Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 15, No. 1, 2016
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Robert J. Lewis
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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.

It 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.

This 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?

Any 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.

Whether 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.

There 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.

Please 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.


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Also by Donald Dewey:
Meeting the Author
The Overwriting Syndrome
Writers As Ideas
Let Them Entertain Us
It's a Kindergarten Life
Being and Disconnectedness
History of Humour in the Cinema
Cartoon Power











Arts & Opinion, a bi-monthly, is archived in the Library and Archives Canada.
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