Thursday, May 08, 2008

Tales of (Yankee) Power (Senor?)

Wouldn't you know it? I just fling out an article on the P.I. genre and politics in the latest issue of Mystery Scene when this one comes wandering into my sights.

The corridors of power, it turns out, are even nastier than Chandler's fabled mean streets, although in Gary Phillips' fierce new book, Politics Noir: Dark Tales from the Corridors of Power, a collection of politically-charged tales from the dark side from some of the best of the HB and noir crowd, sometimes it's hard to tell the two apart.

This book is about as in your face as it gets, an unapologetic no-holds-barred slice of venom aimed at the powers that be and the corruption that is. To be sure, a lot of these nasty black-hearted stories have nothing to do -- theoretically -- with the current administration per se, and as editor, Phillips' attempts at a fair and balanced tone in his intro are admirable. But the actual stories (including his own) make it pretty clear which side of the line most of these writers are coming from -- and are all the more powerful for it. Contributors include Mike Davis, Darrell James, John Shannon, Robert Greer, Twist Phelan, Ken Wishnia, Pete Hautman and Sujata Massey, and I haven't come across a dud yet.

This is primo stuff, angry and pissed off, its bleak cynicism and impotent despair perhaps best summed up by a character in Ken Bruen's heartbreaking contribution, "Dead Right": "Call it politics. I call it shite."

I call the entire collection an essential read. Try to get it done before November...

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

And happy birthday to you, too.

8:36 AM, May 09, 2008  
Blogger Guillaume said...

You make this post just when Canadian minister Maxime Bernier is in the middle of a scandal. I've got to get this book now.

3:01 PM, May 09, 2008  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

A Conservative minister in conjunction with a Montreal businessman, who in turn is linked to organized crime?

In Brian Mulroney's old party? I'm shocked, I tell you, shocked!


Reminds me of a story I wrote as a snotty high school kid in Mrs. Ticehurst's North American Literature class, where we were supposed to imagine a short story sequel for a Canadian novel. I wrote about Mordecai Richler's Duddy Kravitz brokering some shady Olympics construction deal with Jean Drapeau. I tell you, for 1975, I was cutting edge.

I aced that sucker.

Though I guess, these days, Richler isn't taught much in Quebec schools, particularly in the French ones. They're probably more likely to burn him in effigy.


8:27 AM, May 11, 2008  
Blogger Guillaume said...

I was refering to the fact that Maxime Bernier dated for months the ex girlfriend and ex-wife of a criminal biker...and he knew nothing about her past (which I find difficult to believe).

You know, Richler is respected among francophone intellectuals in Québec, or at least his literary work.

9:42 AM, May 12, 2008  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Darn! There are so many political scandals down here, I'm losing track of those back home. OF COURSE I shoulda known sex would be involved somehow -- all the really good Montreal scandals do. Or booze.

As for Richler, I still remember how nasty the response of the "intellectual" Le Devoir and the so-called Quebec cultural elites were, when Richler dared speak on 60 MINUTES and in the NEW YORKER about some of the nasty little quirks of Quebec separatism. It was okay when he'd rant in the Gazette, but how dare he air nationalism's dirty little secrets in front of -- GASP!!! -- Americans. And how they quickly and loudly they dismissed him, because he wasn't really a "real Quebecois" after all -- he was a JEW!! And non-Francophone.

Which only confirmed his main thesis.

Which I think only Michel Tremblay, not exactly a federalist, was brave enough to point out.

But then, I've always thought of tremblay and Richler as two sides of the same coin: fiercely proud satirists who delight in portraying their own people warts and all, with wit and vitriol and great affection as well.

If Richler is finally being appreciated, if only by Francophone intellectuals, and even if its only for his fiction, it's still a start, and a good thing for all of us.

Maybe next we'll finally stop hitting each other over the head with the endless stories about the notorious saleslady at Eaton's who wouldn't speak French in the 1950s.

Or English in the 1980s.

Anyone, English or French, writing any good Montreal crime stuff lately?

12:46 PM, May 12, 2008  
Blogger Guillaume said...

