RIVER AND REQUIEM:
TWO FOREWORDS IN ONE
Oh God, am I that old? This is the first thought that usually comes to mind when someone my age is called on to cobble together a few reminiscences about stuff written much earlier. It certainly came to mine a few years ago when I wrote an afterword for the Ramble House reissue of my first two Loren Mensing novels, which date back to the 1970s. This time I’m luckier. These two are relatively recent, so much so that I was already a member of AARP when I wrote them. In the earlier of the pair Loren isn’t quite old enough to belong to that noble organization, but in the later he clearly qualifies.
INTO THE SAME RIVER TWICE was my fifth novel. Except for a sort of guest appearance in THE 120-HOUR CLOCK (1986) Loren had been absent from hardcover since CORRUPT AND ENSNARE (1978), although he'd appeared in a number of short stories in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine during the years be-tween. Since he and the other recurring characters in the Mensing series tend to age only a little less rapidly than we of the outside world, he’s no longer the young firebrand of his earlier exploits. Rather he's middle-aged, disillusioned and disgusted, still a law professor but convinced that his job is comparable to training whores, or teaching irresponsible people how to handle firearms. Depression bordering on despair is never far from him. He knows, if I may paraphrase John Donne, that he’s running to death, and that death is running just as fast towards him.
But I knew that a book consisting of unrelieved darkness would be unreadable and did my best to lighten things up as and where I could. The title comes from a famous one-liner by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus which is quoted early in Chapter One, but to make it completely appropriate and to alleviate some of the op-pressive atmosphere I decided to pepper the book with as many doublets as possible. What’s a doublet? Look at the first paragraph. The first sentence ends with “the river.” The second sentence begins with “the river.” That’s the same river twice. That’s a doublet. Kim vanished from Loren's life back when they were in law school, and now she vanishes from him again in the Staten Island ferry terminal. In the first scene she phones him in the middle of the night, and after she vanishes for the second time she phones him again. There’s an Ellery Queen-style dying message in the flashback scene of Chapter One—a scene that comes from one of my earliest short stories, first published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine for May 1973—and a second message much later. The rest of the doublets strewn through the book I’ll leave for you the reader.
One of the major developments in mystery fiction between the time of my early novels and the end of the 20th century was the rise of regionalism. I must confess that this is a boat I missed. My novels of the 1970s were set not in any particularly described place but in what I like to call the undifferentiated midwest. Those of the Eighties were somewhat more regionalistic, with events unfolding in midtown Manhattan, St. Louis, the New Jersey area around Princeton, and the Illinois area along the Great River Road. In the books resurrected here I accept regionalism wholeheartedly, with most of the action happening in specific areas I made it my business to know at firsthand. The Waterside Plaza complex along the East River, the ferry terminal at the foot of the Battery, the St. George terminal on Staten Island at the other end of the ferry's route, the West Village a few blocks from the Hudson, the Yale Club, NYU School of Law, Washington Square Park whose corner tables are inlaid with chessboards—INTO THE SAME RIVER TWICE describes these areas vividly enough so that even readers who have never visited New York will, I hope, feel they’re there. When the action moves to Missouri, and we follow Loren to the St. Louis riverfront and the hospital for the criminally insane in Fulton and the awesome caves near Hannibal, I hope I’ve evoked those sites too with sufficient vividness.
Not that I was always a slave to accuracy. In the real world the building at 79 Jane Street in the West Village is a lovely brown-stone built around 1850, in which I had the privilege of staying many times on visits to New York. With monstrous ingratitude I erased that house from the skyline in Chapters Five and Six and replaced it with a five-story apartment house that I needed to build there. These books are novels. The author is expected to make stuff up.
The characters in RIVER, unlike the places, are for the most part completely fictional, products of the strange cauldron in which my novels and stories are brewed. With a few exceptions. Gael, who was a student of Loren's in my novels of the Seventies, reappears here as a woman 20-odd years older, less fiery and mer-curial, practicing law in an old established firm and about to marry a wealthy WASP in front of an Episcopal bishop. None of this happened to the Gael who was a student of mine in the real world and died of Lou Gehrig's disease in her early fifties.
