Thursday, December 27, 2007

You Can't Make This Stuff Up!

I collect books. I read them, too. If you've read my previous postings, you've probably surmised as much.

I collect books by certain authors (Fredric Brown, Jacques Futrelle, R. Austin Freeman, Lawrence Block, etc.) and books of certain publishers' imprints (Doubleday Crime Club, Dell Mapbacks).

There is also one quirky thematic collection in my library: mystery and detective novels with Lewis Carroll motifs. Often these are books that derive their titles from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland or Through The Looking Glass. Occasionally the connection goes deeper. I wrote about the books I've found, and provide a long list on Criminal Brief, a mystery short story blog for which I write a column every Friday. Read the column here. (Scroll down about 6 paragraphs to get to the Alice stuff).

After hunting off and on for a couple years, I finally found a copy of Murder Through the Looking Glass by Craig Rice (writing as Michael Venning). This is a brilliant story involving a guy who, after an alcoholic bender (it is Craig Rice, after all), learns that he's wanted for a murder he might have committed while suffering multiple personality disorder. It's a scarce book, and very pricey in good condition. (I have a Japanese copy, translated by Hidetoshi Mori. But my Japanese isn't quite up to par). The copy I found has no jacket, but it's a First, and is in reasonably good shape. (Here's a scan of the title page).

Imagine my surprise when I opened the book for the first time and saw the library stamp on the front loose endpaper:

If you recall the poem Alice tried to read that was only legible in a looking glass, it contains the nonsensical line:

All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.

Mome raths? Womraths? Had I stepped through the looking glass?

I did a search and learned that Womrath is a real place, and I presume my book was once on the shelves of its popular library.

I guess you can add serendipitous findings to my list of collections.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

When I saw on the cover of Jewish World Digest (June 2007) that Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union was being reviewed in its pages, I quickly turned to page 52. Having just finished the book, I was excited to read what others had to say. While Goldie Goldbloom accurately touched on some of the positive points of the book, I was dismayed at several faux pas that she made as a reviewer.

I should point out my own biases and credentials. I’ve been following Chabon’s career since his The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was issued in trade paperback in 1988; I’ve been reviewing books for several magazines and newspapers for over a decade and am review editor for one magazine; I am a staunch defender of mystery/detective fiction as literature.

Ms. Goldbloom’s criticisms of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union can be boiled down to four complaints: 1. it wasn’t as good as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay; 2. it was inaccurate; 3. it was “hard-boiled detective fiction” and not “literature”; and 4. the ending was “confusing and labored.” Goldbloom has her facts mostly straight, and she is, of course, entitled to her opinions. But as a reviewer she overstepped the line, being unfair to the book, its author, and most importantly, to her own readers. I’ll take each of her points in turn, and lastly will discuss the unforgivable sin of exposing the surprises of the novel.

First point: Goldbloom approached The Yiddish Policeman’s Union “hoping that Michael Chabon had finally pulled off another book of the caliber of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.” but found “To my dismay, his new venture is no Kavalier and Clay.” This sounds a lot like the old man who bit into a banana and said, “This ain’t no apple.” Of course it’s not. It may be fair to compare the relative merits of two books from Robert Parker’s “Spenser” series. But no critic would try to evaluate Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row using the same criteria. Imagine how absurd it would sound if 17th century critics said of “Hamlet” that “it is no ‘Twelfth Night.’” Kavalier and Clay and Yiddish Policeman’s Union are not the same book. They’re not even the same genre. Comparing them is to compare apples and bananas.

In her opening paragraph, Goldbloom was also subtly critical of two of Chabon’s prior books, The Final Solution and Summerland. Of course, neither of these books was The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. But both are fine books in their own right. Summerland in particular I found to be a delightful and engaging young adult fantasy adventure that was hardly “overloaded” and involved a lot more than “baseball and fairies.” I would highly recommend that book to anyone, old or young, male or female, Jew or Gentile, but particularly to any man aged 8 to 80 who has ever felt like an outsider.

Point two: Goldbloom tells us that The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is unlikely and “is studded with errors.” “If that wasn’t enough of a stretch,” she tells us after describing the criminal activities of the Verbover Hassidim in the novel, “the setting for this novel is a fictitious Jewish homeland called Sitka.” Of course it’s a stretch, Goldie. That’s why it’s called “fiction.”

Without bothering to point out the various very real cases of money laundering, smuggling, and mob ties engaged by ultra-Orthodox movements, I would remind Goldbloom that Theodore Herzl explored many settlement options for his “Jewish State” that included Uganda and Argentina. The ITO, led by Israel Zangwill (a mystery novelists, I should note), in 1903 sought to establish a Jewish homeland wherever it could, be it Australia, Asia, or Galveston, Texas. (These were all real considerations). The Jewish Autonomous Oblast was established in Eastern Russia (not too far from Sitka) and still exists to this day! I’m grateful that the 1948 War of Israel’s Independence turned out the way it did. But it is a fiction writer’s job to ask “What If?”

