Friday, August 30, 2013

Notes on "A Crimson Overture"

Many years ago a fan of my Chess Hanrahan detective novels who had read all four in manuscript, and, in fact, had used the manuscript of the last in that series, Honors Due, in her detective literature course at a major university, asked me when she could expect the fifth adventure of the scrutinizer of all things observable. I do not recall what my answer was then. She had already read the manuscripts of the first two Cyrus Skeen Roaring Twenties novels, China Basin and The Head of Athena. Whether or not she had liked them, I cannot recall, either. But she expressed a preference for another Hanrahan.

This column is about why there will be no more Hanrahan detective novels, and why there will be no more Merritt Fury suspense novels, either. I will also explain why I have dwelt in the past and produced five Cyrus Skeen detective novels set in the late 1920's, the latest being A Crimson Overture, which edges into the 1930's.

Before going any further, I should mention in the beginning that what inspired me to write A Crimson Overture was Diana West's American Betrayal: The Secret Assault on Our Nation's Character, reviewed in my column Our Enemy Inside the Gates (June 8, 2013), in which she documents the influence Communists inside our government had on our foreign policies regarding Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the conduct of World War II. I had always suspected that there was something rotten in that particular phase of American history, and West lays out the whole stinking smorgasbord. She embarked on her project, not wholly incidentally, because she wanted to know why Islamists were having such an influence on our foreign policy, a policy which has grown in suicidal leaps and bounds in scale going back to at least the Carter-Reagan years.

I will not dwell on West's findings here. You must read her book and judge for yourself. I will say that I agree with her thesis one hundred percent.

In the previous Skeen adventure, The Chameleon, the detective's curiosity is piqued when he is paid with a bad check before he has even begun to look into the matter he was hired to investigate. He discovers a murder and an embryonic Nazi Bund a-budding in a university town south of San Francisco. And in the previous title, The Daedâlus Conspiracy, he journeys north of San Francisco to investigate and foil a possible plot to assassinate a prominent U.S. Senator.

Both titles led naturally to A Crimson Overture, in which Skeen delves into the murder of a courier of important information regarding the Soviet and Communist infiltration of our government, and before the third decade is even over (the following decade, the 1930's, will be deemed the "Red Decade"; that is the allegorical meaning of the title).

The chief attraction for me as a writer to work in this series, in that time period, is that the protagonist has far more freedom of action than he would have if he undertook the same actions today. More importantly, he is psychologically healthier, as are many characters in the series' "supporting cast." These aspects are important to me as the writer, as the creator. Were they absent, were they not values I hold in high esteem, I would not be able to lift a pen or poise my hands over a keyboard to write a single word.

To set a story in my own time, and imbue the protagonists with the element of unabridged, unopposed volition that is characteristic of Cyrus Skeen, is psychologically impossible for me to accomplish. My mind and creative powers revolt against the prospect. They refuse to generate any ideas that would lend themselves to a credible story. My mind stops cold.

Call that a failing, if you like. Or a lack of imagination. But it is my psychological health I am speaking of here, and no one else can judge it.

Also important to me are the values that such characters were likely to hold in that period.

I do not know how other contemporary detective and suspense writers manage to write what they do with stories set in our own time. I can only hypothesize.

They are clueless about the peril posed by a government daily acquiring the character of a dictatorship or totalitarian régime. This cluelessness or perceptual malaise would include not just the omnivorous power-seeking entities such as the NSA, the DHS, and the TSA, among other federal usurpers of freedom, but all the other intrusive and regulatory Goliaths such as the EEOC, the IRS, the FDA, the SEC, the HHS, the EPA, and other alphabetical abominations. Such writers seem to take these things as the metaphysical given, or even as metaphysically necessary, and craft their stories to accept them as benign, practical, or workable.

In the Cyrus Skeen series, Skeen is often in conflict with the federal authorities of his time, such as the Treasury Department's Bureau of Prohibition. He freely, in defiance of the 18th Amendment, consumes alcohol and patronizes restaurants that serve it. He is not above letting the air out of the tires of the automobiles of Revenue Agents., or even taking a sock at a Revenuer.

It is interesting to note that the enforcement of the 18th Amendment began with an arm of the Bureau of Internal Revenue, responsible for collecting taxes on alcohol. It was temporarily transferred to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1933, and when the 18th Amendment was repealed, enforcement and collection of the alcohol tax was returned to the IRS. The ATF, or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, is its SWAT-happy descendent.

Chess Hanrahan, a private detective who solves moral paradoxes in four titles, and Merritt Fury, a fiercely independent entrepreneur in three, have been "optimized," given the nature and character of today's political and literary culture. That is, there are no more credible actions possible to them in terms of the scope of action they might follow to preserve their values or their lives.

They are men of action. In a culture that prohibits or regulates the kinds of actions they take, no action is possible.

When I wrote the Hanrahan series (With Distinction, First Prize, Presence of Mind, and Honors Due), and the Fury series (Whisper the Guns, We Three Kings, and Run From Judgment), I was pushing the edge of the credibility envelope even then. This was in the 1970's and early 1980's, when some leeway in action was possible and even credible. If they acted in a new story, set in contemporary America, as they do in those novels, they would immediately run afoul of some agency of government enforcement. It is a consequence I could not evade. And, technically, that would be the end of the story that would never be written.

Imagine Merritt Fury, a globe-trotting entrepreneur, submitting to the TSA's groping and searching at an airport. I can't. I won’t. Imagine Chess Hanrahan ingratiating himself with a murder suspect, sensitive to hurting the suspect's feelings and risking a lawsuit. I can't. I won’t.

Literarily and existentially, Hanrahan and Fury would not survive in today's culture. They would find it as repellant, esthetically barren, morally bankrupt, hostile, and doomed as I do. The only alternative for them would be for me to pen a fantasy. I am not a fan of fantasies. So, Chess Hanrahan and Merritt Fury are on strike. They will not reappear until, as John Galt says to Dagny at the end of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, "the road is clear."

In terms of a political and philosophical statement, if anything can be called that, my magnum opus is the Sparrowhawk series of novels set in England and Virginia in the pre-Revolutionary period and ending with the outbreak of war. That also is a series I wrote because its protagonists had freedom of action, and the freedom to think without worry of repercussions, and who were not vehicles of a cramped epistemology, as most men are today.

In the Cyrus Skeen series, I highlight some premonitions of things to come, and try to emphasize some parallels between Skeen's time and our own. Skeen is a man of the mind as well as a man of action. He is a perfectly integrated man. He notes, on occasion, the intrusions of the irrational in art and politics and even social mores. In A Crimson Overture, for example, he wonders about the futility of President Wilson having sent American troops to restore "democracy" in Russia during that country's Civil War after World War I. The parallels between the American role in the Northern Russia intervention, led by Britain, and our own intervention in, say, Libya, are too obvious to dwell on here. 

I will write more novels for Skeen until he reaches a time when he is no longer free to act without incurring political or social penalties. I will refuse to submit him, and his wife, Dilys, and their compatriots in spirit, to the indignities and baseness of our time.

1 comment:

mattbarrow said...

"Imagine Merritt Fury, a globe-trotting entrepreneur, submitting to the TSA's groping and searching at an airport. I can't. I won’t. "

Geez, put him in a Gulfstream V or a Cessna Citation X. No entrepreneur like Fury uses commercial flights anymore.