Sunday, June 8, 2008

Greats in Contemporary Detective Fiction Part Two

Thanks to everybody who wrote in. There were so many interesting suggestions that I felt it would be better to respond in a new blog post rather than in the comment box.

I appreciated all of you who spoke up for Hammett, and thanks for suggestions about his work and Chandler’s. I don’t know the Chandler short stories and I need to follow through on that. Just to develop my thoughts on the Hammett-Chandler connection, while I still think that Chandler is the better stylist, capable of more memorable sentences and paragraphs, I think the social dynamics in Hammett’s work are more insightful and even at times genuinely subversive. Although in Chandler’s work American culture is too corrupt for detective Phillip Marlowe to be in any sense purely innocent, nonetheless his devotion to the job and the client make him a symbol of the right values in a world gone wrong, the last even partly honest man toughing it out alone, attempting to maintain his principles when people around him have none. A fascinating cultural script that remains the standard for the following seventy years of American tough guys, even as those tough guys become less observers of the dark side of human nature and more often just murderous jingoistic thugs. Hammett’s work unsettles the notion of the tough guy detective’s goodness more thoroughly. Sam Spade for instance is much closer to an existentalist hero in a world where all values, even and especially the notions of good and evil, are socially constructed functions based on a will to power and a desire to create images of ourselves that please us. Hammett can thus critique the commodity, American politics and crime not from the perspective of the last man trying to stand outside and above the corruption, but as someone who understands that these kinds of social conditions shape everyone’s character. In Hammett’s work, character and experience are a kind of accident that people are constantly re-shaping, but the accident is one that has resulted from social ideologies.

Mickey, thanks for writing. I had a great time in Seattle, at the reading and otherwise, and it was great to meet some of the people there interested in contemporary literature who I had never met before. I already do teach Auster’s City of Glass in the detectives class, actually, although I didn’t mention it before. It’s the book I use in the postmodern section as an example of a social analysis of the detective fantasy. I use the comic book (or if you must, “graphic novel”) version put together in tandem with Paul Karasik and D. Mazzucchellil. It’s an amazing book. I have to admit that for my students, the power of the drawings really helps ground what I think of as the novel’s ethereality and makes the sense of disorientation more concrete. Also, I’ve enjoyed the Simenon novels that I’ve read and I like their crisp functionality, but I’m not sure they add enough different to the genre to make them worth teaching in a class that’s introducing readers to a genre that most of them don’t know. Is there a best Maigret book that’s a must read?

Peter, it’s great to hear from someone who’s an insider/promoter in the detective and noir novel industry. I like your blog a lot and I’ve now linked to it here at mine. Writers in my social context rarely interact with genre writers or their informed supporters, and I appreciate the chance to think about what that lack of contact does to the way all of us see the world of writing. I’ve read one Ken Bruen novel, actually, though not Priest. I think Bruen does have something of a furiously poetic darker-even-than-noir literary style, and I do like some of the social frameworks and issues he takes up. In the book I read (can’t remember the title now) I found the characters a little too one-dimensional noir for my classroom purposes at least. Maybe the most basic thing I can do in a class of this kind is help people think beyond the desire to stereotype. But I’ll try Priest. And of course I have to admit that unlike you I’m not an enthusiastic and thorough supporter of the genre necessarily. Often I’ll read one book by somebody and if it doesn’t really stand out to me I’ll go on to something else.

Both of you recommend the Deluca series, which I don’t know, so I’ll check that out. Is there a best place to begin?

Chris, I think the PD James Dalgleish novels are good too. Obviously he’s her most popular detective, given that the several Cordelia Gray’s are out of print. James writes well, and the Dalgleish books really have powerful narrative drive. They can be intense. James is something of a political conservative and that comes across in fascinating ways, and even the thought of the poetry Dalgleish must be writing makes me cringe. What I find worthwhile about the Cordelia Gray books is their insight into what it would really be like to be a woman trying to be a private detective. Although conclusions of James’ novels are often convoluted to the point of total unbelievability (PD James and The Curse of the Puzzle!) , her books still do seem grounded in an understanding of social conditions and actual human emotion. She’s far better than many detective writers of her generation.

