLarty (Pocket)
• Deadman’s Poker, by Jim Swain (Fawcett)
• Crooked, by Brian Wiprud (Dell)

Best Short Story:
• “Cain Was Innocent,” by Simon Brett (from Thou Shalt Not Kill, edited by Anne Perry; Carroll & Graf)
• “Shaping the Ends,” by Judith Cutler (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine [EQMM], May 2006)
• “The Right Call,” by Brendan DuBois (EQMM, September/October 2006)
• “A Man of Taste,” by Kate Ellis (EQMM, March/April 2006)
• “The Flower Girl,” by Paul Halter (from The Night of the Wolf; Wildside Press)
• “A Case for Inspector Ghote,” by June Thomson (from The Verdict of Us All, edited by Peter Lovesey; Crippen & Landru)

Barry Gardner black and white photograph

Newer Article: Betty Crocker, the origins of an American pop culture icon


Older Article: Mark Busby, Texas editor and author

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2007 Barry Award nominations by Steven Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available by contacting Steven Williams through Bookmarc's BookmarcsOnline.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Mark Busby

by Steven Williams
photo of Mark BusbyDr. Mark Busby, a native Texan, is the director of the Southwest Regional Humanities Center, the director of the Center for the Study of the Southwest, and a professor of English at Texas State University-San Marcos. Dr. Busby is noted for his writings on the modern literature of the American West. Most notably, he is the author of Larry McMurtry and the West: An Ambivalent Relationship (1995), Ralph Ellison (1991), a title in the United States Authors series published by Twayne, and two Western Writers Series booklets, Preston Jones (1983) and Lanford Wilson, published by Boise State University. His short stories have been published in New Texas Short Stories and Texas Short Stories II. and he is also the author of the novel Fort Benning Blues (2001). The novel is based in part on his experiences attending Army Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning in 1970. Dr. Busby has edited The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Regional American Culture: The Southwest (2004) and New Growth 2: Short Stories of Contemporary Texas, (1993) as well as a co-editing the recently released book John Graves, Writer. He has additional co-editing credits for From Texas to the World and Back: Essays on the Journeys of Katherine Anne Porter (2001) as well as The Frontier Experience and the American Dream (1989).

John Graves, Writer (2007)John Graves, Writer dust jacket front
edited by Mark Busby and Terrell Dixon
Publisher: University of Texas Press
ISBN 0292714947
This book presents a picture of this renowned author of Goodbye to a River. The articles chosen by the editors place Graves' writings about natural and human history in Texas within the context of how his work affected fellow writers as welll as within the larger world of environmental literature. The overall effect is a greater understanding of Graves as a writer, his relationship with the land in Texas, and the community of writers and publishers within Texas. Dr. Busby's contributions include a critical overview of Graves' life and work, enriched by his work editing and publishing of books, anthologies and journal articles about the Southwest and its writers This book includes the transcript of a symposium session in which he interacted with Sam Hynes, Dave Hickey, and Mark Busby. There is also a formal interview conducted by Dave Hamrick as well as contributions by Graves' friends and fellow writers Bill Wittliff, Rick Bass, Bill Broyles, John R. Erickson, Bill Harvey, and James Ward Lee clarifying his on influence on them and the literature of the modern American West. Don Graham's contribution is a discussion of Graves' literary reputation as well as his acceptance into American letters. In addition to this material, there nine scholarly articles analysizing aspects of Graves' work including its place within American environmental literature, how the production of the book affected Graves himself, Graves' writing style, gender in his work, his sometimes contentious relationship with Texas Monthly magazine, and how "Goodbye to a River" fit into a larger body of the author's work and how this body of work actually represents one single narrative about a person's relationship with the land.

Fort Benning Blues dust jacket frontFort Benning Blues: A Novel (April 2001)
Texas Christian University Press
ISBN 0875652387
A novel, set in the time of Vietnam, about a middle-class American boy from Texas who is drafted in 1969. He intends to duty to his country, especially as at applies to his grandfather's opinion of him. The young man is sent off to Officer Candidate School in Fort Benning, Georgia. At this time, the Army is using OCS to weed out fools and incompetents with the intention of providing a better chance for the troops to survive the grinding unconventional war in Vietnam. After arriving in camp, his first assignment is the job of driver for Lt. Calley while he waits for his trial to begin for his participation in the My Lai massacre. He and two of his buddies in OCA are radicalized by these sort of experiences to the point where anti-war sentiments begins to develope. The Kent State shootings push them over the edge and all three go AWOL. The three of them finally meet again, 25 years later, at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. Busby recreats the era of the sixties and seventies by incorporating song lyrics, newspaper headlines, and pop culture slang. The overall focus of the book is the developing realization of the wrong-headedness of the war with a realization that it is possible to become a veteran of the Vietnam Era and the army without being an actual veteran of the war itself.

