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Noir Is for Losers

Noir.

Slippery little word, isn’t it? French, but applied in retrospect to American movies that were themselves informed by aspects of German Expressionism. According to Otto Penzler, when people profess to be fans of the sub-genre, they very rarely know what they’re talking about. As editor, critic, and proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop, Penzler obviously does.

The one thing noir isn’t, he says, is PI fiction. In fact the two sub-genres are “philosophically diametrically opposed.” Noir fiction’s “existential, nihilistic tales” represent the pitch-black flip side to PI fiction’s more optimistic slant. PI fiction displays an ethical code; noir fiction wallows in the gutter. PI fiction tends to restore order (Penzler’s connection to the sheriff cleaning up the wayward town is key); noir fiction must end in utter annihilation.

On the face of it, there’s not a lot to argue with here, other than the usual exceptions thrown up in response to a concrete definition written to an equally concrete word count. And indeed, there’s something about the definition that feels a little too concrete.

Let’s forget for a moment whether a sub-genre can comprise existentialism, nihilism, and some of the more basic concepts of predeterminism, and instead go right back to its roots. Penzler states that noir “has its roots in the hard-boiled private eye story that was essentially created by Dashiell Hammett in the pages of Black Mask Magazine in the 1920s,” and while I think it’s safe to say that the PI archetype (as opposed to the amateur sleuth or consulting detective) originated in its most popular and credible form with Hammett, my own feeling is that the roots of noir go much further back than the early part of the 20th century. Indeed—and you’ll have to forgive me for sounding like a substitute English teacher here—I believe noir can be traced right back to a trio of bad-asses named Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles, the fathers of tragedy.

As evidenced in the work of the above and defined by Aristotle, the tragic hero is a man “who neither is a paragon of virtue and justice nor undergoes the change to misfortune through any real badness or wickedness but because of some mistake.” This mistake needn’t be an action on the character’s part, either—it could be and often is an inherent personality flaw, hubris, or a failure of the spirit that leads to his eventual doom. But the point is that there are no purely evil characters, that in even the worst of the tragic heroes, there is a spark of humanity that keeps him compelling to an audience. It may not be the most pleasant spark, but it’s there. And it’s that spark that makes noir characters compelling. After all, there isn’t that much separating the motives of Oedipus and Bill Rhodes, Macbeth and Jaime Figueras, or Ferdinand and J. J. Hunsecker, and Penzler’s assertion that “noir is about losers” who pretty much deserve their fates robs noir of its humanity and renders it instead a series of quickie morality plays with horny puppets double-crossing each other to death.

It is the critic and bookseller’s first instinct to categorize, of course, but the danger in this is that only the broad strokes are seen. Defining noir fiction by its lust-driven losers and doom-laden outsiders brings us perilously close to cliché, and cliché can only lead to stagnation. It’s the same thing that crippled the PI sub-genre, and while there are certainly some excellent writers working in a more traditional vein (Laura Lippman, Sean Chercover, Michael Koryta, and Russel D McLean, to name but four), I still think we’re waiting for someone to shake that sub-genre up the way Pelecanos or Crumley did.

So then, with an open mind, why can’t PI fiction be noir fiction? Well, the fact is, it can.

The first novel that springs to mind is Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg. If you haven’t read it, you’ve probably seen the sterling 1986 adaptation Angel Heart, which moved the story from New York to New Orleans and certainly made me think twice before eating another hard-boiled egg. The book opens with a quote from Aristotle, from Oedipus the King, no less— “Alas, how terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the man that’s wise!” —and a typically retro hard-boiled first line:

“It was Friday the thirteenth and yesterday’s snowstorm lingered in the streets like a leftover curse.”

