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The Day the Black Panthers Came to Town (with Tupac Shakur's Step-Uncle)


In March 1970, Jean Genet, the radical French author, lifelong rebel and supporter of deviant causes, began touring US college campuses known for their activism with members of the Black Panther Party, hoping to win support for the Black Panthers from left-leaning students and faculty.
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Babylon on the Hudson



 I come from a family of New Yorkers. Three of my grandparents emigrated to the city from Poland and what is now Belarus and lived there most of their lives, the fourth was born there, and both of my parents were born and raised in Brooklyn before it was cool, uncool, then cool again.


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What do you mean by Jewish Noir?


"A message from the Department of Unexpected Experiences: On every leg of our extensive tour for Jewish Noir outside of the New York area, the first question was invariably some form of, “What do you mean by Jewish noir?”

At first, I didn’t know where to begin. Did I really have to explain it?"
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Take the Levites - Please!


“Take the Levites—please!”
--God, Numbers 8:6 (translated by Henny Youngman)
 
To be Jewish is to be constantly reminded of disaster or near disaster. The traditional Jewish calendar is full of events commemorating various attempts to destroy the Israelite people: Purim, Passover, Yom Ha-Shoah, Hanukkah.
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What the Bible Really Says about Gay Marriage


OK, people, I was trying to hold off on this, but CBS Radio just broadcast another news report about Congressmen supporting the claim that business owners should be allowed to refuse service to gay customers because of their “religious beliefs.”

So let’s get one thing straight: That defense is pure bullshit.

Oh, the First Amendment certainly protects their right to be bigoted assholes, but it drives me nuts when these hypocritical cowards get to hide behind the ostensibly unassailable claim of "religious beliefs" as justification for discriminating against gays, especially when they refer to the "Biblical definition" of marriage as “between one man and one woman.” The Bible does not define marriage. In fact, I always like to say that "The Bible defines marriage as between one man and one woman... and another woman... and her maid.... and the first woman's maid..." Since the Jacob has twelve children by four different women--his TWO wives AND their handmaids. (And King Solomon has over nine hundred wives and concubines.)

So imagine this scenario: If you or a friend are ever trying to order a cake or flowers for a gay wedding and some homophobic asshole refuses to serve you, just ask, "Do you serve adulterers?" Because even though the Bible does contain a commandment not to "lie with a man as with a woman," the punishment for this offense is being "cut off from their people," i.e., kicked out of the community. (Not so different from today, right?) But the Biblical punishment for adultery is death. Like immediate, summary execution by stoning to death. Clearly the Bible considers adultery to be way worse than gay sex. Suck on that, homophobes!

These business owners and their supporters should just admit that they’re bigoted assholes who are personally uncomfortable with the idea of gay marriage. But stop trying to tell us that God’s on your side.

Also, the Bible only condemns MALE homosexual sex. So, ladies, you're off the hook. Seriously.

In case you’re wondering where all this is coming from, I’ve been studying the Bible for my current novel-in-progress, so unlike most of our clueless, hypocritical politicians and their highly paid media spinmeisters, I’ve actually read the thing, and I’ve got plenty more to say on this topic, but that’s enough for now.


Kenneth Wishnia’s novels include 23 Shades of Black, an Edgar and Anthony Award finalist; Soft Money, a Library Journal Best Mystery of the Year; and Red House, a Washington Post Book World “Rave” Book of the Year. His short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock, Queens Noir, Politics Noir, Send My Love and a Molotov Cocktail and elsewhere. He is the editor of the forthcoming Jewish Noir with PM Press.




