Harvey Mansfield X Transcript

Table of Contents

I:  On Crime and Mysteries 0:15 – 22:20
II: P. G. Wodehouse 22:20 – 33:18
III: James Q. Wilson 33:18 – 43:52
IV: Winston Churchill as Writer 43:52 – 57:58
V: Gulliver’s Travels 57:58 – 1:18:23

I:  On Crime and Mysteries (0:15 – 22:20)

KRISTOL: Hi, I’m Bill Kristol. Welcome back to CONVERSATIONS. I’m very pleased to be joined again by Harvey Mansfield, Professor of Government at Harvard, student and interpreter of the great books.

I thought today maybe we’d discuss some not-so-great books, or very good books that one can learn a lot from, books that aren’t the greatest books, I think, and enjoy them and benefit from them. I know you do, so I thought I’d ask you about what books do you enjoy reading? What books would you recommend to other that aren’t Plato or Machiavelli or Heidegger or something daunting like that?

MANSFIELD: I enjoy books about crime. Mysteries. They are rewarding, and they’re fun to read and they’re not as demanding as a great book. You can get a few little interesting things out of them. Looking at books on crime, there are hundreds of authors because they’re so popular. I thought I would mention just two or three. Crime is, crime is interesting. I think that’s one point to begin from.

Modern crime stories begin with, I guess, Sherlock Holmes, and Sherlock Holmes led a bored life except when he was confronted with a crime, presented a puzzle. And so off he would go with his friend Watson. “Watson, the game’s afoot!” Something that gave him interest in life. The 19th century was very preoccupied with boredom, or ennui.

Crime is interesting to us – especially murder. Murder seems to be a modern fear. Thomas Hobbes, 17th -century writer, spoke of “the fear of violent death” as the most powerful passion. Not just the fear of death, but violent death. And that doesn’t mean from being crushed by a building or whatever, but being murdered, being killed by another human being. That is somehow very, very fearful.

There are two difficulties with this, and one is “who done it?”, and the other is “how do you catch him?” So, this is also interesting because it’s concerned with justice. For Aristotle, there are two kinds of justice: distributive – what is the just way to distribute benefits or good things – and the other is retributive – that is, the justice that comes from paying the penalty for a crime. He notes that this punitive justice, punishing justice, has a certain resemblance to commercial justice in that you’re trying to make things come out even.

So that’s the phrase “pay the penalty for your crime,” you’re going to try and make things come out evenly the way they were before. If you’ve got a “who done it,” that means it’s a mystery. Here’s a crime, a murder, and it’s a puzzle. So it’s an intellectual thing. But, also, since it’s concerned with justice and punitive justice, you want to find out who did it.

So it’s not just a puzzle that you’re interested in finding out, but you have a very strong, even a passionate, motive. The desire for justice, especially punitive justice, is extremely strong in human beings. It’s a kind of revenge. Punitive justice is a kind of civilized or refined revenge.

KRISTOL: But on behalf of society?

MANSFIELD: On behalf of society, not personal. Society takes over from personal revenge and has its own kind of corporate revenge against a criminal. You’ve got this double motive: that it’s intellectual – how do you find something that’s a puzzle – and then moral.

Then, you have to catch the person. Because if you’ve committed a crime like that, you’d want to conceal yourself. That can be difficult, and there’s the law. But the law is sometimes hindered by legality; the law has to behave legally. So you can often have to resort to what is called a “private eye” – which is a beautiful expression, “private eye.” In other words, the private eye is stronger and sees better than the public eye because the public eye is limited in a way. The private detective becomes sometimes an aid to the police. Or the police can themselves behave somewhat illegally in order to do what their legal duty requires.

This is the special theme of writer Bill James, who has – I guess he’s still alive; David Craig is, I think, his real name. He has 50, 60 books written, and he has this wonderful pair: Superintendent Harper and Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Isles, who’s a wonderful rascal of a fellow. The two of them find continually that in order to enforce the law, they have to disobey the law.

KRISTOL: This is in Britain?

MANSFIELD: This is in Britain, yes. That’s the “Chief Constable” part.

KRISTOL: Yes, right. We don’t have those here in the U.S., I don’t think.

MANSFIELD: No, we don’t. So this is in Britain, yes. So that is Harper and Isles, and there is a whole series on them from Bill James.

