Mystery & Crime Novels for $800, Alex

Snow and ice are a perfect setting for a noir story

I was prompted to read Peter Høeg’s 1992 novel, Smilla’s Sense of Snow, when Jeopardy! featured a question about it (“When a boy falls to his death, ‘Smilla’s Sense of Snow’ in this Scandinavian country helps prove it was murder”). I had no idea that the book has been the subject of one of the show’s clues—as Ed Rooney saidnine times, each in a different category:

  • 1990s FICTION

The book is considered part of the “noir” crime genre and, since it’s set in Denmark and Greenland, one of the best examples of a subgenre known as Nordic noir (or Scandinavian noir).

Noir literature is typically characterized by:

  • Simple language, i.e., without metaphor
  • Bleak settings
  • Tension between a calm social surface and the violence beneath
  • Dark and morally complex moods
  • Social criticism

The plot of these stories often contrasts with the classic British “whodunit” where the reader and the detective try to identify the criminal as the plot progresses (à la Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes). Instead, they tend to follow an inverted detective story form—sometimes called a “howcatchem”—where the reader knows the villain’s identity in advance (à la Columbo) and watches the detective bring him to justice.

More fundamentally, “noir”—Nordic or not—conveys a different worldview and features a different type of protagonist:

“The classic crime story…takes place in an essentially orderly universe, with a common understanding of good and evil. Crime here is a dangerous anomaly, but order can be restored by a hero-detective who investigates and, eventually, unmasks the criminal.”

The world of noir, on the other hand, is “chaotic, baroque and hypocritical. Crime doesn’t disturb this world, it’s foundational to it. Noir stories give the stage to criminals and their motivations, which range from unspeakable passions to a firm conviction that their particular crime serves a greater good. A detective may pursue such a criminal, but noir reveals the line between them to be a product of chance and circumstance—if, indeed, such a line exists at all.”

“In noir, the problem is not an individual: the problem is the world. Institutions are corrupt, public moralities hypocritical, the watchmen un-watched. One person may pull a trigger, but that act is part of a sprawling web of mendacity and exploitation. No one gets away clean.”

Noir depicts “a universe more like the one we live in than the one we imagine for ourselves…[It is] powerful because it [is] a tiny bit true.”


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Profile in Courage

During the first two and a half years of President John F. Kennedy’s administration, he struggled to develop a bond with Martin Luther King Jr. and to come to grips with the civil rights movement. In his book, Kennedy and King: The President, The Pastor, and the Battle Over Civil Rights, Steven Levingston described the “often clashing but always respectful” relationship between the Irish Catholic politician and the Southern Baptist preacher.

As a candidate for President in 1960, Kennedy had coveted King’s support, knowing the favor it would bring him among black voters. But after meeting with Kennedy in June 1960, King still believed that the candidate had only an intellectual commitment [to civil rights], not an emotional one. King diplomatically insisted that he declined to offer a political endorsement because it would be inappropriate for him to do so.

Shortly before the election, however, Kennedy made a private phone call expressing his concern to King’s pregnant wife Coretta while King was incarcerated. When word of the call got out, it “reverberated within the black community” and helped him narrowly defeat the Republican candidate Richard Nixon.

But as President, Kennedy disappointed King and the other leaders of the civil rights movement by failing to prioritize their struggle as a national issue. The president was pressed relentlessly to “confront racist Southern politicians and end the indignity of segregation” in American society, but his attention was repeatedly drawn to other issues.

King believed that, like some other politicians, Kennedy saw the Cold War expediency of removing segregation and discrimination as stains on the nation. But he accused the president of not insisting on their removal simply because they were “morally wrong.”

By the time some of the most brutal confrontations of the civil rights campaign occurred in Birmingham, Alabama in late 1962, however, the movement’s leaders had come to believe that Kennedy was different from previous presidents. They believed that a “tacit alliance” had developed between the Kennedy administration and their cause, and that if they could arouse public support, “this administration would hear it and respond.”