Goldbloom is concerned that Chabon refers to a wig as a shaydel rather than a shaitel, and that Jews are called Yids rather than Yidden. As an expert in the language, I’m sure Goldbloom knows that Yiddish is such a vibrant language precisely because of its suppleness and its ability to evolve. The Yiddish of Goldbloom’s Galitzianers differs in vocabulary and pronunciation from the Yiddish of Vilna, Odessa, Berlin, the Lower East Side, and I would presume, of Sitka, Alaska.

Point three: Goldbloom ends her review by telling us, “I am sorry to say it read far more like pot-boiler than literature.” I’ll admit: this is the criticism that set my pot a-boiling. Historically, the term “pot boiler” refers to hack-writing, fiction that is slapped together quickly, according to a set formula, intended brain-candy for the masses and a quick source of cast for the creator. I don’t think anyone would suggest Chabon is guilty of any of these things. If Goldbloom wants to call The Yiddish Policeman’s Union a work of genre fiction, I say bring it on. Genre may be shorthand used by publishers and booksellers to categorize, shelve, and market books. But the detective fiction genre is one that I am proud to celebrate.

Far from being the hack-writing that literary snobs condescendingly accuse it of being, detective fiction may be the last vestige of writing that still observes the principles of Aristotle’s Poetics. Unlike a lot of high literature, mystery novels have beginnings, middles, and endings and a plot that takes the reader from one end to the other in an interesting and entertaining manner. Mystery and detective fiction (I use the terms interchangeably) begin with a problem and end with a solution. Like the creation story in Genesis, they begin with chaos and end with order. One needn’t look farther than the novels of Laura Lippman, Reed Farrel Coleman, or Stuart Kaminsky (particularly his “Leiberman” books), to find beautiful writing, profound depth of human experience and moral struggle, and Judaic themes woven into detective story plots. The books of these authors are pot-boilers only in the sense that readers actually enjoy reading them.

Point four: “The greatest weakness of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, however, is the confusing and labored ending.” I’m not sure Ms. Goldbloom and I were reading the same book. Did I find ambiguity in the ending? Yes. Did the ending leave me with a certain political discomfort? Sure, in fact, the whole novel did. That’s the sign of good literature. But was it labored or confusing? As a detective story, all the crimes were clearly resolved; the final one brilliantly. But I think, in a subtle way, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union was more a story of love and redemption than one of crime solving. And in the end, Meyer Landsman found both love and redemption in a tender, touching, and quiet fulfillment of the novel’s promise.

Having responded to Goldbloom’s four criticisms, I have one final concern about her review of Chabon’s novel. The review spoiled the experience of the book for anyone who hasn’t read it by exposing several of the major surprises and plot twists of the book. I recall coming out of a movie theater in 1973, having just watched “The Sting,” the new film with Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and still reeling from the surprise ending. A joker several yards in front of me yelled to the long queue of theater-goers lined up to buy tickets, “Hey, at the end they aren’t really ____!” I felt the same reaction when I read Goldbloom’s fourth paragraph, in which she spills all of the surprises of the first half of the book. What’s more, the editors of Jewish World Review used that spoiler as a pull quote!

I wish Goldie Goldbloom the best. She writes well and I sense that she has a good eye for literature. I don’t think she wrote “A Yiddisher Cop and an Argentine Elegy” with any malice intent. My goal is not to convert mystery-bashers into fans. I would only hope that Ms. Goldbloom, the editors of Jewish World Review, and anyone who would consider reviewing a book to remember that the purpose of a book review is neither to ridicule a book not to show how clever we are, but to share enough thoughtful information about the book to allow readers to decide for themselves whether the book merits their time.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007


It's been over a month since my last confession --- er, blog-entry. Been busy with various deadlines, the end of the school year, and a great trip to NYC for the Edgar Awards.

But enough about me.

I've got to tell you about a new project on the web, one that has been put together by James Lincoln Warren. (In case you don't know JLW, he's an LA based short story writer, creater of Alan Treviscoe, a 18th century insurance investigator. I have to be careful how I write this, because JLW is also a self-appointed Diction Cop, and I don't want to be at the wrong end of his billy club for dangling my modifiers).

CRIMINAL BRIEF is a web log dedicated to discussing and celebrating the mystery short story. has a rotating crew of contributors, each providing a weekly column. Check it out at

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Shelf Life.

People at the "Bookcases" forum at have been discussing do-it-yourself shelving units. Here's mine, built about 8 years ago.

I based my plan on the fact that most sheets of lumber come 4X8. One sheet of 3/4" lumber, cut lengthwise, gave me a 2X8' base and a 2X8' top. A second sheet cut into quarters gave me 4 2X4' sections.

Here's a top view showing two versions. (I used the bottom version). Both plans show a 2X8' base laying flat on the ground, with a 2X4' section vertical at each end. (The top plan shows two more 2X4' dividers with thin plywood sheets - approx. 31"X4' - separating front and back. In the bottom plan, I kept the thin plywood divider whole, but cut the two center 2X4' planks into four 1X4' planks. Confused?)

