The movie and book that define noir, online teaching and learning, the hard-boiled detective, and a podcast recommendation: newsletter, August 7, 2020

August 9, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, fiction, history, newsletter, watercolor, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,5xx) on Friday, August 7, 2020.


Churches can’t meet, businesses can’t operate properly, schools and libraries can’t open — none of this can happen without major concerns about the safety of the people involved. This is a deeply frustrating time for all of us. We can’t do what we think is normal without at least considering the virulent spread of the coronavirus. Our frustrations can provoke us to lash out at one another — or they can remind us that our responsibility is to find an extra measure of kindness and gratitude for what we have. Which will it be?

We have counted the blessing of rain, substantial rain, in our neck of the woods during the past few days. I understand that rain is not a blessing everywhere, but it has been several hot weeks since we had very much here, so right now, it’s a much-needed addition to our weather. For that, we are grateful.

I hope that you will find things to be thankful for and ways to be gracious and kind in the coming days. Your world needs it. Meanwhile, keep reading and doing whatever you do to stay sane. I hope you have a great weekend.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,550 subscribers and had a 27.2 percent open rate; 2 persons unsubscribed.

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Double Indemnity: the book and the movie that define ‘noir’

Double Indemnity — the book by James Cain and the movie directed by Billy Wilder — defines, as well as anything can, the elusive genré that we call noir.

Noir is generally associated with violence, usually murder, and sex, with conflicting motives and motivations, and with tragically flawed characters whose lives are never the happily contented ones they seek. In general, all of these aspects are played out in an urban setting, and much of the action occurs at night. Corruption, official or unofficial, is always part of the background.

All of these elements of noir provide plenty of material for the writer or the film director to work with.

That was certainly the case with James Cain, who after Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler is considered a consummate creator of modern crime fiction. Cain did not write detective novels, and indeed he never developed a Phillip Marlowe character as Chandler did. He also turned aside the term noir for his work, insisting that they were love stories.

Cain was born in Maryland in 1892 and spent his formative years on the East Coast. As a teenager, he decided he wanted to be a writer, and he began that career with the best training possible — the job of a newspaper reporter. He worked for the newspapers in Baltimore and spent the final year of World War I in France writing for an Army magazine. When he returned to American, he worked for the New York World and also wrote for the American Mercury and the New Yorker.

He moved to California in 1931 intending to be a screenwriter, but the work and the style didn’t suit him. California did, however. He liked the way people lived and talked and began using the things he had seen and heard in his fiction. In 1934, he published his first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice. It was a crime story with a heavy dose of passion, and the public — and Hollywood producers — loved it.

His novella, Double Indemnity, first appeared as a serial in Liberty Magazine in 1936 and then as part of a collection of his works titled Three of a Kind. Part of the plot came from a murder trial that Cain had covered when he was a newspaper reporter in New York City. Several studios actively sought the rights to produce the movie, and Paramount won out. The book was then turned over to Billy Wilder, who wanted Cain himself to work on the screenplay. Cain was not available, so Wilder brought in the famous Raymond Chandler as his co-writer.

It wasn’t a marriage made in heaven or Hollywood. Wilder and Chandler instantly disliked each other, and that dislike grew into hatred as work on the film progressed. Still, they muddled through. Wilder recruited Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray to play the lead roles. They were both big stars, but neither had played anything like the roles they were asked to create for this film. Wilder and Chandler also changed the ending of the book for the film — a change that Cain later said he heartedly approved of.

The film premiered in 1944 and was a critical and commercial success. It garnered seven Academy Award nominations though, oddly, it didn’t win in any category. Hearst newspaper columnist Louella Parsons called the film “the finest picture of its kind ever made, and I make that flat statement without any fear of getting indigestion later from eating my words.”

Double Indemnity eclipsed all of the noir films that had come before it and set the standard for the dozens of noir films that followed. The film has never lost its grip on the movie-loving public.