The complication to this is that the criminals, for their part, have a strong desire in the other direction – that if you’re a successful criminal, you want to become respectable. So what’s not respectable wants to be respectable, and what is respectable in order to enforce respectability has to be unrespectable. That’s the problem in the Bill James series.

But I could also mention two others. One is really “The Queen of Mystery,” and that’s Agatha Christie, whom one can overlook. Not such a wonderful writer, but a wonderful psychologist and plotter. She knows how to the fool the reader. So she gives clues, but sometimes these are false or misleading clues.

To read her you’re taken up one alley after another – each of them turns out to be blind and then, finally, you get the result. And the result shows the difference between appearance and reality, and, yet, the appearance should have told you more about the reality. So she makes it so that you see now that you misinterpreted, or gave an innocent interpretation to something that was really quite revealing and guilty.

As I said, you have not only to catch the criminal but you have to prove that he did it. And that means that there needs to be something resembling a confession at the end, some guilty move – if not a total verbal confession from the criminal that makes it clear who he was and will enable society to bring its power of enforcement into play.

She had two detectives, one man and one woman. This is the wonderful thing about Agatha Christie. She’s sort of above the sexual difference and is able to see the fun, and the fables, and the virtues of either sex. So she has Hercule Poirot, who is a very manly, boastful manly-man who’s very intelligent and extremely proud of his gray cells; you can’t fool Hercule Poirot. And so he – but she also gives him little features of boastly manliness that enliven his character. To do this, she sometimes introduces herself into the Hercule Poirot mysteries as a lady novelist who is always making interesting suggestions that turn out to be inadequate to Poirot, and he has to gently turn her down. So she plays this lady novelist, Ariadne Oliver, who has messy hair and sort of irregular habits. She runs up to him and says, “Oh Poirot, I think this is crime of passion!” And he looks at her and says, “Madam, which passion? There are so many passions.” So this male superiority over women.

But then she has her woman detective, who’s Miss Marple, Jane Marple – who’s an “old pussy,” she calls her – who lives in a small town and understands everything that goes on in that town, but understands other things, too, by analogy. She’s always thinking of someone she knows who’s like the person that she’s encountered in this crime. That’s a reasoning by analogy: knowing someone, place, and set of people extremely well and being able to deduce from them what they do.

So that’s Agatha Christie.

KRISTOL: Tell me about – she stresses so much in the Miss Marple novels the reasoning by analogy. I suppose that’s by contrast with deduction, or sort of scientific logic. Is that her, sort of, other way to understand the world?

MANSFIELD: That’s right. It’s a woman’s way, that’s the idea, as opposed to Poirot’s more deductive way. They’re both alright, they both succeed. She never uses them together, I don’t think.

KRISTOL: What strikes me about Christie which – I was rereading, and they’re so easy to read, of course, you just pick them up and they go so quickly, and you don’t see the skill or the art. But she has a reputation because she’s from the “golden age of British mysteries” and all that of being these puzzles, intricate puzzles, which is not really true. I would say, if anything, the plotting and sometimes the puzzles are a little far-fetched, and she isn’t taken serious in that way. But she’s much more a psychologist, I think, than people give her credit for.

MANSFIELD: No, her psychology is wonderful. She’s not a modern psychologist – she’s against murder, she’s in favor of justice.

KRISTOL: She stresses that.

MANSFIELD: Yes, stresses that. And both of these are highly intellectual people, both of these detectives, Poirot and Miss Marple. They also are motived by a strong desire to punish the evil that they find. So there is such a thing as evil. I think that’s very important to her.

KRISTOL: Do you prefer the Poirot or the Marple ones? Usually people, people often take sides in this, you know.

MANSFIELD: I suppose the Poirot, but I like them both and the author. Her psychology is commonsensical and yet not simpleminded, but quite complicated. People are evil in different ways, and they have different ways of hiding it. I think that’s a great theme with her, and with the mystery in general, that things aren’t what they seem.

KRISTOL: But you can somehow get to what things are by thinking through what they – by being more attentive to what they seem somehow.

MANSFIELD: That’s right, there is a way to resolve that. And then there’s Donald Westlake, the great Donald Westlake, who invented the comic mystery. Now, he looks at things from the viewpoint of the criminal, as opposed to – from the point of view of the police or the detective.