Although there’s a strong element of pastiche in Falling Angel is a one-off, and PI fiction by its nature tends toward the series, which is perhaps why I can think of more noir movie PIs than I can literary. But I think the first four Jack Taylor novels (ending with The Dramatist’s final bleak tableau) certainly count as a noir cycle, and the only reason I don’t include the others is that Bruen hasn’t finished the series yet, and I’d be surprised if Jack lives happily ever after. And I might as well admit that I have a dog in this particular fight myself. He’s not a particularly big dog, but he’s proven game enough to make it through four books. There does, however, seem to be a distinct lack of properly noir PIs. If you have any suggestions, I’d love to read them—comments are open.

Also, this lack of crossover reminds us of how fixated we can be as both authors and readers (yes, readers—you’re the ones dictating taste here) on the window dressing of a sub-genre as opposed to what made it compelling in the first place. And while every sub-genre waxes and wanes in popularity, isn’t there also a chance that every wane may be its last?

Ray Banks is the author of the Cal Innes novels, the last of which, Beast of Burden, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2011. He’s also written a bunch of short stories that have been anthologized in such places as Dublin Noir, Damn Near Dead, Expletive Deleted, and Shattered. When he’s not mouthing off over here, he can be found mouthing off over at his website, www.thesaturdayboy.com.

Do You Have to Be a Murderer to Write Killer Fiction?

Everyone reading this column has one thing in common: we all love crime novels. The question I’d like to pose is, are the best crime novels written by those experienced in crime, and the violence that inevitably accompanies it?

Crime fiction is about murder. Do crime writers who have experienced violence write different kinds of murder mysteries than people who never have? I think so. Just like the best war novels are almost most often written by men who’ve experienced war (From Here to Eternity, The Young Lions, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Naked and the Dead). In American fiction, as far as I know, the only great war novel ever written by a guy who had no experience in war was Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage.

My favorite crime novel, The Hoods by Harry Grey, was written by a man who was serving time for manslaughter in Sing Sing. While it is true one of the most successful books, The Godfather, was written by a man with no known ties to the Mafia, Mario Puzo was smart enough to pick up a great deal of street gossip and anecdotes from his Mafia-infused neighborhood. In addition to this, as a veteran of World War II, he witnessed much violence and corruption in postwar Berlin. Out of this came his wonderful novel The Dark Arena. Perhaps the greatest crime trilogy of the 20th century, the Studs Lonigan books, was written by James T Farrell, a guy who knew many Studs Lonigans in the poor and violent Chicago neighborhood he grew up in. And of course, we also have Nelson Algren.

Perhaps a writer can compensate for not personally taking part in violence by being an acute observer. Therefore we have people like George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, and James Ellroy, who may not have participated in violence themselves, but avidly follow and report on it. Of course, there are many criminals who have published successful crime books, but these are usually ghosted. I know in my case, my fiction comes out of the eighteen and a half years I spent growing up in East New York, the toughest slum in the country. Since I was not tough, I had to be extremely brutal in order to win my streetfights. A writer who had to decide whether or not to murder people writes different crime fiction than someone who hasn’t. Now I’m not saying I killed anyone, but out of the ninety or so street fights and fistfights I was in, there were a number of times I made decisions to try. As Mike Tyson, a guy who grew up in Brownsville–East New York, said in the documentary that bears his name, street fights were different from his fights in the ring. While street fighting, he had to beat his opponent so badly he would not be able to return to his block and bring back reinforcements or a gun. In my fiction, when I’m writing a violent scene, all I have to do is remember my past. There are certain things that writers who have engaged in violence know that writers who’ve never witnessed or participated in any can never know. A former editor of mine, Brando Skyhorse, once happened to ask me questions about the authenticity of a scene I wrote in which one character was pleading for his life. Without even thinking, I responded that I’d had a number of people plead with me to let them live, and this is what they said. Brando kept the scene. I am not proud of how I grew up, but by writing fiction I have managed to constructively use the violence I witnessed and participated in. This violence came from both warring street gangs and the young hoodlums who grew up to be portrayed in movies like Goodfellas.