On June 11, 1963, after watching Governor George Wallace refuse admission to black students at the University of Alabama, Kennedy determined to deliver a nationally televised speech that night. “As Wallace left the doorway,” remembered Kennedy advisor and speechwriter Ted Sorensen, “the president turned around and said to me, ‘I think we’d better give that speech tonight.'” Kennedy’s political advisors opposed a public speech calling for civil rights legislation, but his brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy argued for it and won.

Acting with “unusual impulsiveness,” Kennedy told his Commerce Secretary Luther Hodges, “I may lose the legislation, or I may even lose the election in 1964, but there comes a time when a man has to take a stand and history will record that he has to meet these tough situations and ultimately make a decision.”

In what The New York Times called “Kennedy’s Finest Moment,” the president empathized with the suffering of black citizens as never before, committing his support to them, and calling on all Americans to do the same. For the first time, he called civil rights a moral issue (“as old as the scriptures and…as clear as the American Constitution”) in sharp contrast to the refusal of his predecessor to do so.

Following the speech, which laid the foundation for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, King exclaimed, “That white man not only stepped up to the plate, he hit it over the fence!” US Congressman John Lewis gave King much of the credit for persuading Kennedy to take a stand, saying, “The very being, the very presence, of Martin Luther King Jr. pricked the conscience of John F. Kennedy.”

King said Kennedy in 1963 became a leader who was “willing to stand up in a courageous manner” to address moral issues. And Kennedy ultimately recognized the role King had played in his decision to embrace the struggle of blacks for civil rights when he said to King, “It often helps me to be pushed.”

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No Small Thing

Many drops make a bucketful

“Well-being is realized by small steps, but is truly no small thing.”
Zeno, the founder of Stoicism

It can be hard to really believe that a small action, even when repeated over an extended period of time, has a significant effect. That’s why it’s hard to stick to small actions we know are helpful, whether they’re positive or negative. I know that these “small steps” are good, but it’s often hard to do them, because it can seem like each one is unimportant:

  • Telling the truth
  • Eating well
  • Exercising
  • Controlling what I read, watch and listen to
  • Holding my tongue
  • Saying “thank you”
  • Spending money wisely
  • Accepting responsibility for my actions and inactions

But repeatedly taking these steps allows me to have and achieve the “big” things that are important to me:

  • Personal integrity
  • Helpfulness to others
  • Financial independence
  • Leisure

Small things add up to genuinely great things. So:

  • Take good actions, no matter how small.
  • Make beneficial choices, no matter how simple.
  • Show gratitude for what you have, no matter how basic.

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Oh, But They Are

Owen's coin collection

I’m getting old enough to think sometimes about how my kids will remember me when I’m gone.

In the 1987 movie Throw Momma From The Train, Danny DeVito and Billy Crystal play Owen, an annoying aspiring writer, and Larry, his writing instructor. For no particular reason, while the two are at Owen’s house, Owen offers to show Larry his coin collection:

OWEN: You want to see my coin collection?
OWEN: I collect coins. I got a dandy collection.
LARRY: I don’t want to see it, Owen.
OWEN: But it’s my collection.
LARRY: I don’t care. Look, Owen, I’m just not in the mood, okay?
[Owen lays down on the floor and begins taking folded envelopes from a hinge-topped box.]
OWEN: Never showed it to anyone before.
[Larry lays down on the floor next to Owen.]
LARRY: All right, I’ll look at it.
OWEN: No, it’s okay.
[Owen turns away and shields the envelopes from Larry’s view.]
LARRY: Show me the collection.
OWEN: No, you don’t mean it.
LARRY: Show me the damn coins!
OWEN: All right.
[Owen lays the coins on the floor and shows each one to Larry.]
OWEN: This one is a nickel. This one also is a nickel. And here’s a quarter. And another quarter. And a penny. See? Nickel, nickel, quarter, quarter, penny.
LARRY [aggravated]: Are any of these coins worth anything?
OWEN: No. And here is another nickel.
LARRY: Why do you have them?
OWEN: What do you mean?
LARRY [exasperated]: Well, the purpose of a coin collection is that the coins are worth something, Owen.
OWEN: Oh, but they are. This one here I got in change when my dad took me to see Peter, Paul and Mary. And this one I got in change when I bought a hot dog at the circus. My daddy let me keep the change; he always let me keep the change.
[Owen picks up one of the quarters.]
OWEN: Ah, this one is my favorite. This is Martin and Lewis at the Hollywood Palladium.
[Larry smiles sheepishly.]
OWEN: Look at that. See the way it shines on the little eagle. I loved my dad a lot.
LARRY: So this whole collection is…
OWEN: Change my daddy let me keep.
LARRY: What was his name?
OWEN: Ned. He used to call me his little Ned. That’s why momma named me Owen. I really miss him.
LARRY: It’s a real nice collection, Owen.
OWEN: Thank you, Larry.

