(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘detective fiction

“Don’t think, but look!”*…

The scene is London; the year, 1941. Ludwig Wittgenstein, likely the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century, has taken a hiatus from his Cambridge professorship to do “war work” in a menial position at Guy’s Hospital. By the time he arrives there, in September, the worst of the Blitz is over, but there’s no way of knowing that—the bombing could begin again any night. Wittgenstein serves as a dispensary porter, meaning he pushes a big cart from ward to ward, delivering medicine to patients. He’s 52 years old, small and thin, not to say frail. He writes in a letter that sometimes after work he can “hardly move.”

To John Ryle, brother of Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle, Wittgenstein explains his reason for volunteering in London: “I feel I will die slowly if I stay there [in Cambridge]. I would rather take the chance of dying quickly.”

Wittgenstein’s time at Guy’s Hospital is an especially lonely period in a lonely life. Socially awkward in the extreme, he does not endear himself to his coworkers. Although it soon gets out, he initially hopes to conceal that he’s a professor in regular life, hating the prospect of being treated differently. But he is different. His attempts to hide in plain sight must strike everyone as yet another eccentricity.

Nevertheless, he makes at least one friend at the hospital, a fellow staffer named Roy Fouracre. After some time, Fouracre is permitted to visit Wittgenstein in his room, a rare privilege with the reclusive philosopher. Crossing the threshold into Wittgenstein’s private quarters, Fouracre must expect to find books everywhere, hefty, awe-inspiring tomes by Aristotle and Kant and the like. Nothing of the sort. The only reading material in evidence is “neat piles of detective magazines.”

Those magazines would have been American detective pulps, the kind that chronicled the adventures of Philip Marlowe, Mike Hammer, Sam Spade and other hardboiled heroes. During the last two decades of his life, Wittgenstein read such fiction compulsively. But what drew him to detective stories, and to American hardboiled ones in particular? How did a man engaged in a fundamental reform of philosophy—no less than an overhaul of how we think and talk about the world—develop such a passion for pulps?…

How pulp magazines inspired Wittgenstein’s investigations of the mysteries of language: “The Philosopher of the Detectives- Ludwig Wittgenstein’s enduring passion for hardboiled fiction.”

For more on Wittgenstein’s thought, see this Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article; for more on his life, this engaging biography.

* Ludwig Wittgenstein

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As we “only describe, don’t explain,” we might spare a thought for Henri-Louis Bergson; he died on this date in 1941.  A philosopher especially influential in the first half of the 20th Century, Bergson convinced many of the primacy of immediate experience and intuition over rationalism and science for the understanding of reality…. many, but not Wittgenstein (nor Russell, Moore, nor Santayana), who thought that he willfully misunderstood the scientific method in order to justify his “projection of subjectivity onto the physical world.”  Still, in 1927 Bergson won the Nobel Prize (in Literature); and in 1930, received France’s highest honor, the Grand-Croix de la Legion d’honneur.

Bergson’s influence waned mightily later in the century.  To the extent that there’s been a bit of a resurgence of interest, it’s largely the result, in philosophical circles, of Gilles Deleuze’s appropriation of Bergson’s concept of “mulitplicity” and his treatment of duration, which Deleuze used in his critique of Hegel’s dialectic, and in the religious and spiritualist studies communities, of Bergson’s seeming embrace of the concept of an overriding/underlying consciousness in which humans participate.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 4, 2021 at 1:01 am

“I did not deceive you, mon ami. At most, I permitted you to deceive yourself.”*…

Agatha Christie was in her mid-20s when, in 1916, she took up what seemed the improbable endeavor of penning her first detective novel. It was so unlikely, in fact, that her elder sister, Madge, with whom she had always competed, dared Agatha to accomplish the feat, certain of her sibling’s eventual failure.

At the time, Christie was married to an officer in Britain’s Royal Flying Corps and working at a hospital in Torquay, England, first as a nurse and subsequently in the dispensary, preparing and providing medicines. It was in the latter job that she developed a fascination with poisons that would endure over the next six decades, supplying murderous means in many of her best-known books, including that very first one, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which was published 100 years ago this month.

Styles was an early and influential contribution to what’s now called the Golden Age of detective fiction, a period that stretched arguably from the 1920s through the 1940s…

Christie’s debut novel was famously rejected by a host of publishers. Many, many editions later, it’s an iconic mystery: “The Agatha Christie Centennial- 100 years of The Mysterious Affair at Styles.”

* Hercule Poirot, The Mysterious Affair at Styles

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As we muse on mysteries, we might send powerfully-composed birthday greetings to another prolific author, Abbott Joseph “A. J.” Liebling; he was born on this date in 1904. A journalist and essayist, he is considered a patron saint of New Journalism for his World War II coverage and work like the essays in The Sweet Science (named by Sports Illustrated, in 2002, the best sports book of all time).