So he’s always trying to create a crime and get away with it, and difficult things happen. I especially like the Parker series – he has a series of a criminal whom he just calls “Parker,” that’s both his first and last name. Parker’s a very efficient criminal. He is guided by necessity rather than by honor, although honor comes in.

That you could say is the general problem in Westlake, that in order to commit a crime, you need more than yourself – unless it’s just a murder – you need a gang. In order to get a gang, there’s a certain division of labor – you need to gather together a driver, and someone who is going to blow the safe – the different jobs, and you have to coordinate them. And the trouble is if you’re a criminal, you have a criminal mind and you’re likely to be a crook. That means that you might easily betray the person that you’re working with, although there is a kind of “enforceable justice” among criminals that Plato talks about in the first book of the Republic, “there is a justice among criminals.” Any group requires some minimal justice to get along together, to cohere. And this just comes from the fact that they are all getting shares of the loot. And yet, each of them has an incentive, and is not inhibited from it by a sense of justice, or even of honor. They’ll try to betray you and take your share and end up with everything, if they can.

Then there is also the difficulty of the police. This is especially true in the Parker novels. He hardly ever – this he does under the pseudonym of “Richard Stark.” Richard Stark, he hardly ever talks about the police, but they have a huge presence because they’re always there, and they make criminals act in a certain way. A criminal will be offered an easy sentence, or even get off, if he’ll betray his friends or the other members of the gang. And so the members of the gang are always conscious of this and they have to look out for it. They have a motive whenever they do something that might get to the attention of the police to kill, to wipe out the person who might be in the way. So that’s the kind of general view from the standpoint of the criminal that you get in the Westlake novels.

Then he has a more well-known series with Dortmunder, who’s the head of the gang. Those are the really funny ones, and, in general, people don’t get killed in those. Those are capers. And you get the thrill of transgression. I should mention that there’s a thrill in breaking the law, which is very human as well, almost as human as the desire to punish people who break the law. The two of those are always at odds in novels of crime.

KRISTOL: It’s amazing that Westlake – he didn’t quite invent the noir sort of story told from the point of the view of the criminal, which is really what the Parker series is, sympathetic to Parker, really.

He’s the hero, or the anti-hero, of the series. Others were doing that when Westlake started to write it too, but he probably wrote one of the best series of that kind. He also writes, I think, clearly the best, the greatest comic capers with Dortmunder, so he can do both the dark and comic, which is impressive.

MANSFIELD: You can say one general lesson of Westlake is that crime doesn’t pay. They don’t get all that much money and sometimes they don’t get any, and they have a lot of trouble divvying it up, and once you’ve got it, you can’t spend it because that would attract the attention of police. So you have all this money stashed away in different places in cash. It’s not earning for you. It’s really not; it’s not the way to go. But it’s fun. It makes crime fun.

KRISTOL: He really seems to understand – especially in the comic novels with Dortmunder – the impulse to break society’s conventions. He’s quite sympathetic to that, I would say, and to steal from underserving rich people for this nice group of criminals who don’t harm anyone and are pleasant people.

MANSFIELD: Some of them good family lives.

KRISTOL: I suppose he’d be the opposite of Agatha Christie on the surface, but maybe not so much, I don’t know. She seems less sympathetic to the impulse to break the law. Maybe murder is different from –

MANSFIELD: That’s right, murder is serious.

KRISTOL: Any other – well, those are three excellent places to start since they’ve all wrote a huge amount – Christie, Westlake, and James, one could spend a long time reading those three. Do you have a general view on the big controversy among mystery fans, the British versus the American? Raymond Chandler wrote that famous essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” which sort of sets up the contrast between the excessively fussy British puzzles and the hardboiled American.

MANSFIELD: No, I like them both. I don’t object, either to the fussiness or grossness. The hardboiled character of the American. Yes, it is a nice contrast to the two peoples, you could say – two ways of evil.

KRISTOL: Two ways of solving it.

MANSFIELD: Or treating it.

KRISTOL: Is it the two peoples, or is it more aristocratic society versus modern democracy?

MANSFIELD: There is certainly something aristocratic. Lord Peter Wimsey, Dorothy Sayers’ famous detective. Sherlock Holmes is certainly an aristocratic character. Whereas Americans – Chandler, Humphrey Bogart, one thinks of. That is more democratic – also more straightforward, more vicious and violent. So that’s crime.

KRISTOL: So that’s good.

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