Tennessee Vietnam War Roundtable, Monday, Aug. 10, 7 p.m. (ET)

The Tennessee Vietnam War Roundtable will hold its monthly meeting (via Zoom) on Monday, August 10, 2020, at 7 p.m. ET. Our featured guest will be Aubrey Moncrief.

Here is the URL you need to join the Zoom meeting:

Aubrey Moncrief served in 1968, during the Tet Offensive, with the 22nd Medical Group and the 5th Special Forces, part of a Green Beret team. He was trained as an operating room technician.

Aubrey has many interesting stories to tell about his experiences as a medic in Vietnam. He is one of the veterans who will be included in volume 2 of Vietnam Voices.

You don’t have to be a veteran or a Tennessean to join us at the Tennessee Vietnam War Roundtable. You just need to be interested in what happened in Vietnam and in America’s involvement there in the 1960s and 1970s. Show your support for the men and women who were there. Join us on August 10.

The Tennessee Vietnam War Roundtable is a part of the Vietnam Voices project of the Blount County Public Library

Podcast recommendation: Murder on the Towpath

When the beautiful Mary Pinchot Meyer was murdered in the middle of the day along the C&O canal towpath in Washington, D.C. in 1964, it sent shockwaves through her tony Georgetown neighborhood. Within a few minutes, Raymond Crump, a Black man, was arrested and — on the basis of an eyewitness — charged with a crime. His defense attorney was Dovie Johnson Roundtree, one of the few female Black attorneys in the city at the time.

Roundtree did not believe that her client was guilty, and she was used to fighting impossible battles. When the case against Crump didn’t seem to add up, she went to work.

All this makes for a fascinating nine-episode podcast, Murder on the Towpath, produced and narrated by Soledad O’Brien and offered to listeners by Luminary. This one is not to be missed.

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”

The detective: from high-flying to hard-boiled

Into the 1930s, the fictional detective was something of a super-hero — always in control, facing dangers fearlessly and often with a bit of noblesse oblige humor.

What changed?

Susanna Lee, a comparative literature prof at Georgetown University, has a theory. The crashing economy of the early ’30s ushered in a new reality in life and in literature.

And waiting to take his seat in this new milieu was none other than Dashiell Hammett and his Continental Op:

. . . although the hard-boiled detective and comic strip hero shared many traits—both playing the part of the social savior—the American public did not want to see a real person glide above the worries of the world. They had that in Herbert Hoover and in an oblivious upper class whose speculations had caused the market to crash. The public needed someone consistently grounded in human reality, and Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op brought the character to a new, Depression-appropriate level. Source: How Dashiell Hammett’s Contintental Op Became a Depression-Era Icon | CrimeReads

Hammett himself had been an operative for the Pinkerton Detective Agency and had encountered his share of low-lives. He knew whereof he wrote.

As a Pinkerton operative, Hammett learned the vocabulary of the trade and wrote in the language of people with whom he had come in contact. He offered the audience two main characters, the Continental Op and Sam Spade.

Lee’s article in illuminates her points and gives us some insights into why the books of Hammett and later Raymond Chandler were so popular at the time they were published. It is an excerpt from her book Detectives in the Shadows: A Hard-Boiled History.

Online teaching and learning: they DO work

One of the great inaccuracies of the past few weeks that has taken the form of an accepted narrative in the mass media is that online teaching “doesn’t work.” You read stories about that all the time, even in the august New York Times, a news source I frequently quote.

The problem with that narrative is that it’s total hooey.

And the tragedy of that narrative is that it may lead us into a dismissive attitude toward the creative use of technology in the teaching and learning process.

The real truth is that online teaching and learning, done correctly, does indeed work.

One example of it working is Minerva, an online teaching and learning project where students are put through a rigorous and creative program that is almost totally online. There is no campus.

Frank Bruni devotes one of his NYT (here we go again) columns this week to describing Minerva and the way it has challenged the thinking about a traditional campus.

Mitchell Stevens, an associate professor of education at Stanford, told me that even before the pandemic higher education “was in many ways being held together by prayers, Band-Aids, international students and a lot of debt.”