Here's another diagram showing the basic materials and how they were used:

Here's a few more views of the finished shelves:

Friday, March 23, 2007

Two Hundred and Twenty One Ace Doubles
AsYouKnow_Bob, a fellow member of LibraryThing, posted this photo of his Ace-Double collection at his Flickr page. This, according to Bob, is a complete run! It's a nice set. If you go to this page, you'll see a large version of the image and get a closer look at all these books.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Dell Mapbacks

Between 1942 and 1962 (according to William H. Lyles, Putting Dell on the Map) Dell Publishing Company put out 2,168 paperbacks. Their first (Dell #1) was Philip Ketchum's Death in the Library The back cover sported an eye peeking through a keyhole, and the blurb:

This is a DELL BOOK
presenting a new exciting Mystery Series selected by the
Editors of America's Foremost Detective Magazines.

The second, third, and fourth books are pictured above, and bore the same back cover content. With Dell #5, Four Frightened Women by George Harmon Coxe, Dell decided to do something new. They included a "Scene of the Murder in 'Four Frightened Women'" on the back cover. It was a hit, and the tradition continued with a total of 577 maps, diagrams, or blueprints adorning their back covers.

(When Ellery Queen's The American Gun Mystery (Dell #4) was reprinted, a map was added to the back cover, replacing the original content).

Dell Mapbacks have fun cover art: sometimes gaudy, sometimes sexy, at times stunningly brilliant. The map on the back covers rarely adds anything but charm. (Notable exceptions are some of the more clever puzzle-mysteries such as Hake Talbot's Rim of the Pit and the mysteries of John Dickson Carr (AKA Carter Dickson). The map from Rim of the Pit pictured here was taken from sketch by the author).

Often the editors abridged the novels that they reprinted. According to Lyles, this abridgement was often pretty merciless.

On the positive side, Dell generally chose top quality mysteries to publish, with authors that included Margaret Millar, Dorothy B. Hughes, Agatha Christie, Brett Halliday, Rex Stout, as well as the aforementioned Queen, Carr, and Coxe. Dell also made it a tradition to include a list of dramatis personae, "The Persons This Mystery is About," before the title page.

The Mapbacks weren't all mysteries. There were some romance novels, adventures, science fiction novels, and some books that, if you judge by the cover, were only meant to titillate. I can't speak for the content of these books, but the covers are pretty fetching.

Below are a few interesting covers - some of them favorites of mine, others just curiosities. Note that the A.A. Fair (Erle Stanley Gardner) novel pictured below, Fools Die on Friday, was later reprinted (as Dell #1542) the woman pictured was showing considerably less skin.

Below are a bunch of the back cover maps. Feel free to click on them for a closer look.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Recent Acquisitions.

I love my books. Although my collecting tastes are eclectic, the following volumes - all recently acquired - show that there are patterns in my habit.

What do I like to collect?

Lawrence Block (about 140 volumes)
Fredric Brown
R. Austin Freemam
H.C. Bailey
Ellery Queen
Jacques Futrelle

Dwight V. Babcock
Doubleday Crime Club
Dell Mapbacks
Any mystery/crime novel with a Lewis Carroll allusion in the title (this started after I read Fredric Brown's Night of the Jabberwock).

I also have quite a few volumes of Rex Stout, John Dickson Carr, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Ed McBain, but so many of these are paperback reprints, so I'm not sure they're in the same ballpark. I have a lot of books by the three MacDonalds (Philip MacDonald, John D. MacDonald, and Ross Macdonald).

I came across this paperback of George Bagby's Mysteriouser and Mysteriouser, in which the Alice and Wonderland statue in Central Park plays prominently. Bagby is a pseudonym of Aaron Marc Stein's. I also have the hardcover first of this, which incidentally is a Doubleday Crime Club volume.

I met and had dinner with Bill DeAndrea at the Seattle Bouchercon in 1994. We corresponded briefly until his death a few years later. I liked him and his books, of which I own most titles. He wrote two books under the name Philip Degrave, Unholy Moses and Keep the Faith, Baby. I recently replaced my paperback (Paperjacks ©) copy with this Doubleday Crime Club first.

Larry Block has written under many pseudonyms, some that I'm sure he's rather forget about. While at Left Coast, I picked up two paperback firsts written under the name Paul Kavanaugh

Here are a few recently found Crime Clubs. Doubleday began publishing books with the Crime Club symbol (a composite of a guy with a gun, a guy falling, and the letters C-R-I-M-E) in 1928, and continued into the 1990s. Ellen Nehr was the authority on these for many years. After her death, Bill Deeck took up the mantle. I'm not sure if anyone is keeping up with the scholarship these days.

Anthony Berkeley's Silk Stocking Murder was published during the Crime Club's first year.

The Crime Conductor by Philip MacDonald, was published in 1931. Philip was the only one of the MacDonalds to be British (although he moved to California in the 1930s. He is probably best known for The List of Adrian Messenger and The Warrent for X.

H.C. Bailey wrote volumes of short stories featuring the cherubic physician Reggie Fortune. He also wrote numerous novels featuring a sly lawyer named Joshua Clunk. Bailey may be difficult reading for modern tastes, but a brilliant writer. Shadow on the Wall was the first novel-length "Reggie Fortune" story to be published.

Future blog postings will focus on Futrelle, Babcock, and whatever else strikes my fancy.