Ralph Ellison (June 1991)Ralph Ellison by Mark Busby dust jacket front
Twayne Publishers United States Authors series
ISBN 0805776265
This book traces the influences of folklore, mythology, and oral tradition on the writings of Ralph Ellison. Dr. Busby also places Ellison's Invisible Man within the contradictory forces of American culture and history, particularly the myths of the American West. American mythology of the western frontier has always embraced the spirit of freedom and limitless possibility while at the same time emphasizing an ignoring of the past. This seems a strange argument, but one of the central American beliefs, especially in the west, is that it is what you can do and accomplish that determines your success and character, not where you happened to be born or the status of your family. These contradictions are particularly evident to African-Americans, especially since many aspects of American history empower enduring social attitudes about race. The Tulsa, Oklahoma 1921 Race Riot was one of the worst of the race riots of the post-World War One era. Busby examines how Ellison's fiction expressed and shaped this painful awareness of the social and cultural restriction, tradition, and violence of American life during that period. This bok is also important for its discussion of the impressive body of Ellison's nofiction writing, particularly the essay collections Shadow and Ace (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986). This book also make a particular effort to clarify the subsequent influence of Ellison on his contemporaries and his preeminence as a 20th century American writer. While there is an abundance of critical writing about Ralph Ellison, this book provides important contributions to this scholarship by describing and discussing Ellison's psychic connection with the American Southwest and its relationship to his written explorations of America's social and cultural contradictions.

Lanford Wilson by Mark Busby front coverLanford Wilson (June 1987)
Boise State University
ISBN 0884300803
This is a title number 81 in the Boise State University Western Writers series. Books in this series are intended to deepen the understanding and appreciation for the literature of the American west, in all its range and complexity. This title, written by Dr. Busby, focuses on the life and work of the noted modern playwright and libretist Lanford Wilson, born 1937 in Missouri. He spent his early years in the Ozarks and, as a teenager, moved to California where he lived with his father. He began writing at the University of Chicago in 1959, and his career as a professional playwright began in the early 1960s Greenwich Village in New York City where he also became a founding member of the Circle Repertory Company (aka Circle Rep). He is noted for the plays Rimers of Eldritch (1965), Hot L Baltimore (1973) , The Mound Builders (1975) and Talley's Folly (1979). Talley's Folly won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. Wilson is also a winner of the Vernon Rice Award, the Outer Circle Award, and two Village Voice Obie Awards (honoring Off and Off-Off Broadway theater productions). Dr. Busby's book is a brief, authoritative introduction to Lanford Wilson based on the significance of his contributions to western American literature. The author presents biographical material about Wilson as well as a critical interpretation of his writing. The critical review includes a discussion of the full range of Wilson's work.

Preston Jones (August 1983)
Preston Jones by Mark Busby front coverBoise State University
ISBN 0884300323
This is a title number 58 in the Boise State University Western Writers series. Books in this series are intended to deepen the understanding and appreciation for the literature of the American west, in all its range and complexity. This title, written by Dr. Busby, focuses on the life and work of the noted modern playwright of the west, Preston Jones (1936-1979). Jones was born, raised, and educated in Albuquerque, New Mexico. After college, he joined the Dallas Theater Center as an actor, a director, and a playwright. He is especially noted for his A Texas Trilogy cycle of plays (The Last Meeting, Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander, and The Oldest Living Graduate). Preston received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to write a play for the American Preston Jones black and white photographbicentennial, the Golden Apple Award from Cue magazine, and an Outer Critics Circle Award. Soon after the success of A Texas Trilogy at New York City's Kennedy Center, Preston Jones died after surgery for a bleeding ulcer. Dr. Busby's book is a brief, authoritative introduction to Preston Jones based on the significance of his contributions to western American literature. The author presents biographical material about Jones as well as a critical interpretation of his writing. The critical review includes a discussion of the full range of Jones' work.