About Bernier, on the long run my main problem is that he showed the same tastes in women as a criminalised biker: he likes vulgar beauties.

About Richler, even Louise Beaudoin said a few good words about him when he died, and it's not like he has been very ncie to her. But then again, "il est toujours joli, le temps passé, une fois qu'on a cassé sa pipe", as Brassens would have said. But even when he was alive, and practically flamed during an interview with Christiane Charette, when the whole panel turned against him, Benoît Melançon wrote a very angry letter that was published in Le Devoir, saying that they were unfairly attacking one of Quebec's greatest writer, among other things. So he was not disliked as a writer. The problem is when he was stepping outside the realm of fiction, and he was gratuitiously attacking Quebeckers, including Félix Leclerc, René Lévesque, etc. Don't get me wrong, they can be criticised, but there is the manner, and Richler never really bothered to verify his accusations, even the wildest. The controversy he rose about "Demain nous appartient" (the song of the 1976 PQ campaign) was not only cheap, it was slanderous. He never wanted to admit he was wrong. Part of the hostility he received was due to the fact that, although he was born and grew up in Montreal, he never bothered to learn French.

Sadly, I don't know much about Québec crime fiction scene (mea culpa). I try to get my hands on the Alibis magazine when I can and I am planning to read François Barcelo, who has the reputation to be quite goood. I hope they will finally produce Omertà IV, if the can settle the question of rights.

12:30 AM, May 13, 2008  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Ah, here we go into the two solitudes again (Everyone else can go to sleep now. When Montrealers talk, we talk... )

I guess you would have had to have been there in the seventies and eighties, and possibly have been an Anglophone to understand where Richler was coming from. Rightly or wrongly, Anglophones felt like they were being punished by the PQ for the sins of their grandparents' and all their efforts to ensure their children did learn to speak French were dismissed (Quebec English schools more or less invented second language immersion in the late sixties/early seventies -- you could look it up).

Richler was never "gratuitiously attacking Quebeckers" (or at least no more than the PQ was "gratuitously attacking" Anglophones). Richler's target was the separatistes -- and what he saw as the historical foundation of racism and intolerance and xenophobia that bubbled under its surface, occasionally still erupting (paging Jacques Parizeau).

And he DID verify his accusations. He cited entire passages from La Presse, Le Devoir and the writing of numerous French clerics and academics, including Lionel Groulx, one of the much beloved "fathers of Quebec nationalism" (and a notorious anti-Semite). Richler didn't make up those things.

All in the past, you say? True, except that the separatistes weren't content to let it remain there. Imagine being Jewish, and suffering through all the hoopla that a "historian' who thought Hitler had a great way to deal with the "Jewish problem" was having streets renamed and a major new metro station named after him.

And growing up in those times, it was easy to feel the hatred and rampant prejudice behind a lot of separatist's actions: the banning of English words on signs, the banning of English education in French schools, restricted access to English schools, obligatory French tests for certain occupations (but only for Anglophones) and the like. And all the while English stores were being vandalized, English signs were being painted over and anti-Anglo graffiti was spray-painted everywhere, without so much as a "tsk-tsk" from the powers that be. I understand the historical justifications for such actions, both official and unofficial (Lord knows, the French culture needed -- and still needs -- protection) but this was as much about nastiness, mob rule and payback as anything. You don't save a culture by trying to destroy another -- at least not in a free society.

Which, at its best, Quebec, and particularly Montreal, is.

But most of the English media was too wimpy or inarticulate to speak out and the French media was too busy pandering to the new order to care.

But Richler did care, and did speak out. He could have just written another best-selling book, but instead he stuck out his neck.

Even Levesque, a man far more noble, accomplished and fair-minded than some of the slime who have succeeded him -- was uneasy with the actions and schemes of some of the zealots in his party.

And so both solitudes nurse their grievances, never really hearing or seeing the other side...

Like, after the "Demain nous appartient" gaffe, Richler DID apologize, notably in his book OH CANADA! OH QUEBEC! He admitted cribbing the information from an article in a Jewish American magazine, and got the author to issue a written apology to Lévesque. Richler also apologized, of course.

