Tuesday, October 18, 2016

A Non-Politically Correct Bookshelf

Please indulge me while I “toot” my horn. Over the years I have produced a dozen or so novels that touch on current events and even anticipate them. They are about Islam, cultural and political corruption, and frauds perpetrated on the citizens and the country by our self-appointed elite. Here are synopses of their plots. They are all available as printed books, on Kindle, and also as Audible versions.

I begin with the earliest series I had finished, self-published on Amazon, because no mainstream publisher would touch it. It stars Merritt Fury, an American entrepreneur and maverick capitalist who invariably runs afoul of the political and financial establishments in America and abroad. The first title, Whisper the Guns, is set in Hong Kong. But the most relevantly violent one is the second title, We Three Kings, in which Fury is targeted for death by a Saudi sheik with the approving nod of our State Department. Sound familiar? The sheik gets his comeuppance by story’s end, with Fury holding the sheik’s feet and other body parts to the fire. I boldly adopted the Saudi royal emblem for the cover. No outrage from the Riyadh medievalists yet.

Another series, published by Perfect Crime Books in Baltimore, Maryland features a detective hero, Chess Hanrahan, who specializes in solving moral paradoxes. In Presence of Mind Hanrahan encounters and engages in a contest of wits with two denizens of the State Department, who subscribe to the policy of “cognitive dissonance,” in order to put across a disastrous “peace” treaty with the Soviet Union. Wishing hard enough for a preferred result will make it so. Hanrahan jolts the celebrated denizens back to reality in the worst possible ways. In With Distinction, he investigates a murder in the philosophy department of a Midwest university (based on Michigan State University), and uncovers a snake pit of plots to grant illiteracy and ignorance the highest academic honors, and to rid the department of a reason-oriented philosophy professor. Sound familiar?

The Hanrahan and Fury novels were composed and finished in the mid-1980s. Their plots were extrapolations of the political and cultural conditions of the time. I had no sense then that things would grow much worse. Political correctness  in speech and written forms was not yet a ubiquitous term of derogation of enforced conformity – although Marxists and feminists were hard at work to impose PC, often successfully – while such concepts as  “safe places,” “white privilege,” and “trigger warnings” would have caused even the leftist professors in academia to guffaw in laughter.

Shortly after the second Hanrahan title, First Prize, was published in 1988 and soon reviewed in The New York Times, I received an invitation from the Western Illinois University Press to submit an essay to a collection of essays by others on the art of detective fiction. I sent my piece in (it’s included in Rational Scrutiny), and waited, half certain that the piece would be rejected because it went counter to the prevailing tone of criticism. It was indeed rejected. The essay collection, sans my essay, was published in October 1990 under the title The Cunning Craft. Rather  than see all the research for the essay go to waste, which was on how Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (first serialized in Black Mask crime magazine in 1928-1929, and later published in book form by Alfred A. Knopf in 1929), was not a “proletarian” novel as many academics claimed, I decided to write a novel set in the same, week, month and year as the Sam Spade novel was set, in December 1928. Thus was born China Basin, the first Cyrus Skeen novel 

Cover of the first Knopf edition, 1929

China Basin reflects many things, especially the state of the literary and dramatic  arts. Skeen, who has just returned from a tour of the Continent, over dinner discusses of the state of current theater with two friends, who are theater critics. He says about a hit play that is running in San Francisco and is slated to premier in New York City :

“I mean that Olympus Deferred is the slickest paean to transcendentalism I’ve ever seen, Herb. Ninety percent of the serious drama penned and produced — and a significant volume of sly boots comedy — says the same things as does Olympus, but not nearly as well. Olympus answers no questions, takes no sides, and resolves no issues. It hands approval to both the hero, who isn’t one, and to the anti-hero, who isn’t anything. It bequeaths happiness to the weakling and pain to the misanthrope. In a deft sleight-of-hand it sustains — not challenges — the very conflict you’d expect it to resolve. It preaches tolerance for the coward and the frightened, and tolerance for the loner. It rations equal portions of value between the manqué  – and the firebrand. It’s a vehicle of nihilism, Herb, the best yet to walk a stage and send people’s minds abuzz. Everybody goes away happy; nobody is asked to take sides; nothing is affirmed or denied. In that respect, Olympus is not controversial.”

The two friends listened:

Castle and Kripps listened to him with interest and asked him many questions. They even joined in a few choruses of laughter. But Skeen knew that their eagerness had been doused by the argument over Olympus Deferred. When he began to report in detail the things he had seen in Germany — particularly in the theater, and the influence of Dadaism, Surrealism, and Neo-Expressionism in the other arts — Kripps’s attention became more pronounced.