Western cattle ranching color photograph

Newer Article: 2007 Barry Award Nominations


Older Article: Modern Mystery Genres, proliferation in popular fiction styles

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Mark Busby, Texas editor and author by Steven Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available by contacting Steven Williams through Bookmarc's BookmarcsOnline.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Mystery Genres

by Steven Williams

a mystery icon of a red magnifying lens above black bootprintsAny inclination to relagate a particular book or author to one particular genre or another becomes significantly more difficult if the writer is recognized for his literary writing. The more recognized the literary merit a work has, the less likely it is to be stereotyped into a conventional genre. Writers that come to mind with this type of reputation are are John le Carre (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose), John Fowles (The French Liuetenant's Woman), William Somerset Maugham (Up at the Villa), Graham Greene (Our Man in Havana), and Antonia Byatt (Possession). With this in mind, the reader will usually find authors like these a fairly safe gamble if they have not read any of their books before. It should be kept in mind that reading preferences are like food preferences, and what one persion appreciates and enjoys is just as likely to be of little or no interest to the next.

Labeling a particular novel as genre fiction is frequently seen as damning a book as formula fiction. Generally though, formula fiction is labeled as such because of the reuse of plot, plot devices and stock characters in a slavish way so that the outcome of the story is essentially predictable. It can be argued these days that mystery genres represent general boundaries or categories of setting and character types distinct enough to hold up to a cursory search for something enjoyable to read. There is plenty of room for escapist fiction in modern life and it is possible for a book to both formulaic, well-written, and entertaining. In this light, Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels are one of this writer's personal favorites. As should be expected, many authors are produce books that stradle one or more fiction genres without sacrificing popularity or literary recognition. A good rule of thumb to use in choosing a book is if a particular writer's work is entertaining, cross-genre novels by that author will be just as worth while. With this in mind, here are some brief, arguably subjective, descriptions of sub-genres within or often associated with mystery fiction.

In general, the basic flavors of modern mysteries include crime fiction, detective fiction, thriller fiction, and spy and espionage fiction. These categorizations are broad enough, if not especially systematic, that they are frequently used for marking shelf sections in bookstores and libraries as well as sub-sections of publisher catalogs. Of course the subjectivity involved in sorting fiction by type leads to an almost infinitely fine gradiation of potential sub-sub-genres. Nevertheless, like the devising of sub-genres, the reason why a book is assigned to any one genre or the other is subjective and any novel that can be found in a bookshop in a particular section of shelving is arguably 'in' that genre.

Mystery fiction, aka whodunit, can broadly be described as stories with involved plots in which characters are trying to discover a vital missing piece of information which is kept hidden from them, and usually the reader also. Kept hidden that is, until the final climax of the novel. Most frequently this genre label is precieved as synonymous with detective fiction and the 'whodunit'.

The Spanish Cape Mystery by Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee (aka Ellery Queen) vintage paperback front coverWhodunit or whodunnit
This genre, a simplification of "Who done it?," is associated with the "Golden Age" of detective fiction generally considered to have run from the 1920s through the 1940s. Generally, this genre novel is a complex, plot-driven detective story where the puzzle is the most important focus of the author's efforts, frequently at the cost to other fiction elements such as character development. Usually, the progression of the story provides the reader with all the clues necessary to identity of the perpetrator of the crime. A this sub-genre became more established, authors emerged who were especially skillful at leading their readers to the wrong conclusion and then revealing the least likely suspect as the villain in a completely plausizle way. This detective genre type usually has an eccentric amateur or semi-professional detective in pursuit of the criminal. Some of the most recognized writers in this style are Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, S. S. Van Dine, Ellery Queen and Rex Stout. There are 'English' style and 'American' style variants of this type. The locked-room mystery is a specialized type of a whodunit.

Whose Body (A Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery) by Dorothy L. Sayers front cover'English' style Whodunits or 'Cozies' (see also Golden Age whodunits)
A variant of the whodunit detective mystery. The English style is noted for an inclination towards the use of a gifted amateur investigating the murder instead of an official detective or police officer. Some of the most recognized writers in this style are Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey, Michael Innes, Nicholas Blake, Christianna Brand and Edmund Crispin. Notable American writers who mimicked the English style include S. S. Van Dine, John Dickson Carr, and Ellery Queen.

Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe, the 'Falstaff of detectives' painting

'American' style Whodunits (see also hardboiled)
A variant of the whodunit detective mystery. The authors who have had this label applied to them generally wrote a consciously American variant to the English style. Some of the most recognized writers in this style are Rex Stout, Clayton Rawson and Earl Derr Biggers.

