COMPTON MACKENZIE – Sublime Tobacco. Chatto and Windus, UK, hardcover, 1957.

   Nowadays, when smoking is the eighth deadly sin, and smoking indoors constitutes a 4th degree misdemeanor, it’s oddly refreshing to read a book in praise of pure evil.

   According to Wikipedia, Mackenzie was well-known in his day as “a writer of fiction, biography, histories and a memoir, as well as a cultural commentator, raconteur and lifelong Scottish nationalist,” and his name is occasionally resurrected today through the miracle of television, as the author of Whiskey Galore  and Monarch of the Glen.

   This, however, is something completely different (*). A history and personal memoir of the stuff we set on fire, stick in our mouths, and suck on it.

   I should say at the outset, it’s mostly rather dull, then hasten to add that the part that ain’t dull is a really great read. And it comes at the beginning, so you don’t have to plow through a lot of soporifics to get there. Sublime Tobacco   opens with a quietly rhapsodic mix of tales from the author’s own life and those of his puffing acquaintances: an autobiographical accolade to the stuff of coffin nails,

   I was particularly charmed by the account of how he and his brother used to filch Daddy’s cigar butts from the ashtrays and smoke them in homemade pipes. When the old man got wise to it, he went for the time-honored cure-and-punishment: Gave them each a big cigar and ordered them to smoke it down to a stub. Mackenzie’s description of their delight and father’s dismay as the boys smoked cigars (at age 7 and 9) with pure enjoyment, then asked for another is a joy to read. And just as much fun, in a very different vein is his account of how he saved lives by calmly smoking two cigarettes outside the British Embassy in Athens during an anti-anglo riot.

   Sublime segues smoothly from anecdotes to critical evaluation, taking time along the way to throw in personal bits of business involving the various and sundry means and methods of filling one’s lungs with noxious smoke. He concedes the convenience of the cigarette, lauds the luxury of the cigar, but like any intelligent man, he gives primacy of place to the Pipe.

   Mackenzie’s catalogue of his own pipes, past and present, his analysis of form and function, shape and texture, and his nuanced descriptions of the tastes and aromas of the tobaccos of the world are vivid enough to discolor teeth in an avid reader. This is the work of a truly skillful writer, and his love of the subject is so evident and tender that I felt myself tearing up at times.

   Or maybe smoke got in my eyes.

(*) Thanks, Monty Python

   I say that with my fingers crossed, since I haven’t tested everything, but with only a few casualties, the recent outage crisis for the blog is over. What had to be done was a full restore to the blog going back to before the problem arose. That seems to have done the trick.

   Missing, though, are all of the posts that appeared here after Tuesday of last week. I made backups of those, though, and they will all appear again as soon as I can get to them. The bad news is that any comments that were left for those most recent posts are gone forever.

   This is better news than I was anticipating, though, as one possible outcome for the restore operation was that the posts would all come back, but ALL of the comments left for the blog since its inception would have disappeared. That would have been a loss awfully hard to take.

   So that’s the news for now. I’ll get to work replacing the missing posts as soon as I can.

I’m going to be taking a few days off from posting on this blog. A lot of personal matters that need to be taken care of are to blame. I can’t tell you for sure when I’ll be back, but I’ll keep you posted when I know a lot more, especially if I have to be away longer than I think I’ll be now. I’ll be back when I can!

Being Towards Death & Hardboiled Lit
An Essay by Tony Baer.


   So, Heidegger has this concept called ‘being towards death’. It basically is just a fancy way of saying: constant awareness that you are going to die. (There are a lot of examples, of course — but one I fancy is kerouac’s poem:

Those birds sitting
Out there on the fence —
They’re all going to die.)

   Speaking and acting conscious of your imminent mortality. ‘The only thing worth reading is what’s written in blood’, Nietzsche cautions. It is the reason that there is a hearsay exception for ‘dying declarations’. There is a presumption of authenticity for your very last words. ‘Rosebud’ is the key to the meaning of Kane’s life. In O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find the Misfit tells us:

   â€œShe would’ve been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”


   So what is hardboiled lit? What is it that ties together slave narratives, prison memoirs, John Brown and Eugene Debs’s statements to the court, Gold Medal paperbacks, proletarian lit, Hammett with Hamlet, Whitfield with Whitman, Dennis Wilson with Charles Manson, Mozart’s Requiem with Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads, the Diary of Anne Frank with The Inman Diary, the last words of Dutch Schultz with William S. Burroughs, the book of Revelations and the Tibetan Book of the Dead?