Finally, Kripps interjected, “Well, Hardenberg’s to blame for that ‘word salad’ nonsense. Lessing, Kant, Herder, Schopenhauer — that whole crowd is behind the unbelievable insanity you saw there, Cyrus. We can even see it sprouting here. For example, in the theater — the serious theater — Olympus Deferred is archetypal. ”

One of the critics is eventually murdered, while the other commits suicide. It turns out one of them wrote Olympus Deferred, whose authorship is being claimed by psychopathic murderer, but the critic who wrote it doesn’t dare admit it. He is being blackmailed.

The Skeen series is long and adventuresome, spanning the 1920s decade and then some. I am currently working on the 21st Skeen detective novel. I find that I can no longer set a detective novel in my own time. Political correctness, government regulations, and the general tone and content of contemporary culture make a hero such as Cyrus Skeen impossible. I am comfortable working in Skeen’s time – historian Paul Johnson once wrote that the 1920s was the last decade in which America was what it as meant to be, Prohibition and some federal intrusions to the contrary notwithstanding – and Skeen is free to act without the kind of self-conscious restraints that bedevil fictional heroes today. Skeen and I both have a freedom of action, speech, character, and manners which in our culture today are alien and unwelcome. Neither Skeen nor I must jump through federal and cultural hoops to get things done. And Skeen and I are thinkers and take ideas seriously. Skeen, at least, is a threat to those who fear his crime-solving prowess and panache.

Skeen ventures into realms few other fictional detectives are equipped to move effortlessly in.

In Civic Affairs he is asked to apologize for his rough treatment of criminals. He laughs at the preposterous idea and kicks the advocates of the idea out of his office. In Sleight of Hand he is asked by a pair of professors from the University of Wisconsin to stand for the office of Public Defender in the coming local city elections; he also laughs at the idea. He learns that the former Public Defender was murdered to make room for another candidate (not Skeen who would also be murdered) who would introduce Progressive issues into the campaign. In Stolen Words he proves that a jailed writer did not murder his publisher, but he also learns that the writer and publisher had made a business of plagiarizing many American classics. The Circles of Odin pits Skeen against a cabal of occultists who are on a murder spree to eliminate “useless” people (echoes of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, although I didn’t realize the film’s influence on me until after the title was published).

Skeen is not averse to tackling “big time” issues. In Exegesis Skeen tracks down the persons responsible for murdering ex-convicts;  throw in the murder of a retired Wisconsin Supreme Court justice and Skeen’s plate is full.  In The Daedàlus Conspiracy he journeys to Monte Rio to attend the annual outing of the country’s elite, businessmen, politicians and cultural leaders to abort the assassination of a U.S. Senator. Wintery Discontent finds him hired by an Austrian diplomat who wants to introduce a scheme to the Western allies that would predate the European Union, but fears for his own life. 

This caper is linked to a subsequent plot in Seeing Double, in which the Soviets hatch a scheme to discredit the allies with a bogus plan to invade and overthrow the Soviet regime. Skeen’s murder is integral to the plan – he was supposed to be the disgraced courier of the invasion plan – but the resourceful detective foils it.

Politics is not the usual focus of Skeen, but often it is unavoidable. In The Chameleon he solves the murder of a businessman by a member of a nascent Nazi bund near Stanford University. That episode begins with a bounced check. A Crimson Overture introduces him to the web of Soviet espionage when a British artist he and his wife have befriended is murdered. The lady was a British spy. And in
perhaps his most ambitious case Skeen tackles The Muslim Brotherhood, in The Black Stone, when he investigates the brutal murder of a Jewish girl and the torture/death of a New York newspaper
reporter who stole the sacred Black Stone from the Ka’aba in Mecca.

Finally, in the latest Skeen affair, Trichotomy, the detective, something of a man of letters, is invited to address a sociology class about an article of his that was published about the behavior of recidivists, only to witness the classroom murder of the professor who invited him. It is both an allegory and a Roman à clef. Sound familiar? First Things begins on a light note when a shy, gawky teenager asks Skeen to find his missing girlfriend; amused at first, Skeen uncovers a years-old charity racket that enslaves adopted girls a la ISIS and the Yazidis, except that the slave brothel is in San Francisco.

As can be seen, the Skeen mystery novels span a wide range of issues and subjects,  every one of them requiring the attribute of thought and a moral code and often Skeen’s brazenly impolitic style and approach to problem-solving. They are not merely mystery novels. They are introductions to a time and a spirit when thought and reason were not under siege and virtually banished from one’s life and values. In a sense they are of our own time, because I wrote them in this era.  

Skeen is aided in many cases by his loving artist wife, Dilys, and by Mickey Kane, a newspaper reporter who reports facts, not opinions or bias.

The pillars of Western civilization are now under attack – in politics, in our own government, in art, in education, in our justice system – and one purpose of mine is to demonstrate that the pillars needn’t be discarded if one is willing to fight for them. They can be discarded and lost only at one’s peril and ultimate demise. 

Cyrus Skeen, Chess Hanrahan, and Merritt Fury may not belong to our own time, but they can become presences in one’s own life. 

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