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Vol. 18, No. 3, 2019
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Robert J. Lewis
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Alex Waterhouse-Hayward


in defense of the mystery/detective novel



Donald Dewey has published some 40 books of fiction and nonfiction. His most recent are the series of memoir-essays Mosquitoes and Tortoises: Flights and Crawls on the Fringes of the Media and the thriller novel Red Herrings.

It is no secret that mystery stories are literature’s least mysterious genre. When a tale proceeds along a plot line that claims logical plausibility for the entire 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 possibly have 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. It is precisely because we don’t have the luxury of a detection story’s artificiality in our daily lives that we can be drawn to it as an exotic pleasure. The detection story with its variations of cozies, police procedurals and private eye potboilers is safe. We don’t dread being as emotionally disoriented by Murder on the Orient Express as we might be left apprehensive by One Hundred Years of Solitude.

This distinction in genres has prompted persistent 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 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. Where is the fairness? Who decided Ernest Hemingway had more deep 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 some Madrid arena, can’t it? Why do all the respectable fiction awards go through the same tweedy hustlers in university literature departments? Isn’t there as much of a metaphor for existence in tracking down a blackmailer as in trying to land a white whale nobody is going to get to eat anyway? Any writer still bothered by this kind of thing should apply for 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 insistent the cries to do so. There is a reason elites are entrenched: They like it. Equally, 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 whinge about your minor league lot, do it as Chairman Mao once counseled -- 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 to feel genuine, remain within their own minds and bodies, while relating to thