The Magazine

The Klavan File

A novelist of values in the Age of Terror.

Apr 23, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 30 • By JOEL SCHWARTZ
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Andrew Klavan is a prolific crime novelist and screenwriter, author of about 20 novels (some pseudonymous). He is also a conservative, as is evident in a January op-ed that he wrote for the Los Angeles Times, criticizing Hollywood for not making films about the war against Islamist terror:

In the history of our time as told by the movies, the war on terror largely does not exist. Which is passing strange, you know. Because the war on terror is the history of our time. The outcome of our battle against the demographic, political and military upsurge of a hateful theology and its oppressive political vision will determine the fate of freedom in this century.

To tell that story, Klavan noted, filmmakers would "have to depict right-minded Americans--some of whom may be white and male and Christian--hunting down and killing dark-skinned villains of a false and wicked creed. That's what's happening, on a good day anyway, so that's what you'd have to show." But Hollywood is reluctant to celebrate that combat, for fear that doing so "might appear bigoted and jingoistic." In short, "we can't bring ourselves to fictionalize the larger idea: Islamo-fascism is an evil and American liberty a good."

Klavan concluded by lamenting Hollywood's unwillingness to "dramatize the central event of our time" and to pay tribute to the "lawmen and warriors" who protect us.

Klavan's column, along with some other nonfiction writing of his, is available at his website. Here we learn that Klavan is a religious believer: "I became a Christian after some 35 years of thinking and reading everything I could get my hands on from Augustine to Zoroaster. Which is to say, for a non-scholarly layman, I know my stuff pretty well." In addition, he rejects the contemporary understanding of "realism" because it ignores the human capacity for heroism: "Mean streets are realistic; so are unhappy endings. . . . Heroism and uplifting faith are not. . . . Yet, there is nothing unreal about a man turning to God and finding courage and guidance; about a man deciding to fight, and even to die, for a greater good."

The issues of religion and heroism are also addressed in Klavan's three most recent books, which together constitute a trilogy of semiautobiographical detective novels: Dynamite Road (2003), Shotgun Alley (2004), and Damnation Street (2006). These novels, which Klavan describes as a "fictionalized memoir," serve in effect as his Bildungsroman, explaining how he came to his current opinions. In brief, he seems to have come to religion and the need for heroism by reacting against pernicious doctrines that are frequently espoused in American universities.

The novels are narrated by a stand-in for Klavan--a young man, born and raised in the Northeast, who went to college at Berkeley and wants to become a writer. Shortly after graduating, the narrator takes a job at a San Francisco detective agency, Weiss Investigations. While there he falls in love with the daughter of a novelist who teaches in the Berkeley English department.

In many of these particulars the narrator resembles the author, who was born in New York City, grew up on Long Island, graduated from Berkeley, and married the daughter of Thomas Flanagan, a Berkeley English professor who wrote three wonderful historical novels about Ireland.

The Klavan-like narrator plays only a minor role in these books, whose true heroes are two older detectives. The agency head is Scott Weiss, a fiftyish ex-cop, with a remarkable capacity to predict people's actions, who "walked through [an] atmosphere of corruption and foolishness and . . . still tried to do good and be kind and act justly." His second-in-command is Jim Bishop, a thirtysomething recipient of a Purple Heart, a Silver Star, and a Distinguished Flying Cross, who is characterized by a "quiet aura of self-assurance," "insane courage in the face of physical danger," and irresistibility to anyone wearing a skirt.

Still, the narrator plays an important secondary role, dealing with clients who are English professors at Berkeley. In one book he expresses his distaste for the radical academic feminism of a character who is clearly based on fanatics like Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin:

The way I felt, all God's children, male and female, should be free to do whatever they wanted, whatever they could. Smoke, go to medical school, stay home and raise their children, it didn't matter a damn to me what people did. But . . . these ideologues who thought marriage was oppression and sex was rape and men and women should be exactly the same--I'd only just recently escaped from academia, and I knew them well and I hated them. They were bullies and liars. They lied about history and human nature and statistics.

Elsewhere the narrator makes clear that contemporary academic literary theory revolts him. Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn," he declares, is "one of the wisest and most beautiful poems." How distressing, then, to encounter a graduate student who tells his colleagues that the poem is simply the "effulgence, or maybe I should say effluvium, of certain social interactions and assumptions." Summarizing the graduate student's argument, the narrator adds that "all these interactions and assumptions were sexist, imperialist, racist, and altogether very, very bad."

Not so long ago, the narrator muses, he too had been "talking nonsense just like [the graduate students] were. Planning, like they were, a career in the academy" by becoming "a college professor with writer's block trying to write novels about college professors with writer's block. . . . The usual drill."

He now realizes, though, that "these people had nothing to do with literature. They had nothing to do with ideas. They were just intellectual vandals, parading a cheap knack for breaking fine things into their component parts." Instead, the narrator decides to "live in the real world with real people and write the kind of novels I had always loved"--that is, "tough-guy books and mystery novels" celebrating the heroism of "detectives and cops and soldiers."

In another subplot the narrator uncovers an underground Christian group at Berkeley, expressing his amazement to one of the participants: "You're an intellectual. We [intellectuals] don't believe in God anymore." His interlocutor reminds him, though, that the beliefs that have replaced Christianity on campus--psychoanalysis, socialism, feminism, multiculturalism, postmodernism--aren't particularly plausible, either:

I mean, people don't really have Oedipal complexes, not usually anyway, and labor doesn't actually produce capital. Women are born different from men, some cultures are better than others, and on and on. . . . The fact that all these deep convictions . . . turned out to be, you know, just false, made me wonder about the other thing, the God thing.

Since Klavan rightly aims for a readership transcending members of the National Association of Scholars and subscribers to First Things, this critique of the contemporary university emerges only from his books' subplots. By contrast, the major plots concern the sorts of villains whom you'd expect to encounter in crime novels, with Weiss and Bishop battling a frighteningly competent contract killer and the pathological leader of an outlaw biker gang.

Ultimately, though, the narrator manages--at least on a small scale--to embody the heroism that Weiss and Bishop display: the heroism admired by him and despised by the contemporary academy. When Weiss is in danger of being attacked by a group of lowlifes, the narrator must decide how to react:

How can one tell, I inquired philosophically, who is a mere reveler and who is a murderous thug come to beat the living daylights out of one's friend? This is how intellectuals stay out of fistfights. They convince themselves the situation is complex. It's much safer than acknowledging the simple right and wrong of the thing, the need for immediate action. It's safer, but it's not admirable.

So the narrator chooses to act courageously, and is himself beaten up by the lowlifes, as he successfully enables Weiss to escape from his attackers. A fair summary of the narrator's experience at Weiss Investigations is that it teaches him the need to affirm the significance of "the simple right and wrong of [a] thing."

Insisting on right and wrong was the moral basis of Klavan's Times piece. Dynamite Road, Shotgun Alley, and Damnation Street together offer a fictional account of the sources of that insistence.

Joel Schwartz is an adjunct senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.