December 15, 2006

Take Five—Mystery Novels

There is, in the blogosphere, a tradition of regular weekend-associated posts, like hobbyists who blog photos of orchids or kitty cats every Friday, or Amanda Marcotte's Random Ten, where folks post ten songs dished up by iPod shuffle (which can be a tad embarrassing at times, believe me).

Unfortunately, I don’t have any photogenic hobbies (here’s Brother Higgins napping on his sofa, here’s Jimmy asleep in a friend’s chair, here’s old JH drooling down his shirtfront on a bus…) and I’m too Adult ADD to focus on one theme week after week.

Thus, Fire on the Mountain’s entry into the Friday sweepstakes, Take Five. Every (in theory) Friday (give or take a day or two) we’ll post a list of five cool things—songs, books, tactics, jokes, whatever—and encourage readers to weigh in with their own favorites.

For an easy start, here are five mystery novels (not thrillers—that may wind up being a later Take Five) featuring left politics in one way or another. Not the five best, mind you, not by a long shot, just five that might interest you, and I hope aren’t too obvious. Now throw in a couple of your own!


The Bandaged Nude by “Robert Finnegan” (actually Paul William Ryan)

This one is here mainly because under a second pen-name, Mike Quin, Ryan was a CP journalist in the 30s and ‘40s, and wrote the definitive first-hand account of the San Francisco General Strike, The Big Strike. Before his death at 41 in 1947, he wrote three quickie mysteries “to make crime pay.” The psychology of detective fiction can be fascinating—at a time when loner detectives were the thing, his hero Dan Banion is part of a collective enterprise, a newspaper reporter, who is always getting help from everyday folk like workers and immigrants.

The Penny Ferry by Rick Boyer

His series character, oral surgeon Doc Adams, takes on the case of Sacco & Vanzetti. Not a mystery for the ages, but the theme makes it irresistible, and his denunciation of capitalism as embodied in the textile mills of Lowell, MA is sweet.

The Man Who Liked To Look At Himself by "K.C. Constantine"

I don’t much like cops, so my taste in mysteries leans heavily toward the tough guy, private eye end of the spectrum. That said, Constantine’s decades-long series revolving around Police Chief Mario Balzic is a brilliantly written look at what happens to working class life in a Pennsylvania mill town as the Rust Belt goes belly up. I chose this one from half a dozen favorites, because it includes an early and perceptive glance at homosexual panic.

The Doorbell Rang by Rex Stout

This is a guilty entry. I was recently discussing with my arch-feminist friend Judith our longstanding mutual fondness for the fat misogynist Nero Wolfe who stars in Stout’s books. We couldn’t decide quite why we both gave him a pass, but this book, in which Wolfe takes on and bests J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, came up early in the conversation.

A Radical Departure by Lia Matera (with a taut short story at the link)

We live in the age of legal thrillers—Grisham, Baldacci, & Co. Can’t stand ‘em myself, but Matera writes old fashioned mysteries and the hero in her Willa Jannsen series, of which this is the second, is a red diaper baby and a lefty lawyer. This book pivots in part on a contested election in a Bay Area Teamsters local where her firm represents the insurgents from the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Take Five—Mystery Novels"? I take this to be a fishing expedition to increase the reader response level. Okay, I'll "wet a line" (or perhaps I should say, "write a line" or two).

How can we talk about mystery novels and not mention Walter Mosley? Many readers of Jimmy's blog may count "A Red Death" (in which economic necessity forces protagonist Ezekial "Easy" Rawling to aid the FBI in an anti-Communist witch hunt) among our favorite Mosley novels. After all, it is reminicent of the Dashiel Hammett classic, "Red Harvest" that formed the basis of the great Kurosawa film, Yojimbo, as well as the lesser Hollywood movie, The Magnificent Seven.

But as good and true to post-World War 2 African-American experience as the Easy Rawlins series may be, Mosley reaches his mystery pace with "Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned" and "Walking the Dog", two books of short stories following the challenges faced by ex-con Socrates Fortlow.