How to Kiss Ass for Fun and Profit (mostly just profit)


First some praise: over the past couple of years, PM Press has published revised and expanded editions of my Edgar Allan Poe Award-nominated series of crime novels featuring Ecuadorian-American investigator, Filomena Buscarsela.
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Ten Great Crime Fiction Characters on Film


Like many crime writers, I was profoundly influenced by the great crime novels of the traditional British and hardboiled American schools. But like so many of my generation, I first encountered these canonical detective stories in film and television versions, discovering the books later. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds, since it was long before cable TV, VCRs, Tivo, and Netflix made it possible to view anything-on-demand. So let me tell you kids all about life in the dark ages, when the dedicated viewer had to struggle to stay up past 1 AM to watch classic films on a ghosting black-and-white TV, edited for television and interrupted by endless (and awful) late night commercials.

See the rest of this article (with authentic high-octane, low-resolution film clips) at:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kenneth-wishnia/10-great-crime-fiction-ch_b_5106385.html

 

Kenneth Wishnia’s novels include 23 Shades of Black, an Edgar and Anthony Award finalist; Soft Money, a Library Journal Best Mystery of the Year; and Red House, a Washington Post Book World “Rave” Book of the Year The Glass Factory and the forthcoming Blood Lake.




"A Little Amusement at His Expense": Conan Doyle's Sly Subversion of Victorian Society, part 2


The French author Honoré de Balzac once wrote that “behind every fortune lies a great crime,” and his words are borne out in “The Blue Carbuncle.” Belonging to a countess and worth at least £20,000, the precious stone brings nothing but trouble to whoever possesses it. Holmes dismisses the fetishization of such objects in a famous passage:

     "In the larger and older jewels every facet may stand for a bloody deed. This stone is not yet twenty years old... In spite of its youth, it has already a sinister history. There have been two murders, a vitriol-throwing, a suicide, and several robberies brought about for the sake of this forty-grain weight of crystallized charcoal."

Dismissing the immense wealth of an aristocratic countess as a piece of “crystallized charcoal” represents a fairly overt critique of the culturally constructed relationship between wealth and class.

In “The Noble Bachelor,” Holmes once again expresses his distaste for cases dealing with the nobility, “which call upon a man either to be bored or to lie,” while “the humbler are usually the more interesting.” Holmes even yawns as Watson first describes the case to him, and shows further contempt for the British class system, noting that “the status of my client is a matter of less moment to me than the interest of his case.”

This is one of many characteristics that makes Holmes such a beloved archetypal hero. Money, class, status--none of it matters to him. But it mattered very much to the Victorians.

Lord St. Simon, whom Watson describes as “a man whose pleasant lot it had ever been to command and to be obeyed,” comes off as a condescending fool in his first exchange with the great detective:

     [Lord St. Simon:] “I understand the you have already managed several delicate cases of this sort, sir, though I presume that they were hardly from the same class of society.”

     [Holmes:] “No, I am descending.”

     “I beg pardon?”

     “My last client of the sort was a king.”

     “Oh, really! I had no idea. And which king?”

Lord St. Simon also believes that his fiancé ran off because marrying into such a fabulously prominent family was simply too much for her. Needless to say, Holmes rejects this self-aggrandizing assertion.

This issue of wealth and class turns up again in “The Beryl Coronet,” in which one of “the highest, noblest, most exalted names in England” refers to £50,000 as a “trifling” sum before entrusting the coronet in question to a banker who is understandably hesitant to assume responsibility for such a priceless and irreplaceable object. That the nobleman makes this unorthodox arrangement in order to cover up some potentially embarrassing indiscretion goes without saying, of course.

Too much wealth concentrated in one place has a poisonous effect on human relations, and in this story we see it trickle down from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie: The banker is awfully quick to presume his son’s guilt when a piece of the coronet goes missing, and when the jewels are returned, he hugs “his recovered gems to his bosom,” a display of affection he has not shown to his own family. The banker is another “portly” figure who resembles John Bull in the Paget illustrations, who therefore could be said to symbolize English society in general.

In contrast to the “vacuous” Miss Mary Southerland in “A Case of Identity,” Holmes is “favorably impressed” by Miss Violet Hunter in “The Copper Beeches.” She is humble, brave, and above all, intelligent: Her story provides Holmes with all the details he needs, and unlike the petulant and privileged aristocrats who typically engage Holmes’s services, she is “a woman who has had her own way to make in the world.”