There are other crime writers, including ex-cops and criminals, who, like me, participated in and witnessed tremendous amounts of violence. People who experienced violence in the past and have the talent to write about it will probably write more realistic crime scenes than people who have to fall back on their imaginations. If realism is your standard, it makes sense to first read writers who in their pasts and possibly present are actually involved in crime. A person who has fired a gun or investigated a murder will write a different book than someone who hasn’t.

Joseph Trigoboff lives in New York City with his wife and two children. He is the author of The Shooting Gallery and The Bone Orchard. For his novels, Joe draws much on his childhood in the violent neighborhood of East New York/Brownsville where street and fist-fights were commonplace and packs of wild dogs roamed the streets, he is currently working on a memoir about this period in his life.

The Spy Gadget Vendor Who Loved Me

day 91 - flickr style spyIn the last two years, my work as a national security reporter brought me into contact with an array of bright and gallant intelligence community personnel ranging from a temp at the National Security Agency to the director of the CIA. As it happens, the source who had the greatest influence on my latest espionage novel was a civilian who distributes cheap spy gadgets from his father’s basement.

We’ll call him Steve. Because his work involves a lot of legal gray area—using just about any of his products as intended violates electronic surveillance laws, potentially making you the next Linda Tripp—he prefers pseudonymity. But he happily shared his story with me, offered insights into the industry, and listed his bestselling devices.

Three years ago, his business consisted only of a website and his conviction that the URL would be found by suspicious spouses and people with nannies they didn’t trust. Since then, eavesdropping by private individuals has created an industry with about $2 billion in annual revenue—comparable to that of the National Hockey League. Of that, Steve pulls in about $2 million, all via the Web, which is home to almost all such transactions.

Continue reading “The Spy Gadget Vendor Who Loved Me”

Explosive New Tourist Attraction on an Alagoas Beach

Man snorkeling off the shore of Maceio, capital of Alagoas
Photo © Michael Sommers.

Wandering along the paradisiacal beaches of northern Alagoas – some of the most beautiful in Brazil – one expects to encounter sea shells, sand dollars, fallen coconuts – anything but explosive mines. However, this is precisely what construction workers in Maragogi, a former fishing village and current tourist hot spot, uncovered earlier this year while digging deep into the sand. Although the mine was subsequently (and very delicately) extricated by a police bomb squad, and taken off to an isolated beach where it was promptly detonated, subsequent investigations by the Brazilian Navy last month turned up another five sea mines in the center of town and on the main beach.

The mines – gigantic metal balls that measure 1 meter in diameter and weigh 100 kg – date back to the 1940s. During the Second World War, records show that the Brazilian Navy placed a total of seven mines along the coast of Maragogi as a defensive measure against invading German ships. Concerned with potential accidents, at the time, local fishermen buried the mines on a secluded patch of beach. As decades passed, residents forgot about the mines and the formerly abandoned areas where they lay buried became urbanized.

[pullquote] Meanwhile, the fact that the “mined city” has made national headlines is a concern for the region’s tourist industry. [/pullquote]

Their rediscovery – which quickly earned Maragogi the droll, if dubious, nickname of “cidade minada” (mined city) – has divided the local population. While some residents, such as a young teacher whose school is located in front of one of the mines, confess that the thought of living in a minefield is unnerving, others are as unfazed as the street vendor who sells homemade snacks in front of a second mine and whose philosophical argument is that “if they haven’t exploded in the last 70 years, why would they explode now?”

Meanwhile, the fact that the “mined city” has made national headlines is a concern for the region’s tourist industry. Maragogi is Alagoas’ second-most popular tourist destination (after the capital, Maceió, located 130km south) due its strategic location along the Costa dos Corais (Coral Coast), a coastline renowned for its limpid turquoise ocean pools framed by coral reefs (known as “the Galés”). Accessible by boat (or on foot when the tide is low), these reefs – part of a 135-km extension of federally protected coral that stretches from northern Alagoas up to southern Pernambuco – are a snorkeler’s paradise that draw visitors from all over Brazil and abroad.

