Blogs and Mystery: Reading Michael Kahn's THE FLINCH FACTOR
Posted by Barbara Leavy on Dec 2 2013, 11:49 AM
     Those who look forward to and read Michael Kahn's blog postings on the Poisoned Pen Press and his own website will bring to their reading of The Flinch Factor high expectations. It is the eighth mystery in his Rachel Gold series, the first in several years since the seventh. The blogs can serve as signposts for those readers who want to follow the many paths that lead from Kahn’s clever plot and unusual, sometimes zany characters, for aside from the enjoyment The Flinch Factor provides, there is much in this book that is thought-provoking. And much about the form of the mystery that demonstrates how skilled an author Kahn is, very much in command of what he writes.   
     The readers of the blogs will know that Kahn is a trial attorney by day and a mystery writer by night.  Rachel Gold is also a trial attorney, and Kahn's profession will satisfy readers that the legal aspects of this mystery are accurate.  It is getting to be almost a commonplace in mysteries for someone visiting an attorney or speaking to one after being arrested, to suggest a trial strategy that the lawyer will patiently say works on TV. Kahn may have taken some liberties in The Flinch Factor, which perhaps only others in his profession might pick up. But he also has the advantage of having created an opinionated, capricious, unpredictable, and sometimes zany judge so that what happens when Rachel confronts her adversaries in court will also be unpredictable and may deviate strongly and strangely from strict trial procedures. The judge's name is Flinch, giving the book its title and describing why attorneys do not want their cases to end up in his courtroom. He makes it almost impossible for them to plan strategies for trials, for to add to his peculiarities, Flinch is weak in his knowledge of the law. But readers of The Flinch Factor will be amused by how Flinch presides over a trial and will find him an unforgettable character. And sometimes his rulings will even make sense.
     To read Kahn's blogs is also to know that he is an excellent writer, is to take for granted that The Flinch Factor is extremely well-written. Kahn often writes about the narrative devices used by fiction writers and is particularly interested in narrative points of view, the advantages and disadvantages attached to an author’s choice, and has written interesting discussions about unreliable narrators. Rachel Gold is the first-person, reliable narrator of this mystery. Unless she reports on something she has heard or heard about, Kahn is restricted to her perceptions, her thoughts, her depictions of incidents at which she has been present. Rachel can only guess at what another character is thinking, depending on her history with the person or her ability to read facial expressions. Some mystery writers who choose first-person narrators will awkwardly resort to mechanical hearsay in order to fill in gaps in their stories. Kahn avoids this narrative pitfall; his narrative is seamless.The only other character whom Rachel (and Kahn) relies on for development of those parts of the story that have to come from someone beside Rachel is Jacki Brand, her law partner and another very unusual character in this book of unusual characters. Jacki’s reportage is also reliable.
      Some modern psychologists argue that all communication between people involves storytelling and complete reliability is virtually impossible. If nothing else, stories have form, beginnings, middles, and ends whereas life is often chaotic. Connections that are made to link episodes may have to do with the teller not the tale. Psychotherapists have to try to help those who seek their help to locate that place in which fiction and reality strongly diverge (assuming that these are separable) and elicit from patients ways in which possible misperceptions have affected their lives.  Some authors deliberately use unreliable first-persons narrators, such as Benjy in Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury.  In other fiction, a first-person narration can occupy some midpoint between what is reliable and what is not—such as Nelly Dean’s reportage in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Readers of fiction face the challenge of assessing the reliability of the first-person narrator, such as Marlow’s in The Heart of Darkness. How can he convey the “horror” that overcame Kurtz, whose story he is telling, whose stay in the Amazon jungles has released primitive drives that the social contract ordinarily requires be repressed, when he, Marlow, has not experienced them himself.
     But to the extent that narrators can be reliable, Rachel Gold is one. When she wants to express strong emotions that prevail lover rational thinking, feelings she would otherwise keep to herself, she visits the grave of her husband Jonathan, for whom she is still grieving. She talks to him, not to get advice from the beyond, for she knows that is impossible, but to achieve some kind of emotional equilibrium. At those instances, Rachel is not to be completely reliable. Her love of Jonathan and her grief even affects, at the end of the book, more abstract concerns, such as justice. For, she wonders, what does it matter that the bad guys are caught and punished.  This will not restore to life their victims.  Clearly, her loss of Jonathan has affected her perceptions.  And readers may wonder if Michael Kahn is expressing some of his own views through Rachel. In any event, it is not unusual in crime fiction for the characters who are lawyers, whether prosecutor or defense, to question themselves or the criminal justice system and wonder about the value of what they are doing.