His longest association (from 1935 until his death in 1963) was with the New Yorker. Current editor David Remnick writes:

Joy, pure and immediate, is a rare literary experience. Liebling provides it. And, from everything we know, joy is what he felt in the creating. No matter what else he may have been facing in his life—misery in marriage, persistent debt, the obesity and sickness that were the price of his appetites—he revelled in his work. Liebling so enjoyed himself at the offices of The New Yorker, where he worked for twenty-eight years, that he could be heard humming and snorting with laughter as he pulled the sheets from his typewriter and read them over. He knocked himself out, if he did say so himself. Reticence was not his way. Like Trollope polishing off several thousand words before leaving for his day job as surveyor general of Waltham Cross, Liebling wrote at a blinding rate, publishing hundreds of pieces, of all lengths, colors, and moods. He was occasionally seen in the magazine’s bathroom stripped to the waist, washing up after a night’s exertion at his Remington.

Reporting It All

Oh, and it was Liebling who coined the epithet “Second City” for Chicago.

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“Every moment of light and dark is a miracle”*…

 

Long before the lights from Pittsburgh’s PNC Park began illuminating the North Shore every summer, a local corporation gave the city an art show every night on the same grounds.

The Westinghouse Electric Supply Company (a subsidiary of the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, or Wesco), based in Pittsburgh, moved into a warehouse facing the Allegheny River in 1948. On its roof, a giant orange and blue sign spelled out the the company’s tag line, “You can be sure … if it’s Westinghouse.”

As modernist design trickled down from the Bauhaus to Madison Avenue, most noticeably in the 1960s, corporate giants like Westinghouse began leaning towards minimalist visual identities. In 1960, Paul Rand gave the company a logo that looked like an electrical socket that also spelled out the letter W.

Six years later, Richard Huppertz, head of Westinghouse’s Corporate Design Center, wanted to emphasize the company’s sleek new identity with text-free signage on top of their North Shore warehouse. Huppertz ran the idea by Rand, who then came up with the country’s first computer-controlled sign…

Read the rest of this illuminating story at “Remembering Pittsburgh’s Most Mesmerizing Sign.”

* Walt Whitman

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As we celebrate bright ideas, we might turn to the noir side and send hard-boiled birthday greetings to Raymond Chandler, novelist (The Big SleepFarewell, My Lovely, et al.) and screenwriter (Double Indemnity, with Billy Wilder, e.g.), whose Philip Marlowe was (with Hammett’s Sam Spade) synonymous with “private detective,” whose style (with Hammett’s) defined a genre, and who was (unlike Hammett) born on this date in 1888.

Love interest nearly always weakens a mystery because it introduces a type of suspense that is antagonistic to the detective’s struggle to solve the problem. It stacks the cards, and in nine cases out of ten, it eliminates at least two useful suspects. The only effective love interest is that which creates a personal hazard for the detective – but which, at the same time, you instinctively feel to be a mere episode. A really good detective never gets married.

– Raymond Chandler, “Casual Notes on the Mystery Novel” (essay, 1949)

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 23, 2014 at 1:01 am

“I know I’m drinking myself to a slow death, but then I’m in no hurry”*…

 

As the co-founder and chairman of the Boston Beer Company, Jim Koch has appeared in countless Sam Adams commercials over the last thirty years; he drinks the product on camera, and– true lover of his brews that he is– off camera as well.  In an Esquire interview with Aaron Goldfarb, Koch explained “How to drink all night without getting drunk.”

“You wanna know my secret? How I can drink beer all night long and never get drunk?”

In fact, I had always wondered that. Though this was the first time I’d ever formally met Koch, I’d “met” him in the past at a few beer festivals. Those sorts of events are always kind of Bacchanalian shit shows, with people imbibing dozens of beer samples in a short period and soon stumbling around large convention halls drunk of their asses. Brewers included. But not Koch, who I’d long noticed was always lucid, always able to hold court, and hold his own with those much younger than him. This billionaire brewing raconteur was doing likewise with me at 4 PM on a Thursday afternoon despite the fact we were both now several beers deep. So what was the secret?

“Yeast!”

“Yeast?”

“Active yeast. Like you get at the grocery store.”

Koch told me that for years he has swallowed your standard Fleischmann’s dry yeast before he drinks, stirring the white powdery substance in with some yogurt to make it more palatable.

“One teaspoon per beer, right before you start drinking.”