This time, the bourgeoisie take it directly on the chin: Mr. Rucastle is “a prodigiously stout man” who rubs his hands with glee as he ogles the prospective governesses for his child, a nasty little boy who enjoys trapping animals and “giving pain to any creature weaker than himself.” Oh, and Mr. Rucastle also keeps his own daughter locked in an upstairs room so he can keep all her money for himself.

Once again, he resembles John Bull in the Paget illustrations, and an academic might be tempted to suggest that if Mr. Rucastle represents England, his false good humor masking a homicidal coldness and greed, then his sins are visited upon his children: his son represents the cruelty that a system of such extreme economic inequality produces--the violence needed to enforce imperialism abroad and repressive values at home--while his daughter represents those who suffer from their vulnerability to the forces symbolized by the two male figures. But that might be going a bit far for some of you.*

Fortunately, a member of the working class, “a persevering man, as a good seaman should be,” in Holmes’s words, wins the girl’s heart and spirits her away.

(*And if you really want to go off the deep end, one might suggest that in “The Engineer’s Thumb,” the loss of Hatherly’s opposable thumb--a crucial characteristic of our development as a tool-making species--to an ax-wielding assailant in a room that has been converted into a giant hydraulic press represents how industrialization and its accompanying greed robs us of our humanity. [Warning: This is extreme literary analysis performed by a trained professional. Don’t try this at home.] Hatherly is another Doyle-like figure, most notably when he describes the troubles facing a newly minted engineer: “I suppose that everyone finds his first independent start in business a dreary experience. To me it has been exceptionally so. During two years I have had three consultations and one small job,” he laments, in words that could be describing Doyle’s own early struggles.)

Another arrogant bourgeois gets a taste of Holmes’s unique brand of justice in “Silver Blaze,” when Holmes notes, “The Colonel’s manner has been just a trifle cavalier to me. I am inclined now to have a little amusement at his expense.” Presumably Doyle’s audience lapped this up, just as we do today. (We still love to see arrogant rich people get their comeuppance, don’t we?)

Finally, we come to “The Yellow Face.” Though by no means one of the great Sherlock Holmes stories--and perhaps because of it--this story contains a number of references to cultural tensions between the English and the Scots, and seriously challenges the presumed moral superiority of the imperious English.

Though unstated in the story, Mr. Grant Munro is very likely Scottish (Leslie Klinger informs us in the New Annotated Sherlock Holmes that “both Grant and Munro are common Scottish names”). English popular culture of the time typically caricatured the Scots as backward country folk with thick accents who are ignorant of big city ways, and above all, cheap. (The Scots would counter that their characteristic frugality is a result of having their country’s wealth plundered by the English, but that’s another story.)

Munro has called while Holmes was out, leaving behind a pipe that Holmes examines closely and identifies as a well-made but relatively inexpensive model that has been “twice mended.” Doyle’s target audience was presumably expected to jump to the conclusion that this is a sign of cheapness, until Holmes point out that the repairs have been made with silver bands that “must have cost more than the pipe did originally.”

So instead of labeling Munro a cheapskate, Holmes deduces that he is a man who would rather repair something that has emotional significance for him than “buy a new one with the same money.” Munro is loyal to the things he loves, which has important ramifications later in the story.

We are soon told that Munro didn’t want his wife to sign her money over to him, even though she has “a capital of about four thousand five hundred pounds,” because he already has an income of “seven or eight hundred.” Again, there is a difference between appreciating what you have and being “cheap.” Munro (“a muscular man... with an excellent set of teeth”) compares quite favorably with the portly, overfed Englishmen in the other stories who are willing to abuse and imprison their family members for the sake of money.

Munro fears the worst--that his wife’s first husband has come back to haunt them, perhaps--and is greatly relieved when he learns that the big secret his wife has been keeping from him is that her first husband was black, and that they have a black child.