Most readers will be aware, I hope, that Justice Harry Blackmun of the U.S. Supreme Court, the guest speaker at the NYU Law honors convocation at RIVER's climax, was a real person. Whether I needed his permission to use him I’ll leave to the legal scholars, but I did write him at the Court and asked if I might transpose him into my fictional universe, and he readily agreed. Another judge we encounter in the book—Manfred Ostrander, the last active federal jurist appointed by FDR—was based on a delightful old gentleman who was not a judge nor even a lawyer but was responsible for my enjoying a number of superb dinners at the Yale Club to which I paid tribute at the start of Chapter Five. While dining with Loren, Ostrander says something that in certain quarters has given me the reputation of a prophet. “One of these days some federal judge is going to cancel a presidential election and declare the winner out of his own ideology.” Those words were published four years before Bush v. Gore (2000) made them true. Uncanny, yes?
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BENEFICIARIES' REQUIEM (2000) is, I think, a brighter novel, enriched by chamber music and cheese-making and pre-Hitler German culture and the serene atmosphere of southwest Wisconsin. It began coming to life on a lovely Sunday afternoon when my late wife and I were driving through that country and stumbled upon the small city of Monroe, a few miles from the state line and about an hour's drive due north of Dixon, the Illinois town where Ronald Reagan grew up. There was something peaceful about Monroe, something that spoke to me. We stopped at a hotel a bit like the one at which Loren checks in and were given a suite—or was it a large room with kitchen?—in the elegant “executive wing” a block away between two cornfields. A little voice inside my head told me that I had just tripped over a wonderful setting for a novel. I had no idea what kind of novel it would be but was foresighted enough to grab a pile of brochures, primarily about the town’s history, of which I stole a great deal for the promotional video Loren is given as soon as he arrives. On that historical canvas I drew the Dennisons, founding family of the community, whose patriarch fought beside Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, and which owed its survival through the Depression to the late husband of one of the two major women in the book. Everyone named Dennison or related to a Dennison by marriage or otherwise is a fictional character superimposed on a real place. Well, perhaps all but one.
For Lydia, who is near eighty at the time Loren meets her but in her youth was the trophy wife of Almon Dennison the kingpin of the county, the image in my mind was that of Peggy Stewart, to whom REQUIEM was dedicated. I discovered Peggy in the early 1950s when my parents bought their first TV set and I quickly got hooked on the B Westerns of the Thirties and Forties that flooded the airwaves in those days. When the male star was Wild Bill Elliott or Sunset Carson or Allan Lane or Lash LaRue, as often as not the female lead was Peggy. God, she was lovely. She was probably the first woman I became aware of as a woman. And she took full part in the action sequences too, as women frequently did in Westerns made during and soon after World War II. When she was around fifty and beautiful as ever I got to meet her, and I’ve seen her off-and-on ever since, most recently in 2008 at the Lone Pine Film Festival where both of us were guests. In REQUIEM I created for Peggy an alternate existence, completely unlike her real life except that she begins as the female lead in B Westerns. (At one point in Chapter Three we see her in action on a videocassette.) But in my world she goes off on a war bond selling tour in 1942 and winds up in Dennison, Wisconsin where Almon, who’s old enough to be her father, is smitten with her and offers her a new life. He's been dead thirty years at the time of REQUIEM but Lydia is still queen bee of the community. For a while I entertained a fantasy, that there would be a movie based on REQUIEM with Peggy of course playing Lydia. Never happened. She will be 93 this year but to me she’ll always be Aunt Lydia, and ageless.
Have you ever seen this sequence in a Western? The hero sets out to ride a killer stallion who keeps throwing him off. He keeps getting up and climbing back onto that savage bronco until at last the animal is tamed. During the summer of 1995 I lived that sequence. After resisting computers and word processing for years, I finally caught on that they were not fads like the hula hoop but the wave of the future, and it was high time I learned to ride it. That may have been the worst learning experience of my life, but every time I hit the ground my then secretary, Mary Dougherty, kept patiently dusting me off and helping me back into the technological saddle until, after making every conceivable mistake, I finally got the hang of the critter, and in time even got to like it. While I was working on REQUIEM, Mary hesitantly asked if I could give her a bit part. I owed her so much that I did better: cast her in a fairly important role and tried to draw her as I knew her. Did I succeed? Before the book came out, she took a print-out of the typescript home to show her kids. One of them read it, at least the chapters she appeared in, and said to her: “Gee, Mom, that’s you!” She died a while back. I’ll never stop being grateful to her.