Jonathan Creek starring Alan Davies and Caroline Quentin still photoLocked room mystery (aka impossible mysteries)
A whodunit style detective mystery where a murder or other crime seems to have been committed in impossible situations. These situations include conditions in which no one could have entered or left the scene of the crime but the death could not have been a suicide. This style of mystery usually follows the conventions of classic detective fiction so that the reader is provided with enough clues to solve the puzzle before the story's dramatic denouement. There are a limited number of suspects who are usually provided with apparent alibis as well as probable motives for the crime. The catch is that the situation set up by the author allows none of the suspects to have been able to enter or leave the room unseen. A key element to this style is that there is always a rational explanation for an apparently impossible event. he British TV "Jonathan Creek" mysteries are a perfect example of this style. Notable writers of this detective story variant include Ed Hoch, Paul Halter, Arthur Porges, Martin Meroy, Boileau-Narcejac, Akimitsu Takagi and Soji Shimada.

English country house detective mystery
English country house mysteries take place in an English Country House, are peopled by upper class British suspects, include a murder or at least a crime, reason is enough to discover their solution given the clues provided, and the identify of the criminal is revealed very near to or actually at the end of the story. Robert Altman's "Gosfard Park" is a perfect example of this style. This film is a wonderfully crafted homage to the country house mystery while also functioning as an effective critique of English class consciousness. Notable authors writing in this style include Ernest Bramah, H.C. Bailey, Edgar Wallace, Ethel Lina White, Max Pemberton and Robert Barr.

Murder Ahoy by Agatha Christie, Margaret Rutherford as Miss MarpleThe Golden Age Whodunit (see also English-style Whodunits)
Golden Age detective fiction is generally considered to have been established between the World Wars. It is a style of mystery fiction that most justifibly could labled escapist or formula fiction, especially in the hands of a less skillful writer who slavishly follows convention. Keep in mind that this style of mystery emerged during the Great Depression and political turmoil of the period. The British variant of Golden Age Whodunits show a tendency towards the use of a gifted amateur solving the mystery instead of a policeman. Both the American and British variants of this style frently involve a crime committed in a closed environment by one of a limited number of suspects, essentially identical to the locked room or impossible mystery story.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco front cover

The Historical Whodunnit
This fiction sub-genre straddles both the broad category of detective fiction as well as historical fiction. It is a sub-genre whose rise in poplarity was heavily invluenced by the success of Ellis Peter's Brother Cadfael novels and Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose."

The Canary Murder Case by S. S. van Dine front cover (William Powell as Philo Vance)

Detective fiction
Detective fiction is a very broad genre type that has become almost synonymous with mystery. These stories relate the solving of a crime, usually one or more murders, by a protagonist who may or may not be a professional investigator. This large, popular genre has many subgenres, reflecting differences in tone, character, and setting.

Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, book by Dashiell Hammett

Hardboiled detective fiction (see also American style whodunnits)
These books are have been called American hard-boiled fiction because the style originated among the American writers Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane. These three are widely acknowledged writers whin this broad stylistic type mystery fiction, but the attractiveness of its super-realistic, cynical style has lead to its globalization.

Peter Falk as Columbo TV Guide 25-Mar-1972 front coverInverted detective fiction (aka 'howshecatchem')
These stories with the guilty person and the crime revealed to the reader/audience. The story then follows the investigator's efforts to find out the truth while the criminal at he same time is attempting to prevent being discovered. Reader and viewer interest is maintained by a skillful development of how the truth is uncovered. The Columbo TV movie series is a classic example of this kind of detective story. For a bit of trivia, the first use of 'howcatchem' is attributed to TV Guide.

Red Sky Lament by Edward Wright front coverCrime fiction
Crime fiction stories, centered on criminal enterprise, are told from the point of view of the perpetrators. They range in tone from lighthearted "caper" stories to darker plots involving organized crime or incarcerated convicts. This is one of the more subjective sub-genre labels because it is quite frequently is used as an especially broad categorization that includes mysteries and thrillers within it.

The Seven Percent Solution by Nicholas Meyer front coverPastiche crime fiction
A pastiche is a piece of writing in which the style is patterned completely upon an original and usually quite famous work, but with no parody or ridicule intended or involved. Examples of this include the Sherlock Holmes stories written by John Dickson Carr and Arthur Conan Doyle, and E. B. Greenwood. "The Seven Percent Solution" by Nicholas Meyer, which takes a modern approach to Holmes' cocaine addiction, is a particularly interesting vairant on this style.

Murder by Death movie posterParody and spoof crime fiction
The idea is to exaggerate the most noticeable features of an original, very well known and recognizable mystery writer or style. Sometimes this style intentionally mocks the original, but most of the time the effort is to pay homage to the original while at the same time producing a funny take-off that is especially appealing to fans of the original. The film 'Murder by Death' is Neil Simon's spoof of many of the best-known whodunit sleuths. It makes particular fun of the relationship between each detective and his or her sidekick.

