Sunday, May 29, 2011

Politics Makes Dead Bedfellows

“Politics Makes Dead Bedfellows,” by Brad Crowther. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. July/August 2011.
This is the winner of the Black Orchid Novella Award, co-sponsored by AHMM and the Wolfe Pack. The guidelines for this contest specifically say that "We're not looking for anything derivative of the Nero Wolfe character, milieu, etc," but a pastiche of Rex Stout is precisely what they got. And a good one, too. So let’s talk about pastiches.
I have written on this subject before, so let me start by explaining what a pastiche is not. Some dictionaries say the word is interchangeable with parody, a work that uses elements of another work in order to poke fun at it (e.g. Robert L. Fish’s Schlock Holmes of Bagel Street.) Some sources use pastiche when Writer B writes about the characters invented by Writer A, writing a new book in a dead author’s series (e.g Nicholas Meyer's The Seven Percent Solution.

I say no to both. A pastiche is a work in which Writer B uses elements from the character and style of Writer A to create something different. I would suggest there should be two categories in this field. Hard pastiche is the term I use for works in which the original characters exist in thin disguises of new names and addresses. For example: August Derleth’s Solar Pons is an unmistable copy of Sherlock Holmes.

One way to look at is the TV series rule. Imagine that someone turned Donald E. Westlake’s Dortmunder books into a TV show. If they ran out of books a screenwriter could take Jay Cronley’s novel Quick Change, change a few names and other details, and have a script ready to go. That’s a hard pastiche.

A soft pastiche takes more liberties. While it is unmistakable based on its model, and is intended to appeal to the same audience, but it creates a new world for the same formula. For some reason Rex Stout seems to attract a lot of these; see works by Dave Zeltsermen, Lawrence Block, Loren D. Estleman, and now (finally) Brad Crowther.

I knew we’d get to the point eventually. Let’s talk about “Politics Makes Dead Bedfellows.” I’ll assume that you are sufficiently familiar with Stout’s books about Nero Wolfe that I don’t need to connect the dots.

Edna Dugué is an wealthy private eye in Charleston, South Carolina. She is also an attorney, and teaches at a college. “I never pretended that my intentions are honorable,” she tells one visitor, but clearly they are.

Her assistant and the narrator of the story is Jerrelle Vesey, an African-American part-time college student. When Edna was a public defender she had helped him when he was sent to prison for badly beating two white men who killed his brother.

When the story opens a city councilman arrives to tell Edna that his wife has threatened to kill him. Not surprisingly he ends up dead and the widow becomes Edna’s client. What follows is classic Stout territory with Archie – Sorry! Jerrelle – going out to interview half a dozen suspects and bringing the results back to Edna, who figures out whodunit.

Two things make the story a treat. First is Jerrelle's dialog. Here he is chatting with the councilman: "I don't hold any grudges. As a matter of fact, I almost voted for you in the last election. In the end though I threw my support behind our neighbor's pet rat, Lester." I like this guy.

Second, are the set of supporting characters. For example, Edna's police nemesis is a woman, a friend of Jerrelle's family. She was the one who arrested him after his crime, and the one who drove him home after he was pardoned. And we still haven't met Edna's grandfather who lives in the attic.

These are interesting people in a world that feels fully developed and three dimensional. Rex Stout would be proud.

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