Maureen Corrigan’s guilty pleasures

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 10/22/09More articles
(“Washington Post” and NPR commentator Maureen Corrigan pulls the mystery crowd)

Late last month, Maureen Corrigan reviewed Sara Paretsky’s latest V.I. Warshawsky novel, “Hardball,” in the “Book World” section of the “Washington Post” – a review I so admired for its clarity and ability to connect the larger dots that I posted the link on my own Facebook page, adding, “I wish I had written this.”

Corrigan writes that Paretsky, like Barack Obama, first went to Chicago to do community organizing. She cites Paretsky’s note that in the summer of 1966 the future mystery novelist got to watch Martin Luther King, Jr. lead efforts to desegregate Chicago housing and the riots that ensued as whites attacked police for protecting the activists. It was, Paretsky said, “a defining time” for her and now the key to this novel’s mystery. Adding that Paretsky has also used the Warshawsky series to explore phenomena like McCathyism before tackling race in this one, Corrigan explains that she admires Paretsky for “realizing the potential of the home-grown hard-boiled detective genre to investigate the more troubling mysteries at the heart of our national identity.”

Last Thursday at Bird Library, Corrigan said she’s annoyed when she encounters comments that a detective novel is exceptional because it “transcends its genre” when “it’s not a genre that needs transcending.”

Corrigan is critic-in-residence at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., but the large crowd of fans of all ages who showed up last week for her talk about mystery fiction, “Guilty Pleasures,” likely keep in touch with her work through her books – “Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading,” for example – and through the “Washington Post,” or National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” – which broadcasts in Central New York on both WAER and WRVO – where she has been book reviewer for twenty years.

Regarding that stint at “Fresh Air,” Corrigan said last Thursday, “Maybe four times a year I can work in a mystery, and every time I get email. ‘Why are you reviewing this junk?’”

Corrigan contended that mysteries are worthwhile for more than their recreation, riveting story plots and serious characters. It’s the subject of mysteries that interests her.

“Mysteries introduced a new subject to literature – they are about thinking.”

Beginning with Edgar Allen Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) – Poe called his mysteries “urban shock” stories and “tales of ratiocination” (as opposed to his “tales of terror”) – and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes reprise (he returns his character from the dead), “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1903), Corrigan laid out a case for how this popular fiction has endured as an exploration of epistemology, or a working out of how we know what we think we know. Corrigan noted that Freud was just laying out his own notions of the unconscious at the time “Hound” appeared, with its “great champion of rationality…almost getting sucked into the mire near the end” of a story set in wild, formless landscape.

Paretsky’s “Hardball,” on the other hand, descends from the U.S. contribution of the “gallows, guns and guts” school of Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane.

“I fell in love with the ‘hard-boiled’ tradition to avoid my dissertation about 19th century social critics,” Corrigan said. “Someone gave me a copy of Hammet’s ‘Red Harvest’ and the jacket said it was about labor unions. My dad had been a shop steward and I was feeling alienated at [the University of] Penn. I began to feel that what his ‘Continental op’ – an op is slang for detective – investigated was not all that different than what Carlyle and Ruskin did – alienation, class tensions and, as Chandler’s Philip Marlowe said, ‘a world gone wrong.’”

Corrigan said these mysteries go further than complaint, unexpectedly offering a utopian vision of what real and dignified work could be.

“We’d all like to call the shots,” she said. “Dictate the terms, do something that’s satisfying, say when it’s done and, most of all, reunite the head with the hand – combine cerebral and physical labor.”

Corrigan quotes a Hammet character who said, “Liking work makes you want to do it well,” and she noted that half-way through Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” (1925), he’s already solved the case.

“He’s already been paid, but there’s still something else.”

Corrigan touched on post-60s mysteries, especially Robert B. Parker’s Spencer novels, and in taking some questions afterward, listed as women whose work she likes, besides Paretsky, Liza Cody of the Anna Lee series and Lisa Scotteline whose legal thrillers have been compared to John Grisham’s work. Corrigan also follows the Swedish mystery writer Henning Mankell, creator of police inspector Kurt Wallander. Asked how she chooses those four mysteries a year for “Fresh Air,” Corrigan said, “I’m looking for ambition. I take my mysteries seriously.”

Corrigan is working on a book about the literary landscape in 1930s New York City.

This article appears in the 10/22/09 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly on p. 9. Nancy covers the arts and writes the film column “Make it Snappy.” Reach her at nancykeeferhodes@gmail.com.

TAGS: Maureen Corrigan,Bird Library,Washington Post,NPR commentator,critic-in-residence at Georgetown University,National Public Radio,Fresh Air,mysteries,Nancy Keefe Rhodes
EDITION: The Eagle

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