Executive manager of the trade and tourist association of Alagoas’ northern coast, Mariana Goldstein is particularly worried about the mines’ effects on tourism. As such, she breathed a giant sigh of relief when it was announced that in early October, a special team of explosive specialists from Rio de Janeiro will be on arriving in Maragogi to preside over a team of engineers whose mission is to safely dig up, remove, and detonate the offending mines (an operation that is expected to last 3-4 weeks).

This isn’t to say, however, that Goldstein wants the memory of the mines to be swept away as soon as possible. Rather, she and other members of the tourist association hope to take advantage of the situation by transforming the mines into the area’s newest – and oddest – tourist attraction. “I think we should emphasize the historic value of these mines. We could create a museum that recounts their history against a backdrop of Brazil’s participation in the Second World War,” she announced this week. If it comes to fruition, at the very least the plan will bring a new layer of meaning to the expression “exploding tourism.”

Suzanne Nam Offers Advice on Making the Move to Thailand

moon living abroad in thailand cover featuring potted lilies

1. Are there local customs that a newcomer to Thailand should be aware of?

From the way people line up to wait for stalls in bathrooms to how you buy produce in the supermarket, things are a little different here! You’ll pick up the local customs when you arrive, just be flexible.

2. Making local friends is a great way to assimilate to living in a new country. What’s the best way to meet new people in Thailand?

Thai people are generally very open and friendly so most efforts to make friends will be rewarded. Even if you’re not typically extroverted, chat with people whenever you can, whether at your child’s school, your office or the mall. You’ll make friends quickly.

3. What do you consider essential items to pack before moving to Thailand? Are there any things you just can’t find?

Thailand really is extraordinarily convenient and modern, and there’s nothing you just can’t find. Electronics, furniture and housewares are all available here at very reasonable prices. However, some imported items, especially luxury items, can be very expensive. If you need Wustof kitchen knives, for example, bring them with you or you’ll end up paying three times the price here. Good shoes at reasonable prices are also tough to find here, especially if you have bigger than average feet.

4. Should someone moving to Thailand find housing before they leave or look around upon arrival? Are there any great housing resources to be aware of?

Look when you arrive. If you’re moving to a popular city or region, such as Bangkok or Phuket, you’ll find plenty to choose from that you won’t know about until you’re on the ground. The best way to find housing is still to get out there and walk the land, and you just can’t do that until you arrive. Temporary housing isn’t difficult to find in Thailand, so there’s no downside to waiting other than not feeling settled until you find a permanent home.

5. What’s the best way to manage your money in Thailand?

It’s probably a wise idea to open a local bank account while you’re in Thailand. You don’t have to keep tons of cash in it, but it will make life easier when it comes to paying bills online. Plus, you won’t have to pay exorbitant ATM fees if you have a local account.

6. When moving to Thailand, what are the initial costs? How much money should one set aside for the move?

Initial costs can be quite low depending on what part of the country you move to and what your housing situation is. If you’re moving into a serviced apartment, you’ll pay a minimal deposit for your housing but nothing up front for setting up utilities. You really can arrive with just a couple hundred dollars in your pocket to begin your life here. On the other side of the spectrum, if you’re setting up a new home, you’ll pay first and last months’ rent, plus a security deposit, plus fees to set up your internet, cable and telephone utilities. That will most likely run into the thousands of dollars, similar to the cost of setting up a new home in the US.

7. In which fields is it easier for a foreigner to secure a job? Any tips on getting hired?

Teaching English is the quintessential foreigner job in Thailand. Since studying English is so popular here, there are thousands of positions available. Though some mostly for-profit schools hire teachers without experience or qualifications, most good teaching jobs require one or both. However, you can enroll in a certification course here in Thailand and spend a month getting qualified before looking for a job. Thailand is a hub for multinationals doing business in the region, so qualified people, especially those in business, often find opportunities here.