The Scarlatti Inheritance by Robert Ludlum front coverThriller fiction
The thriller style of fiction is built around providing readers with a roller coaster ride of strong feelings of suspense and danger (i.e., the 'thrill' in thriller). Writers amplify this effect by focusing their thriller plots around a high-stakes hunt, chase, or a race against time. The resulting feelings of suspense are typically seasoned with elements of espionage, crime, medicine, or technology. Sub-genres of thriller fiction frequently overlap into mystery, horror, and action-adventure fiction but the wide variety of modern thriller subtypes is primarily attributed to the angst associated with the complexity of modern life. These various sub-genres most frequently are listed as including spy thrillers, political thrillers, military thrillers, conspiracy thrillers, technothrillers, eco-thrillers, legal thrillers, forensic thrillers, psychological thrillers, horror thrillers, disaster thrillers, serial killer thrillers, romantic thrillers, supernatural thrillers, action thrillers, and crime thrillers. Several qualities usually distinctly set thrillers apart from mystery fiction. One of these are the settings chosen, usually exotic ones such as a foreign city or else an exotically remote location. Thrillers also differ from mysteries in that the main character's occupation is essentially an adventurers, someone who is accustomed to a dangerous life such as spy, mercanary, seamen, pilot, etc. A notable and fairly common variety of thriller is an ordinary person drawn into a critical situation simply by accident. A perfect example of this is the film "North by Northwest" by Alfred Hitchcock. Unfortunately, the market for modern thrillers is so great, that the quality of writing varies widely. Some recommended writers known for the quality of their work include John Le Carre, Robert Ludlum, Eric Ambler, David Morrell, Frederick Forsyth, Dan Brown, James Phelan, Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton, Ian Fleming, Ken Follett and Alistair MacLean.

Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard front coverThe Caper story
The caper story is a subgenre of crime fiction. Most caper stories unually involve thefts or swindles or, occasionally, kidnappings. The stories are told from the point of view of the caper perpetratators in full view of the reader. Activities of the police trying to prevent or solve the crimes are sometimes included in the story line but, if they are, they are usually a very minor part of the story. Caper stories differ from more typical crime stories because their tone includes elements of humor, adventure, and/or unusual intelligence and audacity by the perpetrators. A couple of examples of classic caper stories are the film "The Sting," the novel "Get Shorty" by Elmore Leonard, and the short story "The Ransom of Red Chief" by O. Henry. Other noted writers within this sub-genre are Leslie Charteris, Donald E. Westlake, John Godey, Peter O'Donnell, Eric Ambler, John Boland, Walter Wager, and Michael Crichton. Notable ilms in this sub-genre include "Rififi," "The Thomas Crown Affair," "The Italian Job," "Kelly's Heroes," "Bank Shot," "The Hot Rock," "The Castle of Cagliostro," "The Great Muppet Caper," "Hudson Hawk," "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," and "Three Kings."

The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy

Suspense fiction (see thrillers)
This genre is more frequently called the thriller. Modern thrillers are arugably not directly associated with mystery fiction as a genre, but so many contemporary authors write books that straddle the thriller and mystery genres that it is worth considering its association with mysteries.

The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers

Spy fiction
Spy or espionage fiction is a sub-genre of the thriller that is usually synonimous with the political thriller and spy thriller. Some notable and less well known writers in this style include Robert Erskine Childers, John Buchan, early Manning Coles, Charles McCarry, Joseph Finder, Gayle Lynds, Daniel Silva, and Charles Cumming.

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith 1st US paperback edition front cover

Psychological suspense fiction
A sub-genre of thriller fiction in which the main conflict of the story is mental and emotional instead of physical. Notable writers of this style of fiction include Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Strangers on a Train), Simon Brett, and Stephen Dobyns.

Legs by William Kennedy

The criminal or gangster novel
Some readers consider this a separate sub-genre of crime novels or thrillers. Novels in this sub-genre are told from the point of view of criminals. Frequently, Mario Puzo's 'The Godfather' is used as a the most widely recognized example of this type of fiction. This is probably one of the most subjective labels that can be placed on a book but it is easy to argue that it is a good match for most novels featuring the mafia. Recommended works include William Kennedy's 'Legs' and Ira Wolfert’s 'Tucker’s People.'

Sherlock Holmes silhouette

Newer Article: Mark Busby, Texas editor and author


Older Article: Mystery writer Michael Connelly, master of 'hard-boiled' mysteries

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Modern Mystery Genres, proliferation in popular fiction styles by Steven Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available by contacting Steven Williams through Bookmarc's BookmarcsOnline.

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