Apr. 20, 2007


by Naomi Shihab Nye

FRIDAY, 20 APRIL, 2007
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Poem: "Alaska" by Naomi Shihab Nye, from Fuel. © Boa Editions, Ltd. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


The phone rang in the middle of the Fairbanks night and was always a
wrong number for the Klondike Lounge. Not here, I'd say sleepily. Different
place. We're a bunch of people rolled up in quilts
. Then I'd lie awake
wondering, But how is it over there at the Klondike? The stocky building
nestled between parking lots a few blocks from our apartment like some
Yukon explorer's good dream of smoky windows and chow. Surely the
comforting click of pool balls, the scent of old grease, flannel, and steam.
Back home in Texas we got wrong numbers for the local cable TV
company. People were convinced I was a secretary who didn't want to
talk to them. They'd call four times in a row. Sir, I eventually told a
determined gentleman, We've been monitoring your viewing and are sorry to
report you watch entirely too much television. You are currently ineligible for
cable services. Try reading a book or something
. He didn't call back. For the
Klondike Lounge I finally mumbled, Come on over, the beer is on us.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is the anniversary of the birth of detective fiction. It was on this day in 1841 that Edgar Allan Poe (books by this author) published his short story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." It's the story of the brilliant amateur detective Auguste Dupin and how he solves the crime of two murders that turn out to have been committed by an orangutan. It was the first story to feature a detective solving a crime, and it would spark the entire genre of detective fiction, one of the most popular fiction genres in the history of English literature.

Of course, it wasn't the first mystery story. The mystery story is as old as literature. What made Poe's short story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" different was that it was about a man solving a crime by examining and piecing together clues through a process of scientific reasoning. It also introduced many of the elements of mysteries that are still popular today: the genius detective Auguste C. Dupin, the not-so-smart sidekick, the plodding policeman, and the use of the red herring to lead readers off the track. Arthur Conan Doyle borrowed almost all of those elements to create the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels, which were what really popularized the detective story. Doyle had actually done some work as a scientist, so he was able to make the investigations in his stories more realistic.

For a few decades after Arthur Conan Doyle, detective novels were written primarily by British authors. They tended to feature clever amateur detectives, and they contained almost no real violence. The most popular murder method was poison. But after World War I, a group of American writers began to create a new kind of detective novel that was grittier and more violent, featuring professional private investigators. One of these writers was Dashiell Hammett, who had worked for a while as a detective himself for the Pinkerton agency. He created the detective Sam Spade in his novel The Maltese Falcon (1930).

The novelist Raymond Chandler said, "[It was Hammett who] took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley. ... [He] gave murder back to the kind of people who do it for a reason, not just to provide a corpse." Raymond Chandler went on to create one of the most popular detectives of all time, Philip Marlowe, in his novel The Big Sleep (1939). Chandler wrote, "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid."

Novelists around the world have been inventing new detectives ever since, among them Rex Stout, who created Nero Wolf; Erle Stanley Gardner, who created Perry Mason; John D. McDonald, who created Travis McGee; P.D. James, who created Adam Dalgliesh; and Walter Mosley, who created Easy Rawlins.

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