8. What’s the one thing you wished you would have known about living abroad before you left?

I guess I didn’t realize that life would be so…normal. Although you’re moving to an exotic and foreign place, you’ll still have to walk the dog, commute to work, go to the bank, etc. Make sure to plan for that stuff. The exotic adventure stuff comes easy!

Cathartic Thrills

AirplaneA few years ago I was on a book tour in Spain, where I spent two days in a hotel being interviewed by reporters. Interestingly, nearly all of them posed a similar inquiry: What’s it like not to write serious fiction?

I admit, at first I was thrown by the question. But in the end I answered it with an inquiry of my own. How many times have seen a person reading War and Peace on an airplane? None of the reporters answered me, so I offered the answer for them. None. Then I asked a second question: How many times have you seen someone reading a thriller on an airplane? Of course, the answer was obvious. Many. I followed up these two questions with a statement: I doubt that Tolstoy could have written a popular thriller. Which is similar to my doubt that I could write like Tolstoy. That doesn’t make either one of us better than the other, it simply makes us different.

It’s true, no thriller will ever win the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize or the Nobel Prize for Literature. They rarely win anything (except of course the Thriller awards, bestowed each July by the International Thriller Writers, of which I am currently the co-president). And it could be argued that no thriller will change the face of world literature. Great analyses will not be written about them, and rarely are they favorably viewed by any of the major book review outlets.

Those things also don’t make them bad, they simply make them different.

Thrillers perform one simple task: they entertain. For a short while they allow readers to escape their own world, to forget their own troubles, and to just have a good time. Luckily, the genre is packed with a multitude of sub-genres, each geared to its particular audience, who savor those subdivisions with a zeal that has long helped to sustain publishing houses.

A few months ago I received an email from a reader. He’d gone through a difficult divorce, then was involved in a car accident. While recuperating he’d read a number of thrillers, including all of my Cotton Malone series. He wanted me to know that my stories had helped him through a difficult time. They’d allowed him time to relax, and he said that without them his recovery period would have been unbearable. And he’s not alone. Nearly every week I receive emails from servicemen and -women stationed overseas. They too want me to know that my stories were a welcome relief from the horrors they witness every day.

So what’s it like not to write serious fiction?

Not bad.

Not bad at all.

Steve Berry is the New York Times bestselling author of The Balkan Escape, The Paris Vendetta, The Charlemagne Pursuit, The Venetian Betrayal, The Alexandria Link, The Templar Legacy, The Third Secret, The Romanov Prophecy, and The Amber Room. His books have been translated into thirty-seven languages and sold in fifty countries. He lives in the historic old city of St. Augustine, Florida. He and his wife, Elizabeth, have founded History Matters, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving our heritage. Visit www.steveberry.org to learn more about Berry and the foundation.

In Search of Crime Fiction’s Shadow Cabinet: Adventures of a Long Tail Reader

bookshelvesReading a book that not only entertains but is also deeply felt—deeply realized, created from a highly personal vision, strikes me as a kind of rebellion.

—Jeff VanderMeer (2002)

I was once called a champion of the obscure. Maybe because the books that often get me excited are the ones that others haven’t heard of yet; maybe because I always strive to be willing to try new things. While everyone is jumping up and down about Savages, by Don Winslow (and they should, because it’s a brilliant book and a potential game changer),  I’m the guy jumping up and down about Pike by Benjamin Whitmer. Maybe I’m just a kind of outlier. Or an oddball. I don’t know, that’s for others to decide, but for now, how about a new term: “Long Tail Reader.”

There’s nothing quite like finding that undiscovered small gem of a book, unknown to most or forgotten in time; the book that yields little if anything when you Google the title and author; the book that requires some proselytizing. Finding those books and bringing them in from the cold to be among a fellowship calls for a willingness to go just about anywhere in search of story: to other genres, to other mediums, to very small presses, to other communities.