Clint, thanks for the pointer to the Chandler stories. I definitely need to check those out. Thanks for the Andrea Camilleri and Laurie R King suggestions too. I remain surprised that in a genre which has so many women readers, there are still only a few women detectives. In fact one of the things I’ve noticed is how many women (not all by any means) who write detective novels still focus on a main male detective. I wonder whether that speaks to the conservatism of the genre or is maybe just a follow-the-money thing (and the two obviously would be connected). I’ve read some of the exceptions (Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton and others) but haven’t yet found much that’s really hugely insightful, although the Grafton books are quite entertaining. And thanks also for suggesting Resisting Arrest. I don’t want to spend too much time reading criticism of detective fiction but that sounds worthwhile. Do you know the book Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style? It has an excellent overview of film noir, but the psychoanalytic tinge to many of its brief readings of specific films can be really ridiculous. Sometimes after watching a film I go to that book to see just how hilariously off base the reading turns out to be. A few of them are pretty good, but a lot of them really make me laugh.

Anybody have further follow-up thoughts or suggestions? I’ve put together a new list of books I should read based on these comments, and I really appreciate it.


Louis said...

I note in your last piece you mentioned only one African American writer—Chester Himes. One writer critics rarely mention is Rudolph Fisher who write only one mystery novel, THE CONJURE-MAN DIES: A MYSTERY TALE OF DARK HARLEM. I don’t know if the novel fits your criteria of literature but I think it is an important as one of the few crime fiction novels written in the 1930s by an African American.

Anonymous said...


mark wallace said...

I don't know who you are, Anonymous, but I appreciate that you've been reading my book.

Reen said...

Not exactly on point, except as a postmodern riff on detective fiction, but I'm going to proselytize for a very strange and funny book: Osvaldo Soriano's "Triste, Solitario, y Final." In the book, Soriano, an Argentine journalist, goes on a pilgrimage to LA to visit the grave of Stan Laurel, where he finds a brooding Philip Marlowe musing over what went wrong twenty years ago when Laurel hired him to figure out what had gone wrong with his career, and all Marlowe ended up with was a good beating from none other than John Wayne. Marlowe and Soriano team up to reopen the case, and along the way, they mug Dick van Dyke, are subjected to attempted murder by mobsters and the LAPD, crash the Oscars, and kidnap a doddering Charlie Chaplin. There's also a blind cabbie, a "North by Northwest" game of cat and mouse aboard a moving train, and a rematch between Marlowe and Wayne that is caught on national tv.

Alas, it is kind of hard to find (my sister had to order it for me from Argentina) and available only in Spanish. I'm keeping it in my back pocket in case I ever get in an accident and feel the need to pull myself through the long and lonely months of traction by translating a sadly neglected novel.

mark wallace said...

Thanks for the suggestion of the Rudolph Fisher book, Louis. It certainly does sound like an important book in the field. Also, my apologies that your comment is appearing three days after you sent it. It only showed up on my blogger system on Thursday afternoon, which happens sometimes.

Reen, I hope you do translate that book. And when you do, I hope you'll let me know about it.

Joe Safdie said...

You probably don't go back to previous posts, but I wanted to put in a plug for a "local" writer I've mentioned to you before -- Kem Nunn. Tijuana Straits is probably his best, with a drug-addled old surfer detective and a pretty relentless exploration of the maquiladores factories on the border.

mark wallace said...

Thanks, Joe. I remember you talking about that book before and I've added it to my Detective Fiction To Read list.

dbuuck said...

Paco Ignacio Taibo II. Lefty journalist & detective fiction writer, biographer of Che, etc. US publishers often blurb him as Chandler-meets-Marquez... wonderful stuff.

some other non-Americans:

Rubem Fonseca.
Luis Alfredo Garcia-Roza.
Patricia Melo.
(lots of interesting work coming out of Brazil)

Josef Skvorecky.
Jean Echenoz.

-David Buuck