     A digression here may suggest a problem Kahn faces if he continues his Rachel Gold series.  A huge, really huge, controversy has arisen lately concerning grieving.   The American Psychiatric Association periodically publishes a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual known as DSM, which has enormous influence on therapy people receive, how much or little insurance will cover treatment, and how long the treatment will be paid for. The release this year of what is known as DSM-5 has prompted a heated debate about how normal grieving can be differentiated from a major depressive disorder.  Earlier DSMs had excluded bereavement from its category of major depressions, but the psychiatrists who worried that grief might mask a more essential depression, so that patients would be misdiagnosed and fail to get needed treatment, wanted to put back grieving that lasted a long time as a sign of major depression. This led to a huge outcry by other psychiatrists, psychologists, mental health workers, grieving persons and other affected parties. As Psychiatry Today (May 2012) wrote as an introduction to the controversy, “Of all the misconceived DSM-5 suggestions, the one touching the rawest nerve is the proposed medicalization of normal grief.”  It is not necessary for Kahn’s readers to follow this debate, interesting as it might be. The question of how long “normal” grieving should last, however, seems to be one that has some implications for The Flinch Factor.  Clearly, Rachel Gold is not suffering from a major depressive disorder despite the four years she has mourned for Jonathan.  She functions well at work.  She is a good mother to her son and good stepmother to Jonathan’s daughters.  Her life is an active one and she herself wonders if she will ever stop actively grieving for her husband. Who in pain, physical or emotional, does not want relief from it? But if a reader of the Rachel Gold series is one—and there are many such readers—for whom characters in books are as real, sometimes more real, than many living persons whom they know, what should readers want for Rachel?   To stop grieving and find another appropriate love interest and even a second husband? A more important question might be what such readers would want from Michael Kahn.  If he continues his series, will Rachel be fixed in her grief? Is her grieving an essential party of her character? How would his readers react if Kahn were to decide to bring another serious romantic interest into Rachel’s life?  These questions are not extraneous to a reading of The Flinch Factor.  As will be seen, Rachel’s visits to Jonathan’s grave touch on other themes in Kahn’s mystery.
     Kahn does not and cannot speak directly to his reader as some eighteenth-century novelists did—even if he wanted to resolve the readers’ uncertainty. Not only would this be an outmoded method of writing fiction, but it would  subvert his narrative authority in The Flinch Factor.  Kahn draws his readers into Rachel’s world, and in choosing a first-person narrator, allows Rachel and his readers to make judgments about characters and events.  Finally, one last point about Kahn’s choice of narration: if all people are storytellers, then when speaking to others they may consciously or unconsciously tell lies.  Unreliable narrators can lie to themselves.  Lies are almost a necessity in mysteries and lying is a significant part of Kahn’s plot. Benny, whom Kahn designates as Rachel’s sidekick, has an uncanny ability and many opportunities in the novel to spot a lie or liars.  
     Plots are for mystery writers a challenge and sometimes an obstacle. In ending his Inspector Morse series, Colin Dexter claimed he was running out of ideas and could not, as Agatha Christie did, create an indefinite number of plots. As the eighth book in a series, The Flinch  reflects many back stories, but does not require that readers be familiar with the previous books to follow this one. Kahn’s readers, enjoying this most recent Rachel Gold book, may want to go back to earlier ones to prolong the pleasure they have had in this eighth one, but whether readers should begin a series with the first book is an open question that some readers of mysteries and some crime fiction writers have had to address—if only to themselves. A series allows a writer to develop or change a character. Some picky readers may wonder why, over the presumably long time a series covers, the investigator never ages. Others find inconsistencies concerning events from book to book and, having identified themselves with a series character, and having come to think about the character as a real person, are irked. Or find fault with the   plotting.
