Looking back at my college years, it’s surprising to me that the class that has probably left the longest-lasting impact on my life wasn’t a part of my journalism major. To set the scene: I’m a freshman at the University of South Carolina Honors College majoring in, at the time, Media Arts. I was riding pretty high and feeling pretty cocky (pun only slightly not intended), having finished the first semester with a 4.0. This winning streak wasn’t to last.
In keeping with the adage that “pride goeth before the fall,” I was pretty sure that I could take on just about anything. Armed with this unearned self-assurance, I used my USC Honors College privileges to sign up for an English class intended for upperclassmen: American Detective Fiction. I figured I’d both knock out an English requirement and read a few fun crime novels.
The class was taught by Matthew Bruccoli and, being totally honest, he scared the shit out of me from day one. As you’d expect for the instructor of a college class, he had a deep sense of respect for the work he was teaching, and didn’t have a lot of patience for those who wasted his time. He was born in The Bronx and comported himself in class like a character from one of the novels we read – he would alternate between his normal, gravelly speaking voice and a boisterous outburst if something caught his attention or stoked his ire. He had an intimidating physical persona with a mustache like a New York cop and eyes that could bore through you if you rankled him.
He demanded a lot of us: we read about a novel a week and were expected to come to class thoughtful and prepared. He would get frustrated – often loudly – if we hadn’t asked ourselves the obvious questions. One lecture I’ll never forget had him yelling “Who the hell’s the Postman?” after we read James M. Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice” which, spoiler alert, has no literal postman. He was rightfully stupefied that so many careless undergrads could read a novel without even asking ourselves what the title meant.
This is, I think, the entire reading list of the course, and it’s about as good an introduction to the genre as one could ask for. It’s been almost thirty years, and each of these books has its own special place in my mind. I can always find them easily from the “Used Saves” stickers on the spines from the USC bookstore.
- The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett
- Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett
- The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
- The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler
- The Galton Case, Ross Macdonald
- The Friends of Eddie Coyle, George V. Higgins
- The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain
- Killer on the Road, James Ellroy
In the same vein, we spent most of a class period talking about the famous Flitcraft parable in “The Maltese Falcon.” Why did Dashiell Hammett give Sam Spade a multipage monologue in the middle of the novel about an old case regarding a family man who, after nearly being killed by a falling girder, abandons his family and eventually finds a new one. Spade asks him why he left one family to go through the trouble to recreate the same life in a different place with different people. The answer: that everything is random, and that life can both take away and give in unequal and unjust measure. Flitcraft got used to girders falling, and then he gets used to them not falling.
“It was not, primarily, the injustice of it that disturbed him: he accepted that after the first shock. What disturbed him was the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, and not in step, with life. He said he knew before he had gone twenty feet from the fallen beam that he would never know peace until he had adjusted himself to this new glimpse of life. By the time he had eaten his luncheon he had found his means of adjustment. Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away.”
The Flitcraft parable endures even today, in music, in literary analysis, even in the George Floyd conversation. How to we respond to catastrophic change, how will is change us and what will we get used to?
Bruccoli had great stories about the authors we read, some of them from personal relationships he had with them. He loved Ross Macdonald as perhaps the best modern purveyor of the genre and thought James Ellroy had pushed a little too far with “Killer on the Road,” even though we read it anyway. He loved the flawed heroes, the femme fatales, the sweaty villains and the twisty plots; he taught me to love them as well.
Given his gruff demeanor and the material we were learning at the time, I was surprised to learn that his truest and deepest literary love appeared to be F. Scott Fitzgerald. He told a reviewer once that, after reading “The Great Gatsby” for the first time that he had been “reading it ever since.” The man had extraordinary taste in writers, and it was infectious.
The class put an end to my brief 4.0 run – I ended up with a C+ that I fought hard to earn. He wasn’t nearly as impressed with me as I was with myself, and that’s something at 18 I needed to learn: how much I had left to learn and how much richness there could be even in “throwaway” pulpy crime fiction.
The reading list for the class is a who’s who of many of my favorite authors still today. I love crime fiction, and I owe that to him.
Dr. Bruccoli died in 2008 after teaching for 40 years at the University of South Carolina. I took his class in the spring of 1992 and our paths crossing was, like the falling Flitcraft girder, purely my random good fortune.
I did email him around the turn of the millennium, somewhat at random. His class was on my mind that day, as it frequently was. I knew he wouldn’t remember me – I was a wholly unremarkable and unimpressive student in a long teaching career – but I wanted to tell him that his class had an impact on me as a formative part of my education. He responded quickly and graciously and sent me a copy of a recent book for which he had provided a foreword – James Gould Cozzens’ “By Love Possessed” – and it has a permanent place on my shelf.