He’d learned the trick from his good friend “Dr. Joe,” a craft beer legend in his own right.  Educated at Harvard with a troika of degrees (a BA, a JD, and an MBA), Koch is no slouch, but the late-Joseph Owades was a flat-out genius. With a PhD in biochemistry from Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute and an early job in the fermentation sciences department at Fleischmann’s, Owades probably knew more about fermentation and alcohol metabolism than perhaps any man who has ever lived. Koch calls him, in fact, “The best brewer who’s ever lived.” He used that immense knowledge to eventually become a consultant for most of the progenitors of America’s early craft brewing movement such as Anchor Brewing in San Francisco, New Amsterdam Brewing in New York, and, yes, the Boston Beer Company. There he became good friends with Koch, helped perfect Boston Lager, and passed on to Koch his little yeast secret…

 

You see, what Owades knew was that active dry yeast has an enzyme in it called alcohol dehydrogenases (ADH). Roughly put, ADH is able to break alcohol molecules down into their constituent parts of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Which is the same thing that happens when your body metabolizes alcohol in its liver. Owades realized if you also have that enzyme in your stomach when the alcohol first hits it, the ADH will begin breaking it down before it gets into your bloodstream and, thus, your brain.

“And it will mitigate – not eliminate – but mitigate the effects of alcohol!” Koch told me…

Does it actually work?

Of course, I had to honor my longtime hero Koch, and a new beer hero I’d just learned about in Owades, and try this trick myself. So the next day I grabbed a six-pack of beer and a packet of Fleischmann’s and went to work. The older I get, the more of a lightweight I surely become, but after shoveling down six teaspoons and tilting back six bottles I felt nothing more than a little buzzed. Koch told me he keeps a breathalyzer around at all times just to assure he’s never too drunk. He never is. And, though I had no tangible “proof,” besides the fact I was still awake, I was pretty sure I wasn’t all that drunk either. Forever more I’d be yet another guy discreetly carrying a white powder around at bars. I’d advise you do likewise.

Read the full story, and see Aaron’s video report of his test (which answers such follow-on questions as “does the yeast make one flatulaent?”) at Esquire.com.

* Robert Benchley

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As we put the butter back into the fridge, we might send gritty birthday greetings to Samuel Dashiell Hammett; he was born on this date in 1894.  Hammett worked as an agent of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency from 1915-1922, when– disillusioned by the organization’s role in strike-breaking– he left to become a writer, providing copy in an ad agency until his fiction earned enough to support him.  Hammett drew for his fiction on his experiences as a “Pinkerton Man,” and created an extraordinary series of characters– Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon), NIck and Nora Charles (The Thin Man), The Continental Op (Red Harvest and The Dain Curse)– on the way to becoming, as the New York Times called him, “the dean of the… ‘hard-boiled’ school of detective fiction.”

In his book The Simple Art of Murder, Raymond Chandler, considered by many to be Hammett’s successor, observed,

Hammett was the ace performer… He is said to have lacked heart; yet the story he himself thought the most of The Glass Key is the record of a man’s devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before. 

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 27, 2014 at 1:01 am

For your viewing pleasure…

Your correspondent is amazed at how quickly so many of his friends have exhausted attractive film-going options in this release-packed holiday and Oscar-promotion period.  What’s a hungry viewer to do?  Well, of course, there’s always television and cable; as Jim Emerson notes, many believe that they are eclipsing cinema.

But for those who crave the authentic big screen deal, there’s also the treasure trove of the past.  For example, if one can’t muster the enthusiasm to head out this weekend to see The Guilt Trip or Texas Chainsaw 3D, one might enjoy…

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Stanley Donen’s 1956 spellbinder was written by Peter Stone and Marc Behm, and featured Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Walter Matthau, James Coburn, George Kennedy, Dominique Minot, Ned Glass, and Jacques Marin.  Its score, by Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini, was nominated for an Academy Award…

Witty, smart, and altogether satisfying, it’s here in its entirety:

(Email readers, click here)

And it’s available as a free download at The Internet Archive— as are many, many other worthies.

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As we salt our popcorn, we might recall that it was on this date in 1936 that the two greatest creators of hard-boiled private eyes, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, met for the first (and as far as anyone can tell, the only) time– at a dinner hosted by Black Mask, a magazine to which both Nabobs of Noir contributed stories.

Raymond Chandler (with his customary pipe) and Dashiell Hammett

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This extremely rare photo of the first west coast Black Mask get-together on January 11, 1936 captures possibly the only meeting of several of these authors.
Pictured in the back row, from left to right, are Raymond J. Moffatt, Raymond Chandler, Herbert Stinson, Dwight Babcock, Eric Taylor and Dashiell Hammett. In the front row, again from left to right, are Arthur Barnes (?), John K. Butler, W. T. Ballard, Horace McCoy and Norbert Davis.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 11, 2013 at 1:01 am

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