    The plot of The Flinch Factor is intricate but its broad outlines are not difficult to summarize.  Rachel Gold has been widowed for four years and has both the emotional and practical responsibility for her six-year-old son and two stepdaughters, one a college student, the other a high school senior.  She is dependent on her law practice to support her family and the practice is not at the moment throwing off much income. Still, she takes on two clients from whom she will probably get no fees. One actually consists of a group, who have come to Rachel to prevent being evicted from their homes and a neighborhood their families have grown up in, and which also has the advantage of an excellent school district that they could not match elsewhere. A developer, the book’s most obvious bad guy, can make a fortune by building on their land many McMansions for the wealthy.  And the law seems to be on the developer’s side.  The other client is a young woman whose brother is discovered dead from an overdose of heroin, his car found in a  place known to be a gathering place for homosexuals seeking to hook up with other men for anonymous sex. Finding him there is particularly puzzling because he is a contractor who does home renovations and happily has sex with the woman of the house as long as the work lasts.  Little by little, Rachel discovers that these two seemingly disparate cases are connected, and the truth about the dead man is revealed.  What the truth is likely to be supplies another dimension to the puzzle Rachel and Kahn’s readers must work through.   
     Another point that can be made about the plot of The Flinch Factor has to do with the history of crime fiction.  Mysteries were originally puzzles,  embedded in a story of a crime that had to reveal “whodunit.”  Then, for some serious writers, whodunit gave way to whydunit and crime writers used different kinds of motivation from the usual ones, which had been adultery, greed, jealousy, revenge.  But readers continued to care who killed Roger Ackroyd. The question “why” gave rise to what some call the literary mystery, which has tended to divide mystery writers into groups and create controversy about the difference between a genre mystery and a novel in which the plot happens to do with crime and punishment.  Much ink has been spilled over whether or not Dostoevsky’s famous novel of that name is a mystery.  The Scottish crime writer, Ian Rankin, cites Dickens’ Bleak House as one of his five favorite mysteries.
     The Flinch Factor can be described as a howdunit.   The “how” has to do with Rachel’s need to prove to others that her two clients, the group threatened with losing their homes, and the sister of a dead man, were involved in related crimes. How Rachel does this keeps up the action in The Flinch Factor. Rachel acts in many ways the role of a prosecutor trying to build a case that will stand up in court. How she builds this case and whether or not she can is what sustains the suspense in this mystery. When she admits to her friend Benny, a law professor at Washington University (more about him later) that her case concerning the evictions has flaws, he responds, “Some flaws? That’s like calling the bubonic plague a mild infection.”  He claims the case is hopeless but Rachel perseveres.  It is interesting that as Rachel tries to fit together the pieces of a puzzle, a completed crossword puzzle not only serves as a clue to the mystery but also as a piece of evidence. Again, there is little surprise about who the criminals are in The Flinch Factor, although which one of them actually dunit is not revealed until the end. How the mystery is solved supplies another surprise.
     Another feature of Kahn’s plot differentiates it from a myriad of other mysteries. Avid readers of mysteries familiar with female investigators,  professional or amateur, will anticipate that where they are digging up the murky truths about criminals, who are not only powerful but capable of hiring hit men, they will become the target of violence, their lives in jeopardy.  Linda Fairstein’s Alex Cooper and Sarah Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski (whose names are gender neutral) face death so often, until their own ingenuity or the arrival of the cavalry rescues them, that readers of these series might wonder when they would get more cautious.  When these crime fiction fans turn to The Flinch Factor, they may almost to the end  expect Rachel Gold to be in danger of being physically hurt. It would not be a spoiler here to say that this does not happen, and that Michael Kahn has avoided what has come to be such a commonplace in a mystery that, unless the book has other strengths, it might descend into cliché. Instead Rachel faces what in most circumstances might prove to be another kind of danger, temptations that threaten her integrity both as a lawyer and as an ethical human being. But the criminals who try to tempt her are so clueless about the kind of person she is, perhaps because they cannot imagine anyone with that much integrity, they prove to be inept.  At one point Rachel says about the serpent in Genesis that had if it had been as ineffectual as the ones who offer her their particular apples to bite, Adam and Eve would still be sitting in the Garden of Eden.
