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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 3, 2007

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Overlook, TV Season review, Rex Stout and racism

A century ago, when books were too expensive for most people to buy, the way you got a novel was by reading a newspaper serial. First the magazine and then the paperback book made that mode of delivering book-length fiction obsolete. But every now and then someone does it again, just for the nostalgia.

Michael Connelly's latest book began that way -- a serial in the New York Times. (An ironic place for a Los Angeles-based story to appear, but the NYTimes probably asked him to do it, and the LATimes didn't.) Many writers treat such assignments as a game, but this is Michael Connelly we're talking about, so he ended up creating one of the best Harry Bosch novels ever.

The Overlook is now in the stores, expanded somewhat (perhaps to keep it from being quite as lean as the newspaper would have required), but still an absolutely riveting story of tension between the FBI and the LA cops, and between Harry Bosch and an old girlfriend, as they try to chase down the theft of some radioactive material.

I promise you, whether you're a fan of mysteries or thrillers or just plain good writing, this book will absolutely be worth the time and money you invest in it. It's shorter than most Connelly novels, but nothing is left out.

Best of all, Connelly will be at Greensboro's Barnes and Noble in Friendly Center on Saturday, 9 June, at 2:00 p.m. We won't often get a chance to meet one of the best writers working in America. I'll see you there.

*

In our endless pursuit of slightly less fattening snack foods, my wife and I recommend Stacy's Simply Naked baked Pita Chips. They're not as thick as other pita chips I've tried, so they are similar to a good thick-cut potato chip. All the salt you need, but no oil. You can get them at Earth Fare.

*

Speaking of Earth Fare, I just don't understand grocery corporations. They have all this expensive computer equipment, and they don't use it. Wallaby brand yogurt makes my favorite flavor in the world -- banana vanilla. I would be good for a purchase of one case every couple of weeks.

But the corporation that just bought Earth Fare has decided that while they will continue to carry the maple flavor, which sells almost nothing and just sits there till they throw it away, they will not even allow me to special order the cases of banana vanilla.

They scan the bar codes at the cash registers. It should be giving the corporation complete information on sales and inventory, all the time. Corporate headquarters should know that in Greensboro's Earth Fare, they are selling a couple of cases of banana vanilla a month.

The computer should automatically put in the order for banana vanilla, instead of having some executive arbitrarily decide that they don't actually care what the customers want.

Computers and bar codes should have meant the end of one-size-fits-all corporate decision-making. Instead, they still have the insane idea that in high-end grocery stores, price is more important that personal service. No, that's Food Lion.

If high-end grocery stores don't offer complete personal shopping, someone else will, and that's who will win the customers' loyalty and still be in business ten years from now.

*

So the TV season is over, and I'm vaguely disappointed.

24 did a weird switch about three-fourths of the way through and we were suddenly chasing down Jack's old girlfriend. Jack put America at risk for the sake of that one individual -- and folks, I'm sorry, that was way over the line. We're used to Jack cutting corners to do the right thing; this time, though, he cut corners to do the wrong one.

Yes, he loved the girl -- but you don't risk war between the U.S. and Russia just because you think you're smarter than the people who have her captive. At some point, you recognize that there is such a thing as expendability.

So I was a little disappointed in the storyline -- just a little. That plus the fact that 24 relies way too much on torture to extract information, and I'm beginning to feel the strain of a show that might have gone on perhaps a bit too long or pushed the envelope a little too far.

One other thing. I recently had minor surgery, and my body was convinced that it had been seriously injured. It wanted me to lie down, and if I wouldn't do it, then it fainted and made me do it.

So when I see Morris O'Brien (played powerfully by Carlo Rota) have a drill rammed into his shoulder by terrorists, and then come back to work and continue working -- typing, using the shoulder -- the whole rest of the day, well, folks, I'm sorry. Adrenalin can only do so much. That was just silly. There's such a thing as shock. There's also pain that makes it impossible to function.

These are the kinds of writing missteps that show that either the writers are growing more desperate -- or they have increasing contempt for the audience.

With Heroes, I already announced before the final episode that if they keep the villain Sylar around for next season, I'll quit watching.

It's the same reason I gave up on Prison Break. The character Theodore "T-Bag" Bagwell was so vile that I really couldn't bear to watch him anymore. I was done. After you've put up with a truly despicable villain for long enough, he stops being interesting or even frightening, he's just disgusting. I have better things to do with my life than continue to watch the adventures of slime.

So even though Robert Knepper did a great job of acting a powerful role, it was time, at the end of the first year, to dump him. If they had let our heroes show their character by getting rid of him inside prison walls, then we would have cheered. The writers could have brought in new villains (and did).

But no. They didn't trust themselves or us. They thought that since this year's villain was working so well, they had to keep him.

However, the plot machinations required to keep him in the story -- and close to the heroes -- were obvious and manipulative. The audience realized: They're just going to keep him and keep him. So what's the point of watching? If the person you hate most is always going to be there, not because the story requires it but for the sake of ratings (or to help assuage frightened writers), then they're just messing with us.