“What the pandemic creates,” he said, “is a kind of existential challenge to so many colleges and universities and business-model presumptions. That’s an opportunity for fairly radical rethinking.” Source: Opinion | Post-Coronavirus, Are Online Colleges Like Minerva the Future? – The New York Times

Minerva, Bruni points out, is not the magic bullet that will save higher education.

But it’s a creative mix of disruptions and rebellions that could, in some form, have application elsewhere.
For example, it completely bucks the trend at many schools toward a dizzying array of clubs, activities and amenities. Minerva’s founder, Ben Nelson, argues that those are often a distraction from academic pursuits and that students who want to perform music or play soccer with one another can arrange that for themselves, foraging for resources in the diverse, teeming city around them.

This is the kind of thinking and action we need — the willingness to try things that we’ve never tried.

And we certainly don’t need a dismissive attitude that says, after a half-hearted attempt, they “don’t work.” 

Vic C.: I was all set to finish reading you newsletter and filing it with the others (yes, I do save them for future reference as part of my own personal library) and then came across the comments about censorship.  And that, despite Joan Rivers’ admonition, got me started… remembering, that is.
As a child, my parents took me to see “Song of the South” flashes of which remain in my memory after more than 70 years.  I thought then — and still do, today — that it was a wonderful movie.  James Baskett was perfect as Uncle Remus and I was never aware of the racist implications until decades later.  The stories appeared in the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer color comics and I loved reading them.  To me, it was pure entertainment; a tale related by a master storyteller, with happy music (I have a thoroughly enjoyable recording of Johnny Mercer and The Pied Pipers singing Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah) and a wonderful collection of characters.  
For those who revile it today — most especially if they’ve never seen it — I can only say “Open your minds and your hearts.”  It is reminiscent of the evening that Zubin Mehta said to an Israeli audience “Tonight, we play Wagner.”  Many in the Jewish community called it a shandeh (“sin” in Yiddush) while  the rest of us enjoyed the majesty of the music.

Art should stand on its own merits and do so, when necessary, despite the motivations of its creator.

Jonathan J.: I’m an eager, devoted student of U.S. history, and I loved this week’s article about ex-Presidents. Though in an altogether different government (and therefore, clearly in a way that was demeaning to the office of U.S. President), I believe John Tyler served in the Confederate congress before his death.
Glynn W.: Three cheers for Dan C., whose account from the Frontline for librarians is right on. The specifics change, but Dan’s response justifies the role that libraries, paper or electronics, must play in any democracy.

Keith G.: I’m sorry to have to contradict your librarian friend, but some censorship in libraries does exist.  Admittedly it is now decades since I worked in public libraries in the U.K., but librarians are people and they yield to opinion.  There was a keen issue of what was considered “equal opportunities” in the 1980s.  This led not only to censorship, but the absurd.  

The “Asterix” books were (and probably are) very popular.  However, there was a group of characters that would appear, the pirates.  One pirate was black and had a bone through his hair.  Asterix was not banned, but any books with the black pirate were.  Given that the series poked fun at every nationality, including the French, the decision protecting only the black character seems particularly laughable.  However, it happened.  I don’t know how the public library system works in America, but over here it is a department of the local authority (local government), so it is bound to follow political decisions at some point.

Jennifer S.: Just a quick note to say that this week’s watercolor, The Guitar Player, is my favorite yet; normally I prefer the scenes of buildings and landscapes, but something about this musician’s pose, with the face directed away, strikes me as profoundly moving! Thanks for sharing your art with us time and again!

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor (with graphite): Girl on a park bench 

Best quote of the week:

“Language is the expression of ideas, and if the people of one country cannot preserve an identity of ideas they cannot retain an identity of language.” Noah Webster Jr. (1758-1865) American patriot, lawyer, lexicographer, Federalist newspaper founder and editor, essayist, copyright advocate, and author

Helping those in need

Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: The practicality of the first Black bookstore owner, the role of ex-presidents, and more about libraries and erasing history: newsletter, July 31, 2020


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