Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Criminal ConvictionsCriminal Convictions by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Nicolas Freeling's "Criminal Convictions" is an outstanding piece of literary criticism. It is a collection of essays on the best "literary masters of crime fiction" of the 19th and 20th centuries: Stendhal, Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Georges Simenon. To me, the best features are the two introductory chapters (one of them is "Metaphysics of Crime"), and the stunning ending chapter ("Apologia Pro Vita Sua"), where Mr. Freeling, one of the best writers in the history of the mystery genre, humbly describes himself as less talented and accomplished than the authors he writes about.

I have read almost all (25 or so) books by Nicolas Freeling, and I love his writing, his erudition and his "Europeanness". He is one of the few of my most favorite authors. This does not mean that I agree with everything he says. The title of the book is clever - "conviction" brings to mind a guilty verdict, yet here it just means "a firmly held belief or opinion". Mr. Freeling indeed has firm opinions on who is "a very great writer" (his own phrase). I have not been able to finish any Dickens' book, so it was hard for me to relate to an overlong and quite enthusiastic chapter on this author. Neither am I a fan of my compatriot, Joseph Conrad's work, but maybe I haven't read the right books. In the chapter on Chandler, Mr. Freeling praises "The Big Sleep" at the expense of "The Long Goodbye", while my "convictions" point in the opposite direction. Well, he certainly knew a thousand times more about literature than I do, so I am probably wrong.

"Criminal Convictions" is a tour de force of writing. The ending of the book contains the following grim yet hilarious passage about the future of the human culture: "When we look in the glass we will no longer see the features and port of Renaissance man, the skilled hands and active feet, but the huge shapeless boots and clumsy gloves, the monstrously imbecile grimacing mask of Mickey Mouse. We are wholly owned by the Mouse Bank, mortgaged to the Mouse Insurance Company, manipulated by the Mouse Communications Corporation [...]" So deadly true.

Four and a quarter stars.

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