Donald Dewey has published more than 30 books of
fiction and nonfiction. In 2015 he published two mysteries: the
double-book The Fantasy League Murders/The Bolivian Sailor,
and Green Triangles. Later this year, he will publish
the biography Buccaneer: James Stuart Blackton and the Birth
of American Movies.
is no secret that mystery stories are the least mysterious genre
of literature. When a tale proceeds along plot lines toward
a denouement that claims logical plausibility for the whole
journey, all is order, all is clarity --and all is you-should-only-live-so-long.
The next one of us to have Sherlock Holmes hovering to explain
why we did this, when we did it, where we did it, and how nobody
else could have possibly done it will be the first one of us.
Fictional killers get caught, the rest of us -- the fictional
us in straight novels as well as the non-fictional us in straight
life -- keep getting caught up in the messes that social involvements
bring. And it is precisely because we don’t have that
luxury of a detection story’s artificiality in our daily
lives that we can be drawn to it as an exotic pleasure. The
typical detection story with its variations of cozies, police
procedurals, and private eye potboilers is safe. We don’t
dread getting as emotionally disoriented by Agatha Christie’s
Murder on the Orient Express as we might be left apprehensive
by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
distinction in literary genres has prompted considerable whining
from detection book writers (and from those committed to fantasy,
science fiction, westerns, and Inuit action tales) that they
have been victimized by their niches, that they aren’t
taken as seriously as the latest author of a diary of a mad
housewife or of a constipated Ivy League professor who hasn’t
had enough lovers, acted like a swine with the ones he did have,
and is mulling suicide while awaiting the test results from
the suspicious tumor growing out of his back that has made him
look like Quasimodo. Where is the fairness? Who decided Ernest
Hemingway had more profound things to say about the human condition
than Raymond Chandler? Dealing with bulls at the local police
station can bring out a protagonist’s personality as artfully
as dealing with them in a Madrid arena, can’t it? Why
do all the respectable fiction awards have to go through hustlers
in university literature departments? Isn’t
there as much of a metaphor for earthly existence in tracking
down a blackmailer as in trying to land a white whale nobody
is going to get to eat anyway?
writer who is still bothered by this kind of thing is better
off getting a plumber’s license to make some real money.
No one will ever persuade the ruling literature class to share
its power with the rabble, no matter how earnest the occasional
cries to do so. There is a reason elites are entrenched: They
like it. At the same time, the disingenuous ranks of the rabble
should not pretend that they never value plot over perception,
syllogism over rationality, and contrivance over insight. Genre
up. If you want to overthrow the ruling literature class, if
you want to do more than whine about your minor league lot,
do it as Chairman Mao once advised -- revolutionary change comes
only from the barrel of a character.
expressionistically symbolic. achingly naturalistic, or any
configuration in between, characters are fiction’s wild
card. They host the genes and set the contours for the writer’s
imagination. When realized as fully as they should be, they
impose no genre preconditions. They ought to feel genuine, remain
within their own minds and bodies, while relating to petty thieves,
book publishers, mass murderers, astronomers, priests, lovers,
arsonists, children, or anime producers. Their complexities
should arise not from the latest corpse they have stumbled over
in a dingy furnished room, but from the insinuations about their
dingy outlooks dropped by the corpse while it still had something
lively to say.
is a minority of optimistic doves who would like to think this
bridge has already been crossed. For public exhibits they usually
name the likes of Sweden’s Henning Mankell, France’s
Georges Simenon, and this country’s Dashiell Hammett.
That’s comforting -- except that exceptions not only make
the rule, they make the exceptions. Tokenism is tokenism.
don’t bend over backwards so strenuously sneaking the
unwashed in through the side door. No apologies are required.
What is required is a more candid admission of what separates
characters in the overwhelming majority of detection stories
from those in the ‘straight’ fiction world. If the
status quo is to be overthrown, it is a pretty basic first step
defining what the hell that quo is.