     Rachel’s being impervious to such ploys does not, however, preclude the raising of significant moral questions in The Flinch Factor. When people who are ordinarily reasonably ethical are offered a chance to benefit themselves, usually financially, by doing something immoral or even illegal, why do some take this opportunity  and others refuse it. That the answer is greed is too simplistic, for it just pushes back the question. Why are some people but not others in the same situation greedy.  Some of the most avaricious have so much money that they could indefinitely live the lives of the rich and famous. This is true of the land developer who ludicrously tells Rachel that she is threatening his livelihood with her investigations. Ethics supply themes in The Flinch Factor, but they do not demand responses. Those who want to take the subject further than the book does have, nevertheless, ample opportunity to read between—or perhaps beyond—the lines.  Perhaps many or most good mysteries address such difficult to answer questions, but in The Flinch Factor they are intrinsic to the plot. Rachel tries to identify and question witnesses to the crimes she is investigating. Why some are open in their responses and some are not will impact on her ability to proceed with her investigations.  .
     To return to readers who have read Michael Kahn’s blogs, they will know even before they pick up The Flinch Factor that he is steeped in literature—from Raymond Chandler to Miguel de Cervantes.  Shakespeare clearly occupies a place near the top, or perhaps at the top, of a list of authors he reveres. Literary allusions abound in The Flinch Factor, perhaps neither  consciously nor unconsciously inserted by Kahn into his book. Authors who have read widely will inevitably trace plots, characters, themes, techniques of writing from one literary work to another.  This will become a habit of mind, not necessarily a method of remembering and analyzing. In addition, literature seems to supply Kahn with images that almost create another language.  As Rachel at one point jokingly asks a homicide detective who is her friend whether he isn’t hiding “a Ph.D. in literature,” so this question might be seriously addressed to Kahn. He uses literary allusions to different ends in his narrative.   One instance is particularly telling. At one very low point in her life, Rachel, in search of consolation or hope, wonders if her roots in Judaism and adhering to its traditions make any sense.  In effect, she is addressing the problem of evil--why it exists.  Rather cynically, she decides, at least for the moment, that the only religion that made any sense was that of the ancient Greeks: “In a world ruled by a mob of unruly, hot-tempered, meddlesome deities, it isn’t surprising that good things happened to bad people and bad things happened to good people.  Up on Mount Olympus, shit happens because the gods say so.” Did Kahn expect or even hope that some of his readers would recall the famous lines in King  Lear  in which Gloucester cries out, “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, / They kill us for their sport”?  Or perhaps the ending of Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, in which the hapless and helpless Tess, whose unfortunate life ends with her being hanged for murder, draws this narrative commentary, “’Justice’ was done, and the President of the Immortals (in Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess”? Despite Hardy’s attempt to shift responsibility for Tess’s fate from the Judeo-Christian God to the pagan gods, his readers thought he was being blasphemous.  Was Kahn suggesting  that Rachel, secure Jonathan’s love even when she visits his grave, has allowed herself an opportunity to be blasphemous as well. For her visit allows her the freedom of venting her despair about an unjust world, and as “always after visiting his grave, [she] felt a little better—and almost serene.”
     To reverse directions about the relationship of Michael Kahn’s blogs to his fiction, readers of his blogs might not expect (from at least those written in the last year or so) is that Kahn is very funny. Aside from the fact that his humor ratchets up the entertainment factor in The Flinch Factor, appealing  to more readers than if he were more straight-faced, Kahn’s ability to entertain raises real questions about, again, crime fiction and its popularity.  At about the middle of the decade following World War II, the prevalence of  mysteries by readers of fiction began to draw serious attention.  Even psychiatrists took up the subject, publishing their theories in psychoanalytic journals. The suggested answers followed a recognizable progression. People enjoyed puzzles and mysteries supplied them in the form of stories. These afforded them temporary distraction from what troubled them in life. Mysteries, that is,  produced escapist literature.