You probably didn't know that because none of the French press bothered to mention it.

As for having been born and grown up in Montreal, and never bothering to learn French, consider the times he grew up in. In the 1930s, Jews weren't even allowed to attend French schools -- or at least heavily discouraged. Neither were Protestants or Greeks or blacks or gypsies or East Indians or anyone else who wasn't white and Catholic. No wonder so many immigrants ended up speaking English, not French.

So that's one of the good things Levesque did. Unfortunately, a lot of separatistes wanted to abolish (and some still dream of abolishing) all English language education totally.

And I'm as much a victim of my time and its prejudices as well. Growing up in the sixties (just a little too early for the French Immersion explosion but late enough to remember FLQ bombs going off, choppers overhead and the murder of Laporte), French language instruction was a joke in my English elementary school, totally hit-and-miss. And my French is still pretty shaky, but I try. Not because some tongue trooper or bully boy law insists, but because it's the right thing to do.

Were your grandparents bilingual? Are your children?

Me, I never owned a sawmill and discriminated against my Francophone workers. Most Anglophones didn't. I, my parents, my grandparents -- we were all Anglos and we all had to work for a living, and we all dreamed of a better life for our children.

My kids are both half-French -- they speak French AND English. But because of their last name and the fact they attended English schools, they'll probably always be regarded as "les autres" -- or at least as long as the "English" and the rest of Canada are used by opportunistic and divisive politicians as whipping boys for all of Quebec's problems.

Oh Canada, Oh Quebec is right.

And oh Montreal. Why such a volatile, ferociously passionate, sensual city with such a long, proud history of sin and dirty politics isn't a hotbed of noir is beyond me.

Guillaume, it's up to you. Please write a good book.

And by all means, give us the scoop on François Barcelo. He sounds intriguing.

12:07 PM, May 13, 2008  
Blogger Guillaume said...

Oh, merde, I wrote a reply and it didn't get through. I'll try to write something later. I will always refute that Groulx is the father of Québec independance movement, even of Québec's modern nationalism for that matter. Nobody reads him. And antisemitism at that time was hardly particular to Québec, but sadly widespread in all the Western world. In Québec's case, it was also fueled by Catholicism, which influence was greatly diminished during the Quiet Revolution and which was never at the base of the PQ ideology (or the RIN, for that matter).

I don't quite follow you with that name argument. Surely, francophones with anglophone names have existed in Québec since the XIXth century (at least!), from my mother's side my family is of Scottish/Irish descent, all its members have a very distinctive and anglo family name (and sometimes first name too, as my grandfather was anglophile) and they never ever ever were considered as "les autres", or even as "les Anglais". And they grew up in the Saguenay region! My wife is British, our children will have a very common Québec name, but if they grow up in England (and they probably will), they will have a foreign surname.

Will write more about the Québec crime fiction scene later.

2:22 AM, May 14, 2008  
Blogger Guillaume said...

I am surprised your don't know about François Barcelo: he got published by Gallimard in Série Noire, that's quite an accomplishment for a Quebecker. Never read him, but read his interviews, he is quite smart, he writes dark humour crime fic, if i remember correctly because he got tired of what he was reading in French crime novels: stories about former cop turned private eye, left-wings, dislike the almost fascist police forces, etc. That sure shows up in many French crime novels I read, which sometimes can be read as socialist/liberal manifesto. I prefer genre novels to be less preachy and more escapist, personally. Anyway, what prevented me from readong Barcelo is probably the reputation he has as a tongue in cheek writer: I don't want to read a sermon, but I am not naturally keen on self-parody either, something I am afraid has plagued Québec's crime fiction scene, both in literature (Dutrizac, Taschereau) and on the small screen (Detect Inc., Les Aventures tumultueuses de Jack Carter). I'll have to get myself into it, because he seems to have a genuine love and knowledge of the genre, and if he got published by Gallimard (especially since he's from Québec), he probably knows how to write.

6:07 AM, May 14, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is this Lincoln County Road or armageddon?

1:31 PM, May 14, 2008  

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