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.


K. Silem Mohammad said...

I would add Ross Macdonald to that list of classic detective fiction writers who display considerable style. Macdonald is basically modifying Chandlerism, but he takes it to even more elegant and culturally shrewd levels.

And I would disagree about Hammett's stylistic prowess being "lesser": he's rough-hewn and paratactically minimalistic in ways that could be easily mistaken for pulp hackwork at times, but it makes a lot of sense when you look at it next to Stein, Hemingway, etc.

A more recent detective series I like a lot is Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder novels, which he's been doing since the seventies. Stylistically they're firmly in the realm of standard genre fiction, but they're very smart at the level of character and in their ongoing biopsy of New York City. Scudder is a recovering alcoholic who tries never to miss an AA meeting (he goes to two or three a week), and even though he's been dry for the past couple of decades, this recurring subplot really makes you feel the exposed-nerve fragility he always conceals under his hard-boiled surface.

What about James Ellroy? Have you read his weird, weird early stuff like Brown's Requiem and Clandestine?

mark wallace said...

I think that's right to add MacDonald as a writer with a literary style, Kasey. As you say, he's derivative in many ways but definitely adds some nuances. You've read more of him than I have, I'm pretty sure.

The Hemingway influence on Hammett is important, but I've always felt Hammett to be inconsistent in style. Red Harvest seems badly written to me but I'd be willing to hear otherwise, and sometimes his minimalism just feels clunky and underwritten. But maybe I'm missing something. And I'd love to hear more about why you mention Stein here.

I don't know the Lawrence Block books, so thanks for the suggestion. I haven't read those early Ellroy books either and maybe I should. I have to admit that the Ellroy books I have read turned me off because they struck me as gross and exploitative, and not in the positive way I can sometimes feel about gross and exploitative work. I guess that the issue with his work for me is that he acts like he's doing a political expose of brutality and grossness when in fact he's reveling in it. If you're going to revel in grossness, just revel, and don't pretend to be moralizing at the same time. The psudo-morality in his work really hits me like shower-worthy sleaze.

J.B. Kohl said...

I'm a writer of noir mysteries... along the hammett/chandler vein. Would be glad to send you a pdf.
J.B. Kohl

Anonymous said...

Hi Mark-

I met you last week in Seattle. I like the idea of your class. I disagree about Hammett , though. I read The Thin Man a couple years ago and thought it was almost perfect. Red Harvest is the one Hammett I haven't read. The French writer Jean-Claude Izzo wrote a terrific trilogy of detective novels recently called The Marseilles Trilogy. I loved all three of them. Plus there's always Paul Auster's New York Trilogy and there's George Simonon's Detective Maigret novels set in Paris. Carlo Lucarelli's De Luca trilogy is set in Italy at the end of W.W. II and is recomended. I agree that Henning Mankell is a remarkable writer . I have read all his books and wish there were more !

O.K. good luck with the class

Mickey O'Connor

Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll respond to this post at greater length later, but for now, a quick comment and some suggestions.

I suspect that there may be proportionately as many great fictional detectives now as there were in the past. Perhaps we only think that there were more greats backs then because we have forgotten the mediocre detectives of days gone by.

For present-day fictional detectives of note, I might suggest Priest by Ken Bruen, which to my mind brings together everything he was trying for in the other books in his Jack Taylor series. I second the recommedation of Carlo Lucarelli's De Luca series, which makes brilliant use of the time in which it is set, and how about Fred Vargas' books? Among other things, their pacing is highly unusual for detective stories, and they partake of other kinds of literature and knowledge in interesting ways.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

clintonista said...

Hi Mark. Damn, I shifted screens or something & lost what I'd written. Anyway: re. Hammett, as with Chandler, I think his best style is in his short stories (Chandler's early ones from the 30s are almost opaque in their indulgences in the vernacular) - Hammett in the Continental Op & other collections is great. I even do like The Maltese Falcon, & teaching it, b/c of the falcon itself as a void or lack, also as a commodity (see Steve Marcus' intro to The Continental Op, where he also is eloquent on the Flitcraft narrative) and Spade's great final "I won't play the sap" speech as fetishistic disavowal. But in terms of contemporary fictions, Andrea Camilleri's The Shape of Water (first in a series - I haven't read others) is a great Italian (Sicilian) mystery, like the Spanish one you mention in terms of being anti work ethic w/ importance given to food (& discussions on corruption); also, Ian Rankin's Rebus series, although a bit clunky in terms of its jokes & over-use of the ellipsis; & also Laurie R King's The Art of Detection, a meta-mystery that combines 2 of King's series, a contemporary one w/ a lesbian cop in SF, and a historical one set in Holmes-land. & check out, if you can, Robert Rushton's Resisting Arrest, to my mind the best recent study of detective fiction, esp from a psychoanalytic perspective.

Anonymous said...

You might try J. Robert Janes who writes a series set in occupied France during WWII-- a French detective paired with a German policeman/handler...

Also, the Arnaldur Indridason mysteries set in Reykjavik.

I make no claims on greatness, just noting that they stand out in my memory. And what do I know-- I'm quite partial to P.D. James' Dalgliesh novels!

Rose said...

I'm sure you're already aware of them, but one of the most excellent examples (IMO) of the "Himes-ian" turn you mention is a series by Barbara Neely, the first of which is _Blanche on the Lam_.

Her detective is an African-American woman who's a housekeeper (Blanche), and who offers up some incisive comments about race, class, gender, and colorism along the way. I know it sounds tedious, but--like Sayers--Neely manages to intertwine those observations into the mysteries themselves. Good stuff! I've taught the first one myself a couple of times, and students really seem to like the book.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm glad to be following this string. I actually have not read Barbara Neely, but "Himes-ian" is a pretty good hook.

Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

mark wallace said...

Thank you very much for that suggestion, Rose. No, actually I've never heard of Barbara Neely. No one has ever mentioned her name to me and she hasn't appeared in any of the work on detective fiction that I've read (admittedly not all of it), and I haven't seen her in syllabi for courses on detective fiction either. I appreciate knowing about her and will definitely look into it.

D said...

I am piecing together a similar syllabus, and have come up with a couple of questions that you might have already solved . Is Wilkie Collin's "The Moonstone" worth the time on a syllabus when there is so much to read? Also, I was thinking of ending the semester with "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," because of its shout outs to previous authors. Any experience with this book? And last but not least, if you had to choose PD James or Paretsky, due to syllabus crunching, who should get the time of a full length novel?
Any help is much appreciated,

mark wallace said...

D, The Moonstone is an absolutely fantastic book, but you're right that it's quite long. I suppose teaching it depends on the quality/level in school of your students and how much you can fit in. I've never been able to fit it in, but my students are not sophisticated readers necessarily. But the book is endlessly entertaining and energetic.

Relative to your other question, James is a far superior stylist to Paretsky, but Paretsky is certainly a feminist to a much greater degree. So I guess it's a choice between energetic and genuinely literary fiction and a much trashier mystery potboiler with more progressive political implications.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Stieg Larsson and Wilkie Collins are both hefty chunks of reading if you're worried about space on the syllabus.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"