Kalev’s Anti-Blog: Comments on Herbert’s ‘Front Page Teaser’

O my goddess, I say to myself, what if I don’t like Rosemary Herbert’s new novel, Front Page Teaser? Well, I am rather well known for my vicious rhetoric when I don’t like something; however, it is a problem here because I have known Ms. Herbert since we were in elementary school together. There is that strong psychic bond of familiarity and sentimental attachment I don’t want to break simply because I am a mystery-novel cretin. I suffer the problem that I rarely ever read mystery or crime novels, and it is a genre I have experienced more through movies than books. While I have read some Dashiell Hammett, I still prefer my Thin Man with William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles rather than my own imaginative rendering of Hammett’s prose. While, for example, I have read Dorothy L. Sayers’ rather elegant lecture on Aristotle’s Poetics, I have never read any of her detective novels she says would warm Aristotle’s soul. Since my childhood excursions into Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allan Poe, I tend to read a mystery story when I happen to know someone who has written one. The last one of I read was If Looks Could Kill by my acquaintance Kate White, the editor of Cosmopolitan and one of the most talented and successful magazine editors in this country. I enjoyed her book very much. Fortunately, I can report that I enjoyed Ms. Hebert’s novel, although I must admit that I am not qualified to say whether she has followed or skillfully broken the conventions of the genre. I just read Front Page Teaser in a way to find what happened and who did and whether it satisfied me or not.

Basically, Front Page Teaser is the story of a young journalist, Liz Higgins, who wants to cover more than feature-fluff and finds herself in the middle of a mystery involving the disappearance of woman. She investigates and is able to solve the mystery in a way that no one else could. Not wanting to spoil anything and truly wanting readers to pick up this novel and read it, I will only say that the plot has ample ways for the reader to go wrong in his guesses. Moreover, the disappearance of the woman involved is apparently tied up with the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11 or so it seems, and there is a sinister enough perversion to make the not-easily-spotted villain well motivated to do bad things. As a reader, I don’t work very hard to figure out what is going to happen, because I rather want to be naïve and want to be surprised at what will happen.

Ms. Herbert’s prose is direct and journalistic in a good sense. Consider the following which every reporter would just love to say in a piece, but can’t, not even in a teaser.

“Thanking the detective, Liz made her way to the last cruiser in the line of police cars. Leaning on its trunk, Mick Lichen was haranguing a police officer about getting access to a trio of hikers. Clad in jeans, hiking boots, and fleece jackets in complementary colors, and wearing horrified facial expressions, the family looked like an L.L. Bean ad gone wrong. The red-eyed daughter, who clung to her father, looked to be about fourteen years old.” The novel takes place mostly in New England and this little bit so apt.

She does not let anachronisms intrude in the word flow, which is important when one considers who truly different the world was 10-years-ago. There are a few satiric digs at the media, totally warranted. Dates are given plotted significance, and I found that her most important date, December 18th, to be auspicious as that is my birthday and the birthday of my granddaughter Fiona. Ms. Herbert doesn’t give the reader a Proustian array of roses described within an eternal visual metaphorical perception, but then Mr. Herbert gives us a topiary that suggests something odd. Protagonist leggy Liz Higgins suffers the humilities of dealing with men in the news room who don’t appreciate her abilities and, of course, she triumphs over them. We are, after all, in a post-feminist world now. Ms. Herbert, a 10-year book-review editor at the Boston Herald is not illiterate, and throws in an occasional literary allusion, which sometimes falls a bit flat, because she feels to the need to explain the allusion, which is probably wise considering the general deterioration of literacy in this country, but not for an impatient person like myself. Locations, whether Newton, Windows on the World, or Harvard Square, seem very real and in natural motion. I should note as a matter of irrelevant gossip that in some places, Ms. Herbert has said that he is a single mother. I say just because Ms. Herbert writes a mystery novel doesn’t necessarily mean that she is a woman with a past, even if we find a lot of vivid descriptions of Bean-town bars and pubs in her novel.