There is such a thing as the "villain we love to hate" -- think of Snape in the Harry Potter series. He is a constant obstacle to the heroes -- but he also has redeeming moments. We see that he might be good. He remains interesting because there's a chance that he might end up as an ally.

You can string us along with a villain-we-love-to-hate for quite a long time, as long as you know the difference between that kind of villain and the kind that is so loathsome we hate every moment spent in his company and want him off the screen.

Writers who can't make that distinction are not going to be able to hold onto their audience as long as they wish.

Which brings me back to Heroes and Sylar. Zachary Quinto has done a fine job of portraying Sylar. However, there's not much range allowed: He gets his greedy-eyed face on and points his finger and somebody's head opens up so he can -- what, eat the brains? No, I don't want to know, and thanks for not showing us.

The point is, they gave him all the interesting characterization they can give him -- they showed his weird relationship with his mother, now she's dead, and so we're done with Sylar. He's too powerful. He's too despicable. There's no pleasure in watching him. We don't have to wonder about him -- we know what he wants and what he can do. We just want him gone.

And for a moment at the end it looked as if they were going to do it. He was stabbed. He was down. But nobody checked to see if he was dead. When Hiro rammed the sword through him (more easily than I expected, to tell the truth), why didn't he finish the job and cut off his head? It would have been perfect poetic justice, it would have been true to traditional Japanese execution, and it would have meant we were done with Sylar.

But no-o-o-o-o-o-o-o, they have to show us a shot of a smear of blood on the pavement and an open manhole. Apparently Sylar wasn't dead and he slithered away. We're going to have him back next season.

So they're not going to have me back. I'm sick and tired of the Sylar menace. We've seen it over and over. It's boring now. Only if my family tells me that Sylar is really gone will I watch Heroes any more. Because that trick made me lose any trust in the writers.

Mostly because they don't have any trust in themselves. They don't believe they can come up with good stories without Sylar. What they don't realize is that they can't come up with any more good stories with him. He's been used up. He's done.

The writers of the Spider-man movies recognize this. They use up their villains and then they're gone. Even the fully developed Harry Osborn character (James Franco) was only good for three movies. We were done, so he's dead. That's how you do it, kids!

The secret to serial television is not to keep writing the same episode over and over. The secret is to move forward and trust yourselves to find new ways to fulfil the episodic formula.

Which brings us to Lost. These writers are flirting with disaster all the time -- and I mean the disaster of losing their audience. This year they gave us some degree of satisfaction by wiping out the "Others'" hit squad.

But they left Ben alive; they made Locke a cold-blooded killer; they gave us no answers about the magic (i.e., Walt's ability to appear anywhere at will, Jacob's near-invisibility); and they introduced a completely uninteresting new "villain" in the apparently phony rescuers.

At least they gave Charlie a good strong exit. That was great writing, and a well-earned climax for an actor (Dominic Monaghan) who I hope will go on to have a great career in film and television.

The biggest, weirdest mistake was to have this bizarre flash forward into a future after the island, with Dr. Jack (Matthew Fox) a suicidal drug addict. I'm sorry, that's just not true to the character.

No, it's not. Yes, I know you guys made him up, so he is whatever you say he is, but ... so far we've seen him as a man who finds purpose and takes action. It is simply impossible to believe that, no matter how disappointing life after the island might be, this is what he would become.

Furthermore, except for Desmond's "flashes" of the future -- which can be changed -- we have no idea what mechanism allowed us to see this future. It makes no sense within the rules already outlined for the series.

In other words, it feels like a huge, miserable, manipulative mistake.

But ... I'll be tuning in to Lost and 24 next year, to see what's happening, and I'll give Heroes a chance as long as Sylar isn't the villain.

Besides, TV writing is hard. It's the only onscreen form in which the writers rule -- but just because you have a lot of power doesn't mean you know what to do with it. We forgive mistakes here and there, provided that there's enough other stuff to make up for it.

We even understand that sometimes you write yourself into a corner where there are too many story threads to give any kind of proper wrap-up in the final episode or episodes.

*

I think it's worth pointing out a couple of ridiculous geographical mistakes from the last few episodes of 24 and Lost.

In Lost, when Jack led most of the colonists away from the camp, they headed out along the beach with the ocean on their right side. Then we cut to them walking along a rocky passage with the ocean on their left side. Just try to imagine any possible route, on an island of any size, where this could possibly make sense.

On 24, they had a similar problem with bodies of water. They had a Chinese submarine heading for an oil platform off the California coast. When our guys intercepted the Chinese order to withdraw the sub, they had it stationed in the western Pacific.

Well, I hate to be a stickler, but the western Pacific, by any rational definition, would be thousands and thousands of miles away from California. I'm betting they meant the eastern Pacific. Don't you think?

Still isn't as hilarious as last year's business of watching the sun set from a Chinese beach ...

*

While recovering from surgery (yes, I had my brain replaced; about time, too, don't you think?), I had a chance to listen to a lot of recorded books. I went through five Nero Wolfe mysteries.

Michael Pritchard's voice, as reader, can be annoying -- he tries to pitch his voice too low, with the result that he loses a considerable range of expression -- but he's a good reader. And because Rex Stout was a talented writer of delightful mystery-adventures, with some genuine wit, the books were all entertaining.