“It was a long two minutes before Grant Munro broke the silence,” we are told. Munro’s silence is apparently due to him processing the unpleasant revelation that his wife didn’t have enough faith to confide in him from the beginning. Thus the story suggests that the Scots may be more tolerant of racial difference than the English, perhaps because they identify more readily with oppressed minorities.

In his final speech, Munro can be seen as representing all of Scotland addressing their English neighbors to the south when he says: “I am not a very good man, Effie, but I think that I am a better one than you have given me credit for being.”

And just in case you start feeling superior to all those smug Victorians, Klinger points out that the first American publication of “The Yellow Face” lengthened Munro’s silence to ten minutes, suggesting that Munro is confronting the unpleasant revelation that his wife had a child with a black man--a very different emotional moment, to be sure.

There are many more examples of such implicit critiques of Victorian society in the Holmes canon, but I think that’s enough for now.




Barbaric Kings and Plodding Imbeciles: Conan Doyle’s Sly Subversion of Victorian Society (part 1)


A number of today’s crime writers are also college professors who bring a unique critical approach to reading (and writing) crime fiction. In the course of teaching a college class that covers material stretching from Edgar Allan Poe and Dashiell Hammett to S.J. Rozan and Megan Abbott, I have uncovered evidence of numerous indirect criticisms of English society in the Sherlock Holmes stories, and a propensity for subverting revered Victorian institutions such as the aristocracy, the justice system, and even motherhood itself.

Any Holmes fan is familiar with the scenarios in which the police officials are completely baffled by a case, draw ridiculous conclusions from the available evidence, waste time chasing worthless clues, are stubbornly insistent upon arresting an innocent man, and then claim all the credit when Holmes solves the case.

This is not the cynical world of corrupt police officials found in the later American hardboiled school. In the Holmes stories, the incompetence and arrogance of the police inspectors is usually handled with a humorous wink at the reader. But any competent literary critic will tell you that in rigidly hierarchical societies such as Victorian England, humor is often the best vehicle for social commentary, since a direct attack on such institutions would be met with ostracism and even prosecution in some cases.

Think of that fabulously arch moment in the first published Holmes short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” when the king of Bohemia, so overdressed when we first meet him that Watson is unfavorably impressed by his “barbaric opulence,” speaks of Irene Adler:

     “Did I not tell you how quick and resolute she was? Would she not have made an admirable queen? Is it not a pity that she was not on my level?”

     “From what I have seen of the lady, she seems, indeed,to be on a very different level to your Majesty,” said Holmes, coldly.

Meaning, of course, that she is far superior to the king.

That princes and kings can be cads is not exactly news, but we should take a moment to consider how radical it was to say so in print at the time, even if the criticism was safely displaced onto the Bohemian nobility. While some Victorian readers might have chuckled at the implied inferiority of the Central European nobility to a mere stage actress (and a commoner), many in the audience must have picked up on the indirect criticism of all such spoiled monarchs. The king in question, after all, has a German name--an almost comically absurd one at that--just as Queen Victoria’s mother and husband did (Princess Marie Luise Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, respectively).

Some of these negative attitudes towards the aristocracy and the police are a result of the British class system. The audience for the Holmes stories clearly relished the depiction of the nobility as pompous asses who are every bit as criminal in their behaviors as the lowest thieves, and the besting of the plodding, lower class British bobbies time and again by an amateur (and a gentleman) who is happy to work for free if the client is needy and the case has one or two points of interest, as Holmes himself would say.

However, if we recall that Victorian Britain considered itself to be the very pinnacle of civilization at the time--the aristocratic characters repeatedly treat police inspectors (and even Holmes himself) as mere servants who are there to serve their “superiors”--it is possible to perceive the sly subversion of that society in these unflattering portrayals of the noble classes and the criminal justice system. (Perhaps that is also one of the reasons Holmes keeps quoting French terms and catchphrases in the early stories as well.)