When I was young, I loved investigative reporting, especially when going after someone big and important. Liz Higgins is deprived of that fun, and she wants it. What I find interesting about that is how she is able to do an investigation, simply because it falls into her lap and knows a good story when she sees it. The good story goes to someone who is not supposed to get it, but is worthy of it nevertheless. It appears to me that one of the essential parts of any crime novel is that there is an assumption that there is a routine world, a world where things are ordered by convention and habit, that appears safe and secure, and then is suddenly disrupted by something that is either evil or whose unknown shatters the assumptions of the people who normally live out their lives on a liminal border beyond which everything is truly important but not engaged in every day life except when the routine is routed. Suddenly, the world becomes rationalized. Clues appear in a Boston area where there are cats and dogs and December snows. The most mundane of things suddenly take on meaning, as if there is a correspondence between all things that reveal the truth, if one is able to put the correspondences together correctly. Things fall into Charlotte’s Web. It is interesting to me that a mystery becomes clearer once it is given a context where even the wrong clues are followed. Error has purpose in unraveling the knot. In a mystery novel, the very techniques of putting together the mystery are the very reason one reads the novel. Aristotle, as Sayers notes in her 1935 Oxford lecture, is against the episodic form of narration, i.e., without a tight cause and effect relation between things. Ms. Herbert honors Aristotle in keeping the plot unified and with good causes and effects, and while she occasionally jumbles time she does so with good purpose to clarify, rather than confuse or obfuscate. It is a successful illusion that never occurs in real life, which is why we love such thickened plots.

Although Front Page Teaser is not a book of suspense, it has that kind of suspense that comes from enough withholding the information that we need to know what is truly going to happen. We are never in suspense as to whether Liz Higgins will get the answer, and as such the suspense is really in what the solution is. At the same time, however, we learn a lot about the characters and they are not what they seem to be, which is essential for a good novel of this kind. In this novel, there are Arabs, for example, but they are not treated as stereotypical evil guys. They have much more complexity and we find a few surprises about them as well. It is about time that our Arab brethren join the fictional world of good and evil—in genial spirits, of course..

From my anti-blog, people can see what I normally read and it is not this kind of book. But that doesn’t mean that Ms. Herbert’s Front Page Teaser should be ignored in favor to some Pythagorean who keeps all the secrets to himself. Do take the time and read this novel. You should enjoy it.

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About Kalev Pehme

I am an icastic artist and a Straussian. I am not a conservative or neocon Straussian. Sadly, there are too many of them. My interests are diverse, however, and sometimes quite arcane. I have a deep interest in Daoism, Indo-Aryan religion, Buddhism, Plato, Aristotle, and whole lot more. I love good poetry. I also enjoy all things ancient. And I would like to meet any woman who is born on May 29, 1985.
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9 Responses to Kalev’s Anti-Blog: Comments on Herbert’s ‘Front Page Teaser’

  1. Alex Gorelik says:

    “It appears to me that one of the essential parts of any crime novel is that there is an assumption that there is a routine world, a world where things are ordered by convention and habit, that appears safe and secure, and then is suddenly disrupted by something that is either evil or whose unknown shatters the assumptions of the people who normally live out their lives on a liminal border beyond which everything is truly important but not engaged in every day life except when the routine is routed. ”

    That’s a description of a particular sort of mystery novel, but it isn’t a good description of crime novels. The crime novel is an entirely different beast than a mystery novel. I might make the radical argument that the old mystery novel is no longer possible. Even worse, writing an old-style mystery novel today even seems to me to be a wrong act, evil in itself. As you say, the old-style mystery assumes that there is a routine world, which is rationally ordered. When a crime occurs, the wise man (i.e., the detective) assures that justice is re-established.

    The old-style mystery thus performs a political task – it is a defense of political orders that are good or just. However, if the political order is bad or unjust, writing an old-style mystery set within such an order leads the reader to falsely ascribe justice to a bad political order.