     Readers could identify with the detective: they were Clark Kents who could fantasize for as long as the mystery lasted about being Superman—or Superwoman as the case might be, although it would be difficult to imagine Miss Marple as Superwoman.  A more startling suggestion arose when it was hypothesized that it was not Sherlock Holmes but Moriarty or other criminals in the Conan Doyle stories that readers allowed themselves to relate to. And their guilt at putting aside their consciences, permitting their unsocialized instincts full reign for at least the time in which a book lasted, would be assuaged when, at the end of the mystery, the criminal is caught and punished.  A more frequent explanation would have it that mysteries supplied what life itself could not, the assurance that murder would out, criminals be caught, and society returned to order and peace. Julian Symons, in his wonderful study of how the detective story evolved into the crime novel, Bloody Murder, argues that after World War II, it was difficult to sustain even the illusion that the world could be pictured as one that close to the earthly paradise.
     What, however, would happen when writers of crime fiction took Symons and/or such arguments at their word and instead focused on the dark sides of life, when in the wake of 9/11 many mysteries have been about terrorists or secret agents far more alarming than the ones portrayed by Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad; when in light of revelations about corrupt government, the justice system in mysteries a turned out to be at best ineffective and at worst rotten, so that vigilantism took on new justification.  When many mysteries arose from stories emerging from reports of widespread human trafficking, in which, for example, young boys were captured and sold to pedophiles, or young women kidnapped and sold as sex slaves, disappearing into a void from which they never emerged. These mysteries could elicit the terror of any reader/parents who worried, now more than ever, when their children were late from school or were out too late at night. Such parents, avid mystery readers, could learn from one of Michael’s Harry Bosch series, that some young people were kidnapped and murdered for their bodily organs, which commanded large sums as transplants for the wealthy ill. A new field had grown up around advances in medicine, bio-ethics, and crime fiction writers began to integrate these moral concerns into their plots. Aristotle claimed that tragedies were cathartic, and many of these darker or more terrifying mysteries that become best-sellers suggest that he had something there. But not for everyone.  There are readers who want intelligent mysteries that deal with serious political, social, and psychological issues, without being unnerved or depressed by them. It is not that these readers think that too many mysteries falsify reality but that they think they are too realistic. 
     The Flinch Factor will appeal to this group of readers.  It deals with important subjects, such as how land is developed and impacts on people and on the environment.  It has psychological dimensions.  Again, why are the greedy as greedy as they are when some have already more money than they could ever spend.  What does the lust for money, power, and status do to some people, perhaps especially those of ethnic minorities, many of whom have confused the American Dream with something far more superficial and more dangerous? Or those whose families have always been privileged and want to retain the power and status they once took for granted. But these subjects need not be dwelt upon and are only likely to be paused over in reading The Flinch Factor by those who are inclined to contemplate such issues anyway. Kahn’s mystery is not rhetorical; it is not his self-chosen soapbox. His ending will also satisfy those who expect mysteries to assure them that with the capture and punishment of criminals, the world is not always as bad as it seems.  But Kahn is too good a reader and writer to guarantee such assurance.
     At the conclusion of The Flinch Factor, Rachel once again goes to Jonathan’s grave to contemplate what she has achieved in her investigations and to wonder whether punishing the criminal or showing that the justice system works, despite the vagaries of a Judge Flinch, is enough. She thinks about the victims of crime, of innocent lives cut short, and about Jonathan, whose death was fortuitous, a matter of chance, and in that sense had no higher meaning unless one believes that every event is a piece of God’s design, even if not recognized or understood.  Which Rachel does not believe; she is not a female Job.
    What makes The Flinch Factor especially appealing and entertaining, despite the absence of a pie-in-the-sky hope by some readers can be attributed to two things.  One is the humor in the book, some of which can make readers laugh out loud.  The other is the character of Benny, who is Kahn’s obvious Falstaff: Kahn actually says so in one of his blogs. But Falstaff was and remains a controversial figure in Shakespeare studies. And so is Benny’s wonderful presence in The Flinch Factor, and he adds another layer of meaning to The Flinch Factor.  