The coins’ worth was determined by their meaning, not their marketability; they were “worth something” because they reminded Owen of his father’s love for him. Larry’s realization of this made him feel sheepish about his initial reaction to Owen.

While photographing my kids being themselves and having fun has been one of my favorite things in life, my pictures of them are “worth something” only as a reminder of my love for them. I won’t get to choose at the end of my life how I’ll be remembered, but I hope my kids will value my pictures for the same reason Owen valued his coins.

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If We Don’t Hold Them Accountable, Who Will?

Steven Spielberg’s 2017 movie, The Post, relates a devastatingly relevant episode in the recurring conflict between the self-interest of corrupt government officials and the freedom of the press.

In 1976, I enrolled in journalism school just as the movie All the President’s Men was portraying reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as superheroes for exposing the Watergate scandal. Director Alan J. Pakula said the two reporters became “a kind of contemporary myth” that affirmed the “American belief that a person or small group can with perseverance and hard work and obsessiveness take on a far more powerful, impersonal body and win—if they have truth on their side.” The book was published three months before Nixon’s resignation and the film version appeared just two years later. Though the release of The Post came more than four decades after the earlier story it relates, the current environment makes it just as timely and its moral just as persuasive.

Like the Watergate story, the publication of the Pentagon Papers (officially titled “Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force”) in 1971 revealed a massive government cover-up, this one hiding the military’s acknowledgement of the futility of its involvement in the Vietnam War. The New York Times introduced readers to the contents of the classified documents in two front-page stories on consecutive days. When U.S. attorney general John Mitchell asked The Times to stop publishing information from the report, The Times refused and it was served with a lawsuit and a temporary restraining order. The Times complied, but sought legal permission to continue publication of the documents.

The film describes the embarrassing situation The Washington Post found itself in. Following publication of the first Times story, it was forced to write an article taken entirely from their competitor, according to editor Ben Bradlee. “[We] did not have a copy [of the documents], and we found ourselves in the humiliating position of having to rewrite the competition. Every other paragraph of the Post story had to include some form of the words ‘according to The New York Times,’” Bradlee said.

Commenting on the movie’s choice to tell the story from the perspective of the trailing Post, retired New York Times reporter David Dunlap rightly insisted that the story of The Times’ initial scoop “would have made, we believe, for a very good movie called ‘The Times.’” But The Post’s Katharine Graham (played by Meryl Streep) was the first female publisher of a major American newspaper and Bradlee (played by Tom Hanks) had been memorably portrayed in All the President’s Men, so perhaps Spielberg considered their personalities more compelling.

The crux of the plot has Bradlee imploring Graham to join The Times in revealing the depth of the government’s deception, asking, “If we don’t hold them accountable, who will?” Indeed, while serving as United States Minister to France in 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Why? Because of the importance of a free press in keeping government power in check.

In the Supreme Court decision that allowed publication of the Pentagon Papers to continue, Justice Hugo Black’s opinion affirmed that, “In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”

As it is with all noble principles, the power of the press must be reaffirmed against the attacks of each new aspiring despot of the moment. Taking nothing for granted, of course, The Post reminds us that we’ve seen this story before and we know who won.