    That is, as Philip Kerr showed in his Bernhard Gunther series or as Jim Thompson showed in The Killer Inside Me or Pop. 1280, there cannot be an old-style mystery set within an unjust regime. When the detective re-establishes order, he has re-established injustice if he is within a bad regime.

    I have not read Front Page Teaser, but it seems to me to be probably impossible for it to do the work a true mystery novel needs to do at this moment.

  2. Alex Gorelik says:

    Or, to put it another way:

    Let’s use the absolute classic mystery novel: the English country-house mystery.

    In a sublimated sense, it is driven by economics. The country-house is usually owned by the person to be murdered. The country house itself is very valuable, and is also symbolic of other wealth, status or power the murdered person may have. Usually, the country house is in the wrong hands – the owner (usually the person murdered) has either acquired it unjustly, or is using the wealth (status, power) improperly (or both, of course).

    The unjust ownership (or use) is fixed by the wise man (detective) after the death of the unjust owner. The detective will re-distribute the wealth (sometimes very subtly, as for example casting aspersions on various parties so they adjust their gains from the will to benefit those who deserve it to avoid various scandals) so that true justice is achieved. Further, the detective will often be instrumental in arranging a marriage (or will remove an obstacle to marriage) at the end of the novel. It is also not unusual for the detective to arrange jobs for innocent characters at the end of the country house mystery.

    What the country-house novel thus requires is that property distribution on the macro scale of the UK be seen as reasonably just. That is, for the conclusion of the country house mystery to be a success, the detective must be seen to have reasonably successfully cured the injustice. That means that there are only comparatively minor levels of injustice within the UK – the detective can fix the injustice by re-arranging a relatively small group of things.

    If you have a regime which cannot plausibly be seen as having relatively low levels of injustice, the detective usually cannot bring about societal level re-arrangements of justice. To some extent, the Continental Op does in fact do this in Hammett’s Red Harvest, but Philip Marlowe always fails to do this, for example. Once you acknowledge the regime is unjust, the detective either can only do very minor re-arrangements (see Bernhard Gunther at the end of Kerr’s March Violets) or simply himself goes insane (Nick Corey in Thompson’s Pop. 1280). Nick Corey cannot be a detective because Pottsville County cannot be just.

    • icastes says:

      I think that what links the mystery and the crime novel together is a desire to see justice done, which is done usually by the revelation of the evil-doer. That we have this desire in us so strongly provides the conventions of the genre. You can’t have a novel of this genre, for example, where the evil-doer is not revealed in all his evil. Even Moriarty does not get away. It is also the reason that the genre is such a fantasy. In the real world, too many evil-doers get away or are never found.

      At the same time, the genre cannot redo society, but must live with it. The novels work on particulars, not generalities. Marlowe really can’t make the world better. But he can stop any occasional injustice and that suits us just fine.

      • Alex Gorelik says:

        I do not think you are correct in terms of older mysteries. While it’s true that we never see Sherlock Holmes solving a problem of truly political import, the figure of Mycroft Holmes is important. That the central government of the British empire itself contains such a figure as Mycroft in essence means the British empire is (in general) a just enterprise, or at least plausibly can be a just enterprise. (Remember that Sherlock says that Mycroft is even more intelligent than he himself is.) It becomes clear as Mycroft appears more frequently that Mycroft is at least informally the chief of intelligence/counter-intelligence for the entire empire and may even be a more important figure than even that (he’s hinted at having constant contact with the highest possible levels in the government).

        While Poirot does not seem to have quite the same level of access on a frequent basis, he does run into high (police or espionage) officials of the empire frequently, especially in the novels set in the Middle East. They usually are depicted as quite sympathetic and usually are well aware of Poirot’s talents and how to utilize him. Again, this speaks fairly highly of the British empire’s sense of justice – particularly as Poirot will usually solve mysteries extra-legally, or with extra-legal elements and the Empire seems to recognize and support that.

        Inspector Jap is also shown to be a policeman of very great virtue indeed, and that also does indicate a well-functioning government.