     Much of the humor in The Flinch Factor  comes from Benny and from his being a Jewish knock-off of Shakespeare’s Falstaff. A once widely seen  advertisement proclaimed that you didn’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s rye bread. And you don’t have to be Jewish or part Jewish to appreciate the funniest parts of The Flinch Factor.  But if you are not familiar with Jewish stereotypes or close enough to a Jewish family or friend to recognize such words as tush, fakakta, meshuggah,you may miss a lot of what is funny in the  book.  Indeed, even a modern Jewish reader may miss the jokes and not recognize those words, except perhaps schlemiel, which has worked its way into a more universal vocabulary.  It is Benny who frequently uses Yiddish when with Rachel and her family, uttering words unlikely to be used by him  in his law classes. He is, however, not the only source of Jewish humor in The Flinch Factor. At one point in the book, Rachel meets another lawyer, an adversary, for lunch.  Years ago the two had had one date and Benny insists that it is what happened—or rather didn’t happen—on that occasion that makes him Rachel’s enemy.  The lawyer had assimilated so completely to a non-Jewish world that Rachel thinks “when he opted for the corned beef sandwich special, in defiance—or perhaps ignorance—of one of the fundamental teachings of our Talmud [rabbinic commentary on the Old Testament], which is never order a corned beef sandwich at a goyische club.” Rachel, herself, had ordered a Greek salad, but the sandwich was “served on white bread with two small condiment dishes, one with yellow mustard and the other with mayonnaise.”  Again, a perhaps esoteric feature of their meeting to anyone not acquainted with how such a sandwich should be served—as it is clear this lawyer isn’t. Earlier in the book, Benny orders a kosher salami from New Jersey to give Rachel and her family in St. Louis, where presumably it is not easily found, if at all.  It is also funny when Rachel accuses Benny of being a pig and he replies, yes, but your pig. Without familiarity with Jewish dietary laws, these episodes lose much of their capacity to amuse.  
     One of the funniest lines in The Flinch Factor has to do with Rachel’s mother, also a good-looking widow courted by a line of Jewish suitors anxious to take her out.  It is reported that she once said that the makers of Viagra should rot in hell; Rachel chooses not to contemplate the meaning of that curse. But it is the stereotype of the overbearing and possessive Jewish mother that Benny harps on, probably with tongue in cheek.  When Rachel’s mother, Sarah, asks him what his mother thinks of his appearances on TV, always wearing the same suit, he responds that she is a Jewish mother, and thinks that because he had already “refused to be a doctor for her like her sister’s son Maury” he could at least refrain from tearing out her “kishkes” a second time by always wearing the same suit.  Her friends, who equate a college professor with a “teacher”—for what difference does it make since Benny’s education at such places as Harvard had not led to his being a doctor--will think he is not successful enough to have money for more than one outfit of clothing. Actually, Sarah is not nearly as much a stereotypical Jewish mother as Benny pretends, and Rachel is even less so. Despite respecting her late husband’s wish that his children be raised according to Jewish tradition,  Rachel fudges a bit by belonging to a Reform rather than Orthodox synagogue (again, a distinction that only one knowledgeable about Jewish culture will get).  Perhaps the stereotype itself is losing its punch as it extends to other ethnic groups. That Sarah made Jonathan’s daughters, who consider her their grandmother, rewrite several times their college admission applications may pale today in light of Tiger Mom’s disclosure of how she manages her children’s academic life and the excellence she not only expects but demands from them. Then again, some thinkers and writers distinguish between guilt and shame societies, and perhaps Jews are characterized as the former, while Tiger Mom uses shame to keep her children on track.
     Stereotype or not, ethnically restrictive or not, the protective mother can bring us back to Michael Kahn’s literary allusions.  At one point, when Rachel is in court, Judge Flinch is described as emerging from his chambers like “Grendel from his den.”   Many of Kahn’s readers may not get the allusion, although the word “den” will indicate that what emerges is not good. But those who know Beowulf can take the allusion a step further than Kahn requires, recognizing certain thematic patterns in The Flinch Factor.   Beowulf’s first fight in Part One of this fragmented, Old-English  epic is with the monster who nightly invades King Hrothgar’s castle and kills his warriors.  His second fight is with “Grendel’s dame,” the creature’s mother who has come to destroy the person who—to be somewhat facetious here--has attacked and killed her little boy.  Perhaps the stereotype of the protective mother goes back centuries and the allusion is a reminder that Jewish mothers have no monopoly where it comes to fiercely protecting their children.  Whether Kahn intends his reader to proceed from Grendel to Grendel’s dame, or from Grendel’s mother to the stereotypical Jewish mother, it would be difficult to say.  But this literary chain is nonetheless intriguing.
