Monday, February 21, 2022

First Principles by Thomas E. Ricks

Here is something different for today, away from the mean streets of mystery and crime.

It is Presidents’ Day, which seemed like a good day for a few words about my favorite book of 2021: First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned From the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country by Thomas E. Ricks. 

Ricks, a career journalist now retired from the Washington Post, was interested in learning just how America’s founding fathers figured out how to create a democratic government and what a republic would look like. He knew the stories of the men and the battles they had with each other in hammering out the rules that would guide the new country. But how did those men know where to look for guidance?

To find out, Ricks selected four of the founders to concentrate on: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison. He looked into their backgrounds, focusing on their education, where they went to school, the subjects they studied, and what those schools were like in the 18th century. Ricks even found and profiled some of their instructors.

Higher education in those days meant reading the classics. Even Washington, who did not have as extensive a formal education as the other three, was familiar enough with the classics for Ricks to trace the general’s tactics in fighting the British to passages from ancient Rome. 

First Principles is a fascinating book, and unlike a lot of histories, it is written in a sharp, accessible style, something that could be expected from a man who spent his life writing about complex issues for newspaper readers. 

As a final thought, it may not be remembered, but not so long ago, our politicians could refer to the classics. In a 1968 speech, Robert F. Kennedy reflecting on the death and destruction of the war in Vietnam, said:

“I am concerned that at the end of it all ... they may say, as Tacitus said of Rome, ‘They made a desert, and called it peace.’”

Monday, February 7, 2022

Framed in Guilt by Day Keene

Day Keene’s 1949 murder mystery, Framed in Guilt, is an almost tongue-in-cheek, not-quite comic novel about a successful Hollywood writer framed for the killing of a young woman.

Robert Stanton, former World War II pilot and later a prisoner of war, now a best-selling novelist with an enormous salary from a movie studio, receives a call from a woman just arrived from England who tries to blackmail him. She has proof that during the war, Stanton married a London girl then abandoned her and her child.

Stanton meets her, kills her, and leaves a trail of clues. The body is discovered early the next day. Police arrive and Stanton, suffering after a heavy night of drinking, claims he never heard of the dead woman. He cannot account for himself at the time the murder and he cannot explain the clues that brought the police to his door.

How the crime was committed is not too tough to figure out, but who actually did the killing is well concealed until the exciting end of the story.

Day Keene was having some fun, taking pot shots at the typical Hollywood types. There is the beautiful, self-centered starlet, and the handsome, self-centered leading man, the sniveling producer married to the daughter of the studio chief, the boorish gossip columnist, and the snappy, fast-talking newspaper reporter trying to nail Stanton and get a scoop. And then there are the detectives of the Los Angeles Police Department who routinely take suspects into a back room of a precinct and beat confessions out of them.

Stanton’s sidekick is an Oxford educated, Native American who speaks like an English barrister, but also enjoys acting the part of the powerful and stoic Indian.

A bit of dialogue that may be unintentionally funny occurred when a leading man complains that Stanton purposely gives supporting players the best lines, Stanton fires back:
“Oh, so I let my personal feelings enter into my writing?”
God forbid any personal feelings enter into the making of a Hollywood movie – back then or today.

Keene freely switches points of view between characters whenever he needs a convenient way to hide a fact or an identity.

Overall, Framed in Guilt is a decent whodunit, a breezy read, and a fun peek behind the scenes of Hollywood in its Golden Age.

Information on Day Keene is sketchy and inconsistent. Most say he wrote more than 50 novels, as well as short stories and scripts for radio and television. Some say he was born in Chicago in 1903, others claim 1904. All agree he died in 1969, although I could not find an obituary for him. Sources all agree that “Day Keene” was his pseudonym, but there is some confusion about his actual name, which was either Gunard Hjertstedt or Gunnar Hjerstedt. Anyone who can lend some clarity to this is welcome to comment.