        Lord Peter Whimsey is, of course, the brother of the 16th Duke of Denver, who is a member of the House of Lords. Peter Whimsey is undoubtedly a least a sometime member of MI-6, and probably was at Eton with Stewart Menzies.

      • icastes says:

        I wonder if you really can write a mystery or crime novel that doesn’t presuppose the legitimacy of the establishment. Basically, even if the establishment is weak or somewhat corrupt, you need the establishment’s legitimacy to give legitimacy to the protagonist who is involved in the solving of the mystery or the crime. Consider, for example, James Bond does what he does for Queen and Country and never for personal profit. One always wonders what his civil service rank’s pay is. Mycroft and Poirot also need a legitimate establishment as well. Even Marlowe needs an establishment that has legitimacy even if his world seems so dark. Establishment legitimacy also means that the laws that govern such things as murder or grand theft or even treason are legitimate. If you question the legitimacy of the establishment, you have to also question the legitimacy of the laws that Holmes or Marlowe in effect uphold and then there is no point of the solving of the crime or revealing the mystery if these laws are questionable.

  3. Alex Gorelik says:

    I’m not certain I quite agree with this last posting. Rather, what I would argue is that the classic mystery is a very narrow genre that operates only within a limited range of regimes. However, that doesn’t mean the larger crime genre as a whole is limited as such. What it does mean is that it moves from being a comic genre to being a tragic one ( or at least an ironic one).

    What that in turn means is that the popular perception of the genre is misleading – the greatest practitioners were / are writers like Thompson, Highsmith, Goodis, Woolrich, Carlotto, Sciascia, Horace McCoy, Hamilton’s Hangover Square, Gadda’s Pasticciaccio, Kettenbach and others.

  4. icastes says:

    I don’t disagree about the genre being limited. However, the genre, I believe, can work in any regime, so long as there is a modicum of the rule of law. An interesting case is the book and the subsequent novel, “The Night of the Generals,” where a gestapo detective goes after a Nazi general who has murdered prostitutes. The basic premise is very simple: It is one thing for a man to slaughter people on the battlefield, but no man has the right to murder or play god or the devil in the bedroom. Even in the worst of times, there is a standard of justice that applies no matter what, and it is up to individuals even in the worst of times to uphold these standards. I think that the crime novel is linked to that sense of justice.

  5. Alex Gorelik says:

    I would disagree – the detective (wise man) within the unjust regime would primarily be interested in remedying the injustice of the regime itself, not solving individual crimes. To some extent, the spectacle of crimes (or solving crimes) can sometimes be used as a political tool, but the point is not the crimes themselves. A good example of this is the Dave Robicheaux series of James Lee Burke. The detective Robicheaux exists in a Louisiana that is almost dystopic. Across the multiple novels of the series, Robicheaux is eventually revealed to be engaged in a sort of sloppy and chaotic civil war against the informal oligarchy (or oligarchies) that rule/rules Louisiana. He is (largely) uninterested in random crimes of individual passion, property theft and so on. He is conversely quite friendly with many minor criminals of that description. In general, the crimes Robicheaux does “investigate”, he already has a reasonably good sense of why the ruling oligarchy committed or at least condoned the crime, and Robicheaux sees it as his function not so much to provide the exact solution to the case or prove an individual’s guilt (which he often never actually does in the technical sense), but more to re-arrange the deck chairs within Louisiana’s linked political-criminal-business oligarchies such that the oligarchy purges that particularly culpable member. (Or, more accurately, the oligarchy will permit particular plebes or outside oligarchies to exact long-sought-after revenge upon the member of the oligarchy selected to be a scapegoat for what are usually the collective crimes of the entire oligarchy). Robicheaux seems to see it as his function to guide or propel or accelerate that scapegoating and retribution process rather than as a technical crime-solver perse within any functioning system of justice – almost never does Robicheaux actually end up imprisoning the criminal through the formal justice system (many of the criminals he’s pursuing disappear under murky circumstances, for instance).

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