     Benny’s presence in the Rachel Gold mysteries supplies a genuine delight. And one of Michael Kahn’s blog is about his own pleasure in creating Benny.  The blog is about the motif of love in literature, but it is about a “wild and crazy love between an author and a fictional character.”  Usually this passion “does not involve the main character, for whom the author tends to nurture a calm and mature relationship.” Benny was first created by Kahn when he needed a bridge in his plot that linked Rachel Gold to the law firm that she had left but where Benny for the time remained. Benny, that is, was never to be the focus of interest in Kahn’s series, but as Kahn says, “Benny had more ambitious plans for himself than his author did.”
    And so Michael Kahn indulged himself by drawing on characters in literature that had always delighted him, the main character’s sidekick, who “in his most archetypal version” is “fat and vulgar and funny and gluttonous and fond of alcohol.”  The archetype is obviously found in Shakespeare’s Falstaff, who, though dead at the end of Part 2 of Henry IV, was brought back to life for The Merry Wives of Windsor—that’s how popular a character he was for Elizabethan audiences.  Kahn also finds the archetype in contemporary crime fiction in James Lee Burke’s Clete Purcell, the sidekick in Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series, thinking that Burke must have fallen in love with Purcell from the time he created him.  Almost certainly Burke had, but the matter is not that straightforward and the ambiguity surrounding Purcell and other characters like him is highlighted when, after the crimes in The Flinch Factor have been solved, Benny seeks out Rachel and finds her as he expected at Jonathan’s grave.  The exchanges between them, which draw on a long-standing literary tradition, make clear why characters like Falstaff and Benny were loved by their creators.  Kahn never explicitly explains their appeal, but it is likely that he doesn’t have to, that their popularity speaks to something in people that they may not always admit to.
    When Benny finds Rachel at Jo0nathan’s grave, she is, he recognizes, “bummed out” despite the successful conclusions to her two, related cases.  But he has at least a temporary respite planned for her.  Together they will party that night at a nearby restaurant and club.  She is to put away the doom and gloom of Ecclesiastes and rely instead on Omar Khayam, the eleventh-century philosopher and poet whom Benny paraphrases: “Dude had the right motto: shit happens, so lighten up and crack open another cold one.”  Benny had actually taken a course on Omar Khayam in college and he goes on to quote him: “Drink! for you know not whence you come, nor why; Drink! For you know not why you go, nor where.”  Many people incorrectly attribute to the Rubiyat the popular saying, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die.”  Ironically, the well-known advice consists of the conjunction of two sayings in Ecclesiastes.
     The theme of these sayings is known as the carpe diem (seize the day) motif. It was common in Shakespeare’s age and has remained so (see, for example, Robert Frost’s Carpe Diem). Robert Herrick advised young people to gather rosebuds while they were young. Christopher Marlowe’s passionate shepherd offered a nymph all sorts of sensuous and sensual delights if she would come live with him and be his love.   The nymph in Sir Walter Raleigh’s response to Marlowe is far more sensible than the shepherd, and she reminds him that all material things as well as their very selves, at least their bodies, were mutable, and so unless he could promise something that would last, she would decline his proposition (that it was a proposition, not a proposal would be well-understood by Marlowe’s and Raleigh’s readers, and would enhance the irony of the poems).