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Getting Better, VIII

If you’re feeling despair about the fate of humanity in the 21st century, you might want to reconsider

I won’t go as far as the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof, who said that “2017 was the best year in human history,” but I’m all about celebrating these items from Future Crunch’s 99 reasons 2017 was a great year:

  1. Cancer deaths have dropped by 25% in the United States since 1991, saving more than 2 million lives.
  2. Premature deaths for the world’s four biggest non-communicable diseases­—cardiovascular, cancer, diabetes and chronic respiratory—have declined by 16% since 2000.
  3. Global deaths from tuberculosis have fallen by 37% since 2000, saving an estimated 53 million lives.
  4. Nearly 1.2 billion people around the world have gained access to electricity in the last 16 years.
  5. The United States’ official poverty rate reached 12.7%, the lowest level since the end of the global financial crisis. And the child-poverty rate reached an all time low, dropping to 15.6%.
  6. The cost of solar plants in the United States dropped by 30% in one year.
  7. Solar energy is now responsible for one in every 50 new jobs created in the United States, and the clean energy sector is growing at 12 times the rate of the rest of the economy (24.5% since November 2015).
  8. JP Morgan Chase said it will source 100% of its energy from renewables by 2020 and will facilitate $200 billion in clean financing through 2025.
  9. Between 1990 and 2016, Europe cut its carbon emissions by 23% while the economy grew by 53%.
  10. The gender pay gap in the United States has narrowed from 36% in 1980 to 17% today. For young women the gap is now 10%.

As Kristof said, when people scream about all the things going wrong, “let’s not miss what’s going right.”

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Sisters of the Sun

Henry Draper was a physician, but his passion was astronomy. At age 36, he left his positions as professor and dean of medicine at New York University to spend more time working in his observatory in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.

On Henry Draper’s death in 1882, Harvard Observatory director Edward Pickering informed Anna Palmer Draper that he intended to carry out her husband’s desire to photograph and classify the stars, and she agreed to support and fund the work. As a result, the observatory’s largely-female staff became pioneers of astrophotography, spectral analysis, and astrophysics.

Dava Sobel’s book, The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars, describes how night after night and decade after decade, the women exposed glass plate negatives, capturing a spectrum for each star in the telescope’s field of vision by placing a prism in their telescopes. Annie Jump Cannon grouped the stars in their hundreds of thousands of photographs according to the character of each one’s spectrum and classified them into seven types designated by the letters O, B, A, F, G, K and M.

The 2014 television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey told of the Harvard women, as well, focusing on Cannon and Cecilia Payne in part of its eighth episode, Sisters of the Sun. Host Neil deGrasse Tyson emphasized not only Cannon’s classification system, but also—more than Sobol—the opposition initially provided for Payne’s important addition to it.

When Payne—an expert in theoretical and atomic physics—migrated from England to the United States in search of academic opportunity as a woman, she joined the Harvard team of researchers—now under director Harlow Shapley—and provided insight into the meaning of Cannon’s categories. Payne determined that, without knowing it, Cannon’s system had classified the stars from the hottest to the coldest.

By analyzing the chemical composition and physical state of the stars, Payne discovered that the stars are made almost entirely of hydrogen and helium; unlike on earth, all the other elements were present only in trace amounts. This contention was so stunning that it was initially disparaged by Princeton University professor Henry Norris Russell, the dean of American astronomers at the time, and Payne backed off the central claim of her thesis. But four years later, Russell affirmed that Payne was right.

Cosmos used this delayed acceptance to make a strong point about the uniqueness of the process of scientific discovery: “The words of the powerful may prevail in other spheres of human experience,” Tyson said. “But in science, the only thing that counts is the evidence and the logic of the argument itself.” Payne was quoted as saying, “I was to blame for not having pressed my point. I had given in to authority when I believed I was right. If you are sure of your facts, you should defend your position.”

The overriding impression of Sobol’s account of the work at Harvard Observatory is of passionate curiosity in the face of staggeringly tedious work which achieved a number of significant scientific discoveries:

  • By Henrietta Leavitt:
    • The brighter the magnitude of a star, the longer the period of its variation. Known as the period-luminosity relation, this became the fundamental method for determining the distance to a star.
  • By Harlow Shapley:
    • The universe is not centered on the sun, is magnitudes bigger than previously thought, and contains many other galaxies besides the Milky Way.
  • By Cecilia Payne:
    • The ratios of hydrogen and helium in the stars is a million times higher than on earth.
    • The stars are similar to one another in chemical composition, but vary in temperature.

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