Sunday, June 1, 2008
Little Known Greats in Contemporary Detective Fiction
Actually there aren’t many, at least that I know of. I’m hoping that maybe you have some suggestions.
I’m teaching a course on Detectives in Fiction and Film again this summer. It’s more or less a survey: I start with Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle and their concept of the great detective, cover the feminine British rural murder mystery and the American masculinist hard-boiled response. Then we look at the way postmodernism exposes the philosophical and representational shortcomings of the genre, shortcomings that were apparent right from the first, when Poe’s “Mystery of Marie Roget” showed, despite his intentions, exactly how disconnected his notion of the great detective was from any actual crime. After that I like to close with one more contemporary work, and this is where the problem comes in: finding a contemporary book of detective fiction that has enough qualities of serious literature to be worth teaching, at least for me.
Some explanations. After postmodernism, detective literature and film/TV went in several key directions. One was simply to keep doing the genre as if the critique never happened; there’s still money in it, after all. Another was simply to accept or even heighten the artificiality of the genre, indulging in overt period piece nostalgia or other “look it’s fake but it’s fun anyway’ shenanigans, a fascinating example of which is the recent Jericho series on PBS. More fruitful though, to my mind, is what I think of as works that participate in “The Era of the Non-Traditional Detective and the Problem of Culture.” In works of this kind, a new attempt to ground the genre in the realities of the world is made by some combination of having a non-traditional detective (differences in race, class, gender, sexual orientation and cultural or national context abound) explore a contemporary social problem (often also race, class, etc, but also money, politics, power and so on). If the plots remain trapped by the disconnect between the necessity of a puzzle and the real world dynamics of crime, in taking on significant cultural problems these books can at their best offer effective social criticism. Perhaps the essential paradigm for these works are the great Harlem crime novels of Chester Himes. The best of these novels, Cotton Comes to Harlem, has frequently been the book that I use to end the course. Its over-the-top campy plot nonetheless manages not only to provide a panoramic picture of social conditions and political power in Harlem but also defines a new notion of how detectives succeed: British genius and sidekick and American last even partly honest man on earth toughs it out are replaced by equal and flawed partners, while a mind devoted to the logic of the puzzle is replaced by the importance of knowing the neighborhood and the players. But lately I’ve been teaching work other than Himes, not only to keep things interesting for me but also to move more definitively to the present, since the Himes novels are now more than forty years old.
This session I’m going to close with Dog Day by Alicia Gimnez-Bartlett, a well known mystery writer in Spain. I like it well enough but it’s not completely satisfactory. Barcelona police detective Pietra Delicado is a lustful, independent feminist detective with concern for social outsiders and who abhors all violence, especially police brutality. The book explores the connection between greed, human poverty and animal abuse. It’s also very amiably and comically Spanish: even the police don’t work all that hard and there are long digressions for meals, socializing, and love affairs often only tangentially related to the plot. There’s none of the absolute and constant devotion to the job that marks American detective fiction. So it’s an enjoyable and insightful book, if ambling rather than gripping and with a style in translation that’s very clunky.
I also really like Henning Mankell, a Swedish author whom Michael Davidson suggested to me. Mankell’s Kurt Wallender novels always explore globalist economic and cultural problems, but the books are too long to be read in a few days of a summer school class. After that I’m stumped: the PD James Cordelia Gray mysteries are out of print, for instance, and some other books I’ve read have their interest but are sorely lacking in style, character, and/or story. The Sue Grafton Kinsey Millhone novels come close to being good enough in some cases. Maybe a Walter Mosley book would do, but I’m still figuring that out. And of course the Prime Suspect TV series starring Helen Mirren (pictured above) is great, but it’s not a book.
What do I mean by “serious literature” when talking about detective genre fiction? A couple things. I’d like a book to have all of them but even one or two is enough. Some quality of style would be great, although frankly in the whole history of detective fiction it might be said that only Poe, Chandler, Dorothy Sayers, PD James and Himes have more than a throwaway style (Doyle and Hammett to a lesser, occasional extent; Christie is functional but no more). Even more essential than quality of style, significant insight into human character or social realities can help raise a book to a standard that I might call worthwhile literature. And story counts too: it can’t be too utterly and unselfconsciously ludicrous.
It’s remarkable to me that despite its tremendous popularity, or of course perhaps because of it, detective fiction has produced many less excellent works of literature than science fiction or even horror fiction. I’m not sure what to make of that, except perhaps that science fiction and horror allow more range for a speculative intelligence and so are more likely to encourage genuine originality. But right now I wold make that point only tentatively. I’m still looking for some great works of recent detective fiction to prove that the genre is alive and well and not just riding its commercial success into literary oblivion.