     The counterpart to the carpe diem argument is in an ironic way attached to it in an inextricable circle.  It is known as the memento mori (remember, you must die), reminder that this life on earth is but fleeting and one should focus on other than the pleasures of the flesh.  Shakespeare’s sonnet #146 epitomizes this argument.  The body is portrayed as a mansion on which one has but a short lease, and on which it would be sheer foolishness to expend much money on furnishings and decorations.  Instead, the poem urges, “buy terms divine,” lay up treasures in heaven not earth, “within be fed, without be rich no more.” But one who ignores what Shakespeare contends is reality may in fact be driven to the carpe diem philosophy by being reminded that the grim reaper is just biding his time. But the carpe diem poem that seems most implicated in Benny’s invitation to Rachel to eat, drink, and be merry at least for that night, is Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistres. Part of the poem’s brilliance is that Marvell intersperses the memento mori theme with the lover’s urging that his coy lady to adopt his carpe diem philosophy of life. He reminds her that “time’s winged chariot” is hurrying near.  And that all life’s pleasures will turn to dust, including her “quaint [which is the Renaissance slang for cunt] honor.” In this sense, he is mocking as well as beseeching her, just as life eventually mocks those who cannot think beyond hedonistic pleasures. Such people, as the Victorian writer Matthew Arnold would later write, can enjoy the very appealing pursuit of pleasure so long as they never get sick or sorry. The near climax of Kahn’s mystery rests on the fact that one of its arch-criminals becomes sorry.
     There are some lines in Marvell’s poem that are echoed in The Flinch Factor. First is the opening line, “Had we but world enough and time. . . .”  Rachel and Jonathan did not have time and the age of their young son is testimony to the brevity of their life together.  The second is a couplet: “The graves a fine and private place / But none, I think, do there embrace.”  In one of the scenes in which Rachel actively misses Jonathan, Rachel is in bed.  But her visits to his grave are spiritual, and although he cannot offer her practical advice, she does hear his voice from beyond.
     Yet, The Flinch Factor is hardly an attack on the carpe diem philosophy. To recognize this is to return to Benny and his prototype, Falstaff.  For many readers and theater goers Falstaff is the fun in the Henry IV plays, beside whom Prince Hal, the future Henry V, pales.  But as Kahn suggests in his blog, as he contrasts wild passion with a calm and mature relationship, there is always the danger that the sidekick will upstage the main character.  Falstaff easily takes the readers’ attention away from Prince Hal. In Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, this creates a problem in interpretation that was also the case with Milton when romantic writers, for example Shelley and Blake (neither of whom conformed to his society), argued that Milton was in the devil’s camp in Paradise Lost, because Satan is so much more vibrant a character than Jesus. The defenders of Milton—and yes there are those who take up the romantic challenge--argue that all Milton had to do in creating Satan was to release parts of his own personality usually held in check.  This may also be true of Kahn’s special love for Benny and for the response of readers who get a real kick out of Rachel’s mentor. Benny, for example, is a glutton, and any reader who ordinarily watches calories will both recoil from but relish Kahn’s description in The Flinch Factor of a Cuban dinner that challenges anyone’s capacity to ingest so much food. Gluttony, in Shakespeare’s time, was one of the seven—if perhaps not the most heinous—deadly sins. Readers may worry about Benny’s health as they might about Clete Purcell’s, and as they might worry about Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, who eventually does himself in with his indulgences, allowing Dexter to write an end to his series. But there is no sense that these characters are sinning, even if readers might want to step inside the books and shake some sense into them.
     Clearly, Benny is not sinning when he indulges probably dangerous appetites.  Nor is he sinning when he urges Rachel to allow herself an evening of fun, respite from her work, her parenting, and her emotional stress. Benny might be endangering himself by giving in to his gluttony, for example, but he would never sacrifice ethical concerns to avaricious desires for wealth, power, and influence, as do other characters in The Flinch Factor.  Assuming for a moment that Shakespeare has created for Prince Hal a “false staff,” Benny, who is Rachel’s mentor and best friend, would never urge her to compromise her moral sense by her actions. Benny is a professor of law and could never ignore a vision of a world always on the edge of chaos, a world that too often goes over the edge, a world that therefore needs at least some underlying principles of order. And Rachel knows, as she agrees to go out with Benny and party, that while her evening offers her potential fun and a momentary respite from care, she could not live her life pursuing never-ending pleasure.
For what she would need is more, and more, and more, such as the land developer in The Flinch Factor  thinks he requires in the way of money.  Benny’s gluttony periodically—perhaps too often--fills him up, but the land developer can never have enough, sinking into a bottomless pit that gets deeper and deeper, his crimes  increasingly serious and deadly.
     And so, when Michael Kahn’s readers turn the last page of The Flinch Factor, they can without reserve wish Benny and Rachel a wonderful night out!
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