I can’t speak for other Long Tail readers, but one thing that bothers me is when lists are made and the authors of said lists claim to have made an effort to include items that are “off the beaten path” or that are mavericks,” but they haven’t. My beef isn’t with the intent or even with the compilers of the lists; it’s the choices that often baffle me. If you’re going to choose something out there, then really make it out there.

I think it’s worth acknowledging up front that yes, there is a high level of subjectivity to what’s about to come. More important, though, I want to be very clear that this column is intended to be open-ended. I want this to be the start of a conversation that goes on and discusses more and more books. So talk to me. Not just for the rest of the day or until the next column is posted, but beyond that.

Some books are true-blue, dyed-in-the-wool members of the “Shadow Cabinet” (defined by Jeff VanderMeer as “an anti-canon that exists in the minds of those readers who have not been colonized by the all-too-familiar”). These books have either absorbed the history of the genre without being encumbered by it or have chosen to ignore it. This is crime fiction that fights against regressive trends and forces and looks ahead. Such books are innovative in ways that others aren’t. They may be more daring. They may be more structurally innovative. If these books share a common factor, it’s that they often don’t have any or many conventional or easily recognizable genre markers (to paraphrase George Pelecanos, not crime fiction per se but in the criminal milieu). Because of this they may require a more active reader who is willing to do some of the lifting or at least share the load. They can be difficult, and they can be challenging, but often they aren’t. Sometimes these books are already or are destined to become the cult classics of the genre.

Continue reading “In Search of Crime Fiction’s Shadow Cabinet: Adventures of a Long Tail Reader”

’39 Clues’ exclusive: New series from Scholastic will feature David Baldacci

 

On September 23 Scholastic will officially announce the second series of its smash hit 39 CLUES franchise. And in a surprise twist, the company has hired David Baldacci to write the final book in the series. In honor of the big announcement, Baldacci talked with Entertainment Weekly about how he got involved with the project and why he’s excited to write his first book for children. Read more…

Box Set of Plenty . . .

my new television setForm and content. Discuss.

No?

How about format and content? Or platform and content? The thing is, technology drives behavior, and with constant changes in technology—upgrades, new developments, the occasional revolution—our behavior as consumers of “content” is never the same for very long.

An Amazon package arrived at my door the other day: the third and final season of Showtime’s Brotherhood. I haven’t watched it yet, but I’m looking forward to it and will probably devour the thing in two or three sittings. Or maybe even just one.

But this isn’t the only way something like this can be ”consumed.” (Okay, watched). If I lived in the U.S.,  I might have followed season three of Brotherhood when it was first aired on TV, week by week. Or, if I lived in a country with a decent broadband infrastructure, I could presumably watch it all on my laptop, without bothering the mailman or the guys at the Amazon warehouse. For the present, though, the DVD box set is the platform of choice. That’s how I watched The Wire and the first three seasons of Mad Men. In fact, the latest season of Mad Men has just started on BBC 4, and I could follow it week by week if I wanted to, but you know what, I think I’ll probably wait . . .

Despite the temptation to binge, having the entire thing in front of you to watch when and how you choose is a great modern luxury. There’s certainly a lot to be said for the old way, that of watching one episode a week; it often engenders a sense of community, of a collective response in the form of the watercooler debate. I also remember following as a teenager, with all my schoolmates, the BBC’s brilliant serialization of I, Claudius and the unbearable, shared tension of waiting for the next episode. But that epic, almost tantric seven-day tingle of anticipation has now been telescoped down into the few fumbling moments between cutting short the end credits of one episode, getting back to Episode Selection in the main menu and booting up the next installment—at most, what, maybe a whole five or ten seconds?

Continue reading “Box Set of Plenty . . .”

The Artistry of Ted Lewis

Years ago I mentioned during a conversation with a friend that a particular writer or filmmaker I admired just seemed to have that inborn artistic temperament. My friend challenged me to define what it means for a person to have that capacity, and I struggled to form an explanation—it’s one of those things you see clearly in your mind’s eye but have a hard time putting into words. What I didn’t realize then, but know now, is that I could have simply answered, “It’s what Ted Lewis had.”