These carefully crafted critiques may also reflect Conan Doyle’s own experiences as the Scottish-born child of an Irish family (yes, they were an oppressed minority) living in England, who couldn’t directly attack the social structure that he desperately needed to be a part of, and as a young doctor who, despite his excellent medical qualifications, struggled for many years to gain recognition and build a client base, much like Holmes himself in the early stories. (In later stories, once his reputation has been better established, Holmes is shown working in closer collaboration with the police.)

Consider the case of Mr. Jabez Wilson in “The Red-Headed League.” As a businessman and a shopkeeper, he can be said to represent the very backbone of English middle class society. He is also described as “a very stout, florid-faced, elderly gentleman, with fiery red hair.” In other words, he very much resembles John Bull, the symbol of England personified, especially in the original black-and-white illustrations by Sidney Paget. If we combine this image with Napoleon’s famous dictum that England is “a nation of shopkeepers,” Mr. Wilson can indeed be said to symbolize England. Yet Watson tells us that Mr. Wilson “bore every mark of being an average commonplace British tradesman, obese, pompous, and slow.”

So a symbolic representative of the average Englishman is obese, pompous and slow--so slow that he doesn’t even recognize Holmes’s genius: “I thought at first that you had done something clever, but I see that there was nothing in it after all,” says Wilson, chuckling with self-satisfaction.

Once we leave 221B Baker Street, the main action of “The Red-Headed League” takes place in Saxe-Coburg Square (the surnames of Queen Victoria’s closest relatives), where we are introduced to Merryweather, a bank director dressed in an “oppressively respectable frock-coat” (now there’s a curious phrase) who apparently cares more about missing his card game than preventing a bank robbery, a police agent named Jones whom Holmes calls “an absolute imbecile,” and a criminal, John Clay, who as he is apprehended declares, apparently without irony: “I beg that you will not touch me with your filthy hands... You may not be aware that I have royal blood in my veins. Have the goodness also when you address me always to say ‘sir’ and ‘please.’”

No wonder Holmes declares near the end: “My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence.” After all, his remarkable gifts go unrecognized by the “oppressively respectable” and hypocritical society of his time. (To top it off, Holmes’s final remark is a quotation from Flaubert--another Frenchman.)

Crime so often shows the worst of human nature, so depicting an evil mother is not to be taken as a condemnation of all mothers. But consider the mother in “A Case of Identity” who connives with her second husband to take advantage of her daughter’s “short sight.” Not only is the Victorian ideal of the self-sacrificing mother inverted here, but even the daughter comes in for poor treatment. Watson tells us that Miss Mary Southerland has a “somewhat vacuous face,” gives a “rambling and inconsequential narrative,” and wears a “preposterous hat.” Watson notes her “vacuous” face twice and her short sightedness several times. So much for the idealized image of the young woman as innocent victim of criminal deception.

In “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” an innocent man has been charged. “Many men have been hanged on far slighter evidence,” says Watson. “So they have. And many men have been wrongfully hanged,” Holmes replies, questioning and subverting the exalted principles of British jurisprudence.

Naturally, Inspector Lestrade dismisses Holmes’s methods:

     “I find it hard enough to tackle facts, Holmes, without flying away after theories and fancies.”

     “You are right,” said Holmes, demurely; “you do find it very hard to tackle the facts.”

Holmes calls Lestrade an “imbecile” later in the story.

Some of Holmes’s frustration at being dismissed by those with inferior minds is derived from Poe’s Dupin, another man a with brilliant mind who is forced to waste his time dealing with ignorant and unappreciative people. But Dupin’s contempt was displaced from Poe’s America and aimed at the Prefect of the Parisian police. Doyle was writing about his own society.

One might even suggest that the happy ending of this Holmes story, in which the young couple will live “in ignorance of the black cloud which rests upon their past,” is a veiled condemnation of the average Briton’s ignorance of (or indifference to) the ravages of British colonialism, since the germ of the story’s conflict began years before in the diamond minds in Victoria, Australia. (Victoria, you say? Gee, that name sounds familiar...)

(Part 2 will appear next week.) 