Monroe is a center for the manufacture of cheese and artisan bread. I took a lot of notes on both subjects during my visit. The cheese store I renamed the Alpendenn Inn still exists, and back in the Nineties I walked through an inner door, as Loren does in Chapter Seven, and found myself in a long chilly corridor lined with high picture windows behind which various steps in cheese creation were taking place, with a placard beside each window describing what you were seeing. I couldn’t resist using the place but substituted a live guide for the placards.
As further evidence that I believe in regionalism but am not a slave to it, much of what Loren encounters in Dennison has no counterpart in the real world. For all its virtues, Monroe is not a Mecca for chamber music, is without a local classical-music station or concert hall, does not boast a community college with an elegant faculty club. But as the plot evolved in my head I discovered that I needed these elements, and it was great fun putting them on paper.
Of the six novels I’ve written, this is a special favorite of mine. I’m fond of the way the intellectual excitement of the late chapters segues into physical excitement at the climax, which might almost be the denouement of a Western film. The crucial clue strikes me as one of the neatest I’ve ever come up with, and the characters include some of my favorites. Aunt Lydia of course is one. Another is her grandniece Heather, who lives to serve others and is target for a serial killer operating across generations. Or is she a brutal murderer herself?
As of this writing a mere 22 years have elapsed between when REQUIEM takes place and today, but much has changed in that time. In Chapter Two Loren suggests that a lesbian who needed to be “legally married” to remain a beneficiary of a Wisconsin trust might move to Hawaii and take advantage of the decision of that state’s supreme court in Baehr v. Lewin (1993) that restricting marriage to people of opposite sexes presumptively violated the Hawaii constitution. Assuming that the court would ultimately affirm that view, then going through a Hawaii marriage ceremony with another woman would, under the U.S. Constitution’s Full Faith and Credit clause, probably have to be recognized by Wisconsin or any other state as legal. Today this strategy is obsolete: since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), same-sex marriages are legal in every state. In the hospital scene at the beginning of Chapter Twelve I describe an angioplasty, in which a catheter is inserted into the patient’s inner thigh and courses through his bloodstream until at the point where his artery is blocked by plaque a tiny balloon inflates and pushes the plaque back against the artery’s walls. This is how angioplasties were performed then. The procedure was done on me back in 1990 and I describe it as it was, except that my surgeon didn’t quote Rilke at me. Today the balloons have been replaced by stents. I’ve had that procedure too.
Three other changes over the last twenty years will be obvious even to readers without medical or legal knowledge. At the time REQUIEM takes place, the medium for those who wanted to enjoy movies in the comfort of their homes was not the DVD but the VHS videocassette, which is what Loren and Heather watch in Chapter Three when they want to see the young Aunt Lydia in action. The classical music Lydia listens to while working out on her treadmill is not on CD as it would be today but on audiocassettes. And that priceless gizmo the cell phone, which we all take for granted today, did exist 22 years ago but was nowhere near ubiquitous, which is why Loren doesn’t have one and, in Chapter Six, has trouble figuring out how to use the device. Anthony Boucher, the wisest and most insightful critic mystery fiction has known, said long ago that one of the values of the genre is that it offers vivid testimony to the way we lived then. He died before there were CDs or DVDs or cell phones but they and so much else demonstrate the truth of what he said.
The chapter that begins with an angioplasty ends with explanations and with a conversation between Loren and Heather which I must immodestly admit I’m still proud of after all these years. For me there are few if any lines in literature as beautiful as the one Heather quotes from ANTIGONE. Is it equally meaningful to Loren? And is it coincidence or design that the last word of the book has the same meaning as the last word of its title?
This is an introduction. Perhaps I’ve revealed too much here, perhaps not, but if I gave away any more of what’s coming I’d be a toad. Read and enjoy!
Francis M. Nevins
St. Louis, Missouri
April 6, 2016