Ted Lewis was a guy who had artistry coming out his pores. He first began expressing himself creatively as a young boy, decades before he wrote Jack’s Return Home, the brilliant and influential 1970 novel that established his still-strong reputation as the originator of the British school of hard-boiled crime fiction. Born in 1940 in the Manchester suburb of Stretford and raised for the most part in the small north Lincolnshire town of Barton-Upon-Humber, Lewis showed himself to have a keenly creative mind from his earliest days. In addition to writing fiction he was an artist and a musician, and although he never worked directly in film, he was a cinema buff forever fascinated by everything having to do with the movies.

Lewis was a gifted visual artist who spent a lot more time sketching figures in drawing pads than he did writing novels. He drew pictures for his friends and family members throughout his life. Some of his drawings are breathtaking. He did schoolboy sketches of zoot-suited gangsters, an early hint at the direction his artistic leanings would ultimately take him. His manuscript notebooks are filled with comics and other sketches. The birthday gift he almost always gave to friends and relatives was a drawing of them, or of something he felt was meaningful to them. Even in Lewis’s last days —when he was penniless and hopelessly addicted to alcohol—he was still taking time to draw pictures as gifts. At times it seemed like these drawings were the only way he knew to effectively communicate with other people, and this practice of expressing himself through his pictures began in his childhood years.

Lewis’s younger cousin Alf Lewis says that when their two families got together during their childhood, Ted (then Edward) was loath to make chitchat but always willing to have a family member sit for him:

“Edward looked at me as an inconvenience and hid constantly from the ‘what are you doing’ requests. It was always the fact that I stopped him from sketching and the moments of solitude that I think he was deeply involved in. In hindsight, I see that what he really wanted was to be alone in his own world. I do know that art was his passion. He would request that we [sit and pose] for him while he sketched. Each family member would sit in the kitchen on a wooden chair for hours, so he could sketch them. He clearly enjoyed doing this and never spoke much while drawing. He never tired of capturing images mentally and on paper. He never spoke about his future but I think that any other route was not an option other than something to do with art.”

Lewis’s school friend Zilla Gilfoy (née Yarwood) remembers his  constant practicing of the visual arts, from their time together as teenagers at Barton Grammar School: “In class we all remember his exercise book. He doodled all the time, everywhere, all over the covers and margins of the book. He did heavy lined black ink drawings of guns, daggers, Dick Tracy –style gangsters. He would be told off for spending his time in class doing this, but of course he would ignore it.”

Lewis took piano lessons as a boy and played that instrument in a traditional jazz band during his time at Hull Art College, where he developed his knack for the visual arts by formally studying commercial design. He  wrote about his time in the band in his debut novel, 1965’s awkwardly titled All the Way Home and All the Night Through. That jazz group was something Lewis and the other members of the band engaged in just as a good-time diversion from their studies, and he never seriously undertook piano playing as a profession. But he played the piano throughout his life, and music was always a factor in his books. Whether it be all the references to “Walker Brothers haircuts” in Jack’s Return Home, the list of jazz records Victor Graves and his various girlfriends listen to in All the Way Home and Lewis’s other straight-ahead literary novel, 1975’s The Rabbit, or the 1970s singer-songwriter albums George Fowler spins while losing his mind in Lewis’s swan-song novel GBH, he was always working music into his fiction. As an adolescent and a college student, he had a great love for traditional jazz, George Shearing and Dave Brubeck being among his favorites.  And in addition to becoming an able pianist, he seems to have been a serviceable drummer. Cousin Alf recalls how much young Edward, in the early years of his childhood, enjoyed singing hymns in front of the Salvation Army on a Sunday—an activity Jack Carter and his brother Frank took pleasure in, as recounted in one of the many vivid memory passages from Jack’s Return Home.

Continue reading “The Artistry of Ted Lewis”

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