Friday, October 25, 2013

Red Smith

Great journalists are praised at the wake but forgotten after the grave. Mike Royko lives on mostly in the memories of his contemporaries. Roger Ebert still casts a mighty shadow, but as the years roll on, his also will fade.

Few have broken the mold. H.L. Mencken did. So has Walter Wellesley "Red" Smith, perhaps the greatest sportswriter of them all.

The esteemed Library of America's new American Pastime: The Very Best of Red Smith (hardcover $30, Kindle ebook $14.99) is now taking me back to the days when anybody who could read eagerly devoured the daily 800 words Smith wrote, mostly for the New York Herald Tribune and the New York Times.

The book was edited by Daniel Okrent, himself a journalistic heavyweight, and its 150-odd columns are a national treasure, as was their creator.

I cannot bear to read Smith's piece on the death of Seabiscuit, but I am drawn to it again and again. It's not just his inimitably sharp wit and graceful prose that so mesmerizes me—it's also his deep humanity and wisdom.

Smith loved most sports, especially baseball, but he knew he was essentially addressing children's games writ large. (This was in the 1940s to 1970s, before they became enormous corporate creatures.)

Enough. Now back to the Kindle for a little more joy.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Back in winter quarters

Yesterday we completed our annual migration from the Writer's Lair on Lake Superior to winter quarters in suburban Chicago. The timing seems to be good, because today's forecast is for four to six inches of snow in Ontonagon County, the prototype of my novels' Porcupine County. This year, the almanacs say, winter is to arrive early, settle in deeply, and stay long.

Meanwhile, you might want to read Michael A. Black's long interview of me in the Summer issue of Crimespree Magazine. I've put it up on my web site.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Donna Leon

Some people like plot-driven mysteries, with lots of sex, gunplay and car crashes. Other people prefer character-driven mysteries, with lots of rumination, insight and local color. I'm one of the latter.

Right now I'm four chapters into Donna Leon's 22nd whodunit, The Golden Egg. Its first chapter is set entirely at the family dinner table of Commissario Guido Brunetti. This is a family of intellectuals, including the Brunettis' teen-age children, and they revel in wordplay.

"If the Brunettis had a religion, aside from a formal adherence to some of the outward, decorative manifestations of Christianity, it was language. Puns and jokes, crossword puzzles and teasers were to them what communion and confirmation were to Catholics. Bad grammar was a venial sin, deliberate corruption of meaning was mortal. The children had taken pride in reaching the stages of awareness where they, too, could partake in the progressively more serious sacraments; raised in this faith, they did not think to question its values."

Now wouldn't you love to go to their house for dinner?

The first three chapters involve no crime, except for a reference to petty bribery. Leon simply introduces us to her dramatis personae, including Vice-Questore Patta, Brunetti's pompous boss; Signorina Elettra, the police station's brilliant and sly secretary, and Inspector Vianello, Brunetti's assistant and sounding board. We also meet Venice, its sights, sounds, smells and especially cuisine.

Not until Chapter Four do we finally meet the homicide victim.

Slow to start? Not at all. Like P.D. James, Donna Leon is a master of both scene-setting and psychological suspense. From the very first, she enlists the reader's intellect in a conspiracy of discovery. We know from the first that nothing is wasted, that clues abound in her casual asides. She makes us eager to read on, to find out what's coming.

That takes art as well as skill.