Marx and Marlowe:Humor as a Weapon


Humor is the weapon of the powerless.

Being the child of intellectual Jews gave me many advantages as a kid (bagels, Woody Allen movies, skepticism of political power), but when we moved to suburban Long Island in the late 1960s, I discovered the downside. First, none of the local barbers knew what to do with my frizzy “ethnic” hair (they tried to plaster it down with something resembling industrial shellack), and second, most of my schoolmates never seemed to question the existing order of things, like mandatory attendance at pep rallies, which struck me as somewhat fascistic back in 7th grade. My views were unappreciated by the dominant jock culture, but I was able to survive by making the big guys laugh.

I first discovered the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, which was especially popular during the Vietnam War era because of its perceived satirical stance against authoritarianism and war. Groucho’s omnidirectional mud-slinging, and especially his old vaudevillian’s trick of pointing out the absurdities of a given situation by speaking directly to the audience gave me a blueprint for navigating the treacherous pathways of adolescent identity. (Full disclosure: I played Groucho twice in elementary and junior high school adaptations of Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera.)

By 9th grade, I had memorized most of the dialogue of the Marx Brothers’ first 10 films, and was looking for another source of irreverence.

I found it in Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe.

I was already a fan of mysteries, having progressed from the Boxcar Children and Basil of Baker Street (the source of Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective) to the tales of Poe and Doyle’s complete cycle of Sherlock Holmes stories.

But this Marlowe guy was different. As tough and hardboiled as he was, he reminded me a little of Groucho, tossing out irreverent comments about all that is pompous and false--except he wasn’t going up against the harmless farcical gangsters of Monkey Business, he was going up against hardened killers in a city that was thoroughly and hopelessly corrupt. (This was during the Watergate era, which probably helped.)

Ballantine Books was reprinting Chandler in paperback (95 cents!), and the first story I read, “Trouble Is My Business,” included cynical one-liners like:

        “What are you going to be when you grow up--a five-foot shelf?”

 

        “He’s so tight his head squeaks when he takes his hat off.”

        

“You bumped anybody off tonight?”

        “I’d have to look at my notebook.”

 

        “I never had a forty-five. A guy who needs that much gun ought to use a pick.”

 

        He reached quietly under my coat and took the Luger. I might as well leave it home from now on. Everybody in town seemed to be able to take it away from me.

 

Needless to say, I could hear echoes of a closet Grouchophile behind the scenes of these hardboiled dramas. And while Marlowe never pulled a live turkey from under his trench coat (as Harpo does in Room Service), he did wear a trench coat and was very quick with the wisecracks.

So, back to the theme: Humor is the weapon of the powerless.

Although Groucho occasionally played the president of a college or a rather screwy country, he usually portrayed an impoverished charlatan of some sort--a stowaway, an opera impresario with no clients, a horse doctor trying to pass as a respected physician, a theatrical agent with no backers, the manager of a failing hotel who lampoons the very idea of the American Dream when he says:

“Think of the opportunities here in Florida. Three years ago I came to Florida without a nickel in my pocket. Now I’ve got a nickel in my pocket.”

Marlowe is equally cynical about the promises of the so-called land of opportunity, and usually finds himself outranked, outnumbered and outgunned by big time crooks and “legitimate” businessmen who make way more than his lousy 25 bucks a day plus expenses. He has virtually no political, social, or economic power, but he makes up for that with boatloads of attitude and smartass humor.

Attitude. That’s what got me through the tough times, and this same quality can be found in my favorite crime writers. For what is the figure of the private investigator if not the ultimate outsider? The ultimate charlatan, pretending to bring order to a world that refuses order like an old school vampire recoiling from the sight of a cross?

Despite their apparent differences--including the little-known fact that only one of them was a genuine flesh-and-blood human being--these two mid-20th century figures were crucial to my formation as an author, and you’ll see plenty of that in 23 Shades of Black, the first novel in my Edgar Allan Poe Award-nominated series, which just happens to be published by PM Press. 



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