   It’s this: when you’re at your rope’s end, your last cigarette has turned to ash, your dream at Owl’s Creek Bridge is nearly waked, and you are given your final words; you ain’t gonna waste your precious breath on bullshit words, on idle chatter, on echolalia that just don’t matter; your gonna say what you mean and say it quick, and say it with words that cut to the quick, while you sink in the sand that pulls you under, your book turns to flames, your words burned asunder.

   And this is why I only read hardboiled lit. I hate small talk in life. Life is too short. Say what you mean, or forever hold your peace.

   You are what you eat. Adorno says every time you read a newspaper you become less of a unique individual. There’s a homogenizing effect to consumption of mass culture.

   But homogenization ain’t necessarily bad as long as we’re homogenizing an amazing product. Wanna make me great, go right ahead. But I fear the homogenization is towards mediocre mendacity, mendacious mediocrity. Hence my lack of alacrity.

   When you watch and read and write and speak and act in less hardboiled ways, you establish habits of how you will be, the way you will think and live and love and act now and into the future. And in the end it is these very small choices added ad infinitum that comprise a life.

   If you want to live authentically: speak from the heart, read what’s written in blood, listen to final words, listen only to those who are trying to tell you something. But listen with all of your heart. The time is nigh. Read hardboiled, write hardboiled, speak hardboiled. Or forever hold your peace.

From A Reader’s Guide to the American Novel of Detection  (1993) by Marvin Lachman, and posted previously on the Rara Avis Internet group by Tony Baer:

The Shudders, Anthony Abbot

Charlie Chan Carries On, Earl Derr Biggers

Wilders Walk Away & Hardly a Man is still Alive, Herbert Brean

Triple crown, Jon Breen

The Junkyard Dog, Robert Campbell

Hag’s Nook, 3 coffins, crooked hinge, case of the constant suicides, Patrick butler for the defense, the burning court, John Dickson Carr

Kill Your darlings, Max Allan Collins

The James Joyce Murder & death in a Tenured Position, Amanda Cross

The Hands of Healing Murder, Barbara D’Amato

A Gentle Murderer, Dorothy Salisbury Davis

The Judas Window, The reader is Warned, The Gilded Man, She Died a lady, He wouldn’t Kill Patience & Fear is the same, Carter Dickson

Method in Madness & who Rides a Tiger, Doris miles Disney

Old Bones, Aaron Elkins

The horizontal Man, Helen Eustis

The case of the Howling Dog, …the counterfeit eye, ….lame canary, …perjured parrot, …crooked candle, …black eyed blonde, Erle stanley Gardner

What a Body!, Alan Green

The Leavenworth Case, Anna Katherine Green

The Bellamy trial, Frances Noyes Hart

The Devil in the Bush, Matthew head

The Fly on the Wall, Tony Hillerman

9 times 9, Rocket to the Morgue, H.H. Holmes

A Case of Need, Jeffery Hudson

Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry, Harry Kemelman

Obelists Fly High, C. Daly King

Emily Dickinson Is Dead, Jane Langton

Banking on Death, Accounting for Murder, Murder Makes the Wheels Go Rounds, Murder Against the Grain, When in Greece, Emma Lathen

The Norths Meet Murder, Murder Out of Turn, The Dishonest Murderer, Frances and Richard lockridge

Through a Glass Darkly, Helen mcCloy

Pick Your Victim, Pat McGerr

Rest You Merry, Charlotte MacLeod

Paperback thriller, Lynn Meyer

The Iron Gates, Ask For Me Tomorrow, vanish in an Instant, beast in View, Margaret Millar

Death in the Past, Richard Moore

Murder for Lunch, Haughton Murphy

The 120 Hour clock, Francis Nevins, Jr.