One fascinating aspect of the books, though, is that they are something of a time machine. Being unabridged and unexpurgated, they reveal things about the culture from which they emerged and to which they were written.

For instance, in Over My Dead Body, a murdered corpse is discovered by the black janitor in a fancy school of fencing and dance. He was not actually identified as black at first -- apparently it was simply assumed that a janitor would be African-American. And if you have any doubt that this book was written in 1939, it is dispelled when you see that this black man is hiding in the cellar of the building. Why? Because all black people are terrified of dead bodies, of course!

This is so taken for granted that it isn't even explained. So I can imagine someone who grew up since, say, 1980, reading this book and having no idea why this man's behavior is not regarded as suspicious. He finds the body, and then is later discovered hiding in the cellar? Is he retarded? Is he guilty? No, he's just a racial stereotype.

Rex Stout wasn't being mean. He was simply making a racial joke, relying on a stereotype to get a cheap laugh -- kind of the way showing fat people on the screen functions today. It's unfair, it appeals to the lowest part of human nature, but ... that's what everyone did and I'm sure that Stout wasn't particularly racist. He wasn't being mean. He just didn't think about whether the stereotype was fair or not -- it existed in the culture, and he used it.

There are other ways that the books reveal their time period. For instance, Nero Wolfe has roots in Yugoslavia. In The Black Mountain (a literal translation of the name of the tiny Balkan country Montenegro), Wolfe actually leaves his townhouse in Manhattan and travels to Montenegro and Albania, where he is involved in spy intrigue.

It's usually a mistake when a series detective is removed from his ordinary habitat and put into a spy novel. Robert Parker found that out with A Catskill Eagle, the least effective of his otherwise wonderful Spenser series. And I think it's safe to say that Black Mountain is not the most interesting or effective Nero Wolfe.

What I found fascinating -- and amusing, and sad -- was the way that whenever Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin got in trouble in Communist Yugoslavia in 1954, they simply took it for granted that local law enforcement would not harm them, because they were American citizens.

I remember that attitude. I grew up in the 1950s, and there was a sense that just announcing you were an American citizen, anywhere in the world, gave you a sense of immunity. Now, it wasn't completely true (especially if you were a spy) but Americans believed it to be true -- believed that we were a breed apart.

Now, of course, we expect to be targets, and it's often useful to claim to be Canadian....

What was also amusing though, and faintly embarrassing, like the easy racism of his writing, was the equally easy assumption that ordinary Americans would sneer at anyone with a foreign accent and be impatient with them for not having learned better English.

Never mind that Americans are notorious for speaking no language but our own -- and speaking any other languages we do learn with atrocious American accents. Rex Stout felt no qualms about having Archie Goodwin make fun of other people's accents and look down on them for not having learned English well enough.

Reading five Nero Wolfe's in rapid succession made one thing plain: Even writers of series hate to write the same book twice. Or at least not twice in a row. Gambit, for instance, is in effect a locked-room puzzle mystery -- that tiny genre of murder mysteries in which there seems to be no way that anyone other than the prime suspect could possibly have committed the crime (or, of course, no way that anyone could have committed it). The fact that I instantly guessed the perpetrator and turned out to be right is not really a problem. The puzzle was fun, and being right is fun, too.

Likewise, with The Final Deducation, I had an immediate correct guess, but partly that was because Rex Stout wrote it in 1955 -- a lot of mystery writers have stolen from him and other early practitioners of the trade, so that what might have been fresh and new when he wrote it is now a cliche in the field. It can't be helped.

What makes the good writers, like Stout, stand out from the rest is that even when you guess the ending, it's still worth the time to read. And even when their old books reveal an America that had not yet gone through some needed and beneficial changes, as long as you understand that they are creatures of their time, and not really the creators of it, you can still enjoy the books.

Still, Rex Stout doesn't get a complete pass. His presentation of Archie's attitude toward foreigners might have been slightly tongue-in-cheek, intentionally ironic; his presentation of the racial stereotypes was not. There were writers in his era who already avoided racial stereotypes -- writers who were trying to change people's attitude toward race through their fiction. Rex Stout was not one of those writers.

It doesn't make him the devil, but it also doesn't make him a saint. He was a thoughtless racist, like most whites at the time -- not vicious, not filled with hate, just amused and condescending. That made him part of the problem. Not the worst part, but part.

It's a worse mistake than, say, Michael Pritchard's weird mispronunciation of "Montenegro." But not as bad as D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, a movie that celebrated the heroic Ku Klux Klan. That was active support for white supremacy. Birth of a Nation makes me angry when I see it; the racist parts of Rex Stout's early writings merely make me kind of sad.

What makes me happy, though, is that both kinds of racism seem so obvious and alien today. We really have changed as a society, and if there is still racial tension today, it does not change the fact that we've grown up a lot, all of us. That's a good thing.

If I had read Rex Stout's racial stereotyping and hadn't even noticed it because we were still taking "black jokes" for granted, that would have been a terrible thing.


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