The body in the Belfrey, katherin Hall Page

The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla, stuart Palmer

Remember to Kill Me, Hugh Pentecost

Generous Death & No Body, Nancy Pickard

Unorthodox Practices, Marissa Piesman

The roman Hat Mystery, the French Powder Mystery, The Greek Coffin Mystery, The Egyptian Cross Mystery, The Chinese Orange Mystery, Calamity town, Cat of Many Tails, Ellery Queen

Puzzle for Puppets, Parick Quentin

Death from a Top Hat, Clayton Rawson

The Gold gamble, Herbert resnicow

8 Faces at 3, Craig Rice

Strike Three You’re Dead, Richard Rosen

The Tragedy of X, The Tragedy of Y, Barnaby Ross

The Gray Flannel Shroud, Henry Slesar

Reverend Randollph and the wages of Sin, Charles Merrill Smith

Double Exposure, Jim Stinson

Carolina Skeletons, David Stout

Fer de Lance, The rubber band, too many cooks, some buried Caesar, the silent speaker, in the best families, the black mountain, the doorbell rang, a family affair, rex stout

Rim of the Pit, Hake Talbot

The Cut Direct, Alice Tilton

The Greene Murder Case, SS van Dine

   I no longer buy Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine on a regular basis, but I’m glad I did when I spotted the November-December issue at a local Barnes & Noble this past week.

   The “Blog Bytes” column, which was presided over by the late and greatly missed Bill Crider for much of its early existence, is now written by Kristopher Zgorski, whom I do not know, but of three mystery-oriented blogs he covers in this issue, plus one YouTube channel, he had this to say about the one you are currently reading:

   â€œMystery*File in various different formats has been run by Steve Lewis since the seventies, so in terms of longevity, this one is hard to beat. The blog itself is a more recent development but remains an important resource. Like the other entries in this month’s Blog Bytes column, Mystery*File is focused on the past, helping readers to understand how crime fiction has morphed over the years. Readers will constantly find new content on this site – mostly informed and well-written reviews of books, movies and television shows by a collection of consistent reviewers including Steve’s son Jonathan. The tab called Links alone can consume hours of a visitor’s time, including a resource that leads fans to many other sites of interest.”

   And if this blog manages to live up to those very kind words, may I add a huge thank you to all of the contributors and commenters to M*F, as well as all of you who keep coming back on a regular basis, I really do appreciate it. I couldn’t do it without you!

   This actually is a small tiny fraction of my To Be Read pile. I brought this stack up from the basement late last night, almost entirely at random.

   The question is, which of these should I read next? Any recommendations? Any I should stay far away from?

   Here’s hoping you can read both the authors and the titles:

     This should be easy:

Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Dick Shawn, Phil Silvers, Terry-Thomas, Jonathan Winters, Edie Adams, Dorothy Provine, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Jim Backus, Ben Blue, Joe E. Brown, Alan Carney, Chick Chandler, Barrie Chase, Lloyd Corrigan, William Demarest, Andy Devine, Selma Diamond, Peter Falk, Norman Fell, Paul Ford, Stan Freberg, Louise Glenn, Leo Gorcey, Sterling Holloway, Marvin Kaplan, Edward Everett Horton, Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, Charles Lane, Mike Mazurki, Charles McGraw, Zasu Pitts, Carl Reiner, Madlyn Rhue, Roy Roberts, Arnold Stang, Nick Stewart, Sammee Tong, Jesse White, Jimmy Durante, Jack Benny, Stanley Clements, Joe DeRita, Larry Fine, Moe Howard, Nicholas Georgiade, Stacy Harris, Tom Kennedy, Ben Lessy, Bobo Lewis, Jerry Lewis, Eddie Rosson, Eddie Ryder, Jean Sewell, Doodles Weaver and Lennie Weinrib.

Time Travel and the Hardboiled Detective Novel,
by Tony Baer.


   So the question is, why am I so into the hardboiled detective novels of the 20’s-70’s?

   Nobody asked. So I asked myself.

   And what it is kinda first dawned on me on an art exhibit I saw in Montreal about “Streamlining” as American culture.

   Streamlining in American culture, the sleek aerodynamic look of toasters, Airstream campers, vacuum cleaners, radios, cars, planes, became ubiquitous sometime after the end of World War I. The design dominated American design throughout the 30’s and 40’s.

   It dawned on me that at the same time that American design was being streamlined, so was American prose, by such folks as Hemingway, Hammett and Jim Tully. Each of Tully, Hammett and Hemingway got their hardboiled everyman voice honestly. Hemingway as a war correspondent and army medic, Hammett as a soldier and Pinkerton, and Tully as a bindlestiff. Cheap pulp magazines and paperbacks made reading affordable for the masses. And they didn’t want to read the long-winded labyrinthian pages of Henry James. They wanted everyday language, terse and to the point.

   At this zenith of American culture, folks were confident that they knew who they were, knew right and wrong, and knew what they were saying and how to say it. There was very little existential angst. And I have to say, I envy them.


   So, the point?

   I’m not sure. But it may be helpful to illustrate what I’m talking about with some quotes and examples:

1. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” William Faulkner

2. “People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Albert Einstein

3. In the 80’s made for TV movie, Somewhere in Time, Christopher Reeve is staying at a B&B when he falls madly in love with a woman in an old 1800’s photo. He obsessively finds out everything he can about her, and then surrounds himself with period clothes, coins and culture. After passing some threshold of obsession, he is able to traverse the space/time continuum, meet his fair lady and consummate his love.

4. In “Pierre Menard, Author of Quixote” by Jorge Luis Borges, a contemporary man decides he wants to spontaneously write Don Quixote, word for word. So he moves to the same area that Cervantes lived, builds himself a similar hovel, eats the same foods, drinks the same drinks, reads the same medieval chivalric romances, dresses the same, buys an old suit of armor, and, after passing some threshold of obsession, he is able to traverse the space/time continuum and spontaneously write Don Quixote, word for word.

5. “What you yourself can suffer is the utmost that can be suffered on earth. If you starve to death you experience all the starvation that ever has been or ever can be. If ten thousand other women starve to death with you, their suffering is not increased by a single pang: their share in your fate does not make you ten thousand times as angry, nor prolong your suffering ten thousand times. Therefore do not be oppressed by “the frightful sum of human suffering”: there is no sum: two lean women are not twice as lean as one nor two fat women twice as fat as one. Poverty and pain are not cumulative: you must not let your spirit be crushed by the fancy that it is. If you can stand the suffering of one person you can fortify yourself with the reflection that the suffering of a million is no worse: nobody has more than one stomach to fill nor one frame to be stretched on the rack.” George Bernard Shaw

6. In “A New Refutation of Time” by Borges, he argues that all that exists are experiences. The experiences exist regardless of ‘time’. You watch a cardinal as it sits on a fence. The experience of seeing the cardinal on the fence is all that there is. There’s no ‘you’. There’s no ‘time’. There’s just the experience of watching a cardinal on a fence. This experience has occurred millions of times, over millions of years. The experience is neither past nor future, neither true nor false. It simply is. All that we hope and all that we fear will never come to pass, because hope and fear always happen in a future that never comes. Rather, we are in an eternal present. An eternal flow of experiences, repeated eternally regardless of whether a single individuals may cease to be.

   So, the idea seems to be that the main thing is ‘time’. The main thing is the experience. What makes us grieve our loss is the unbreachable breach between present and past.

   But is it unbreachable? I beseech you: it is not.

   So how do I time travel? I read the books of the hardboiled era. I read Hammett, Cain and Chandler. I read Hemingway and Tully. I read the Macdonalds, I read the Bart Spicers, the Deweys, the Steinbecks, the Howard Brownes, the Tom Kromers, the Jack Blacks, the Norbert Davises, the Raoul Whitfields, the Harry Whittingtons, the hardboiled peeps. I read them and become an experience. An experience where I know who I am, I know right from wrong, I know what to say and how to say it. All is clear. There is no angst.

   I’m spending the weekend in Burbank with Jon , and just as last time, I can receive email on my Cox account, but I can’t reply. It’s a known incompatibility problem some people have with their laptops and foreign Internet connections. Everything is fine at home, for example, but not so fine at work.

   There is a fix for this, or so it seems, but it’s beyond me, and I best leave things alone. I just wanted to let you know that if you’ve emailed me recently and haven’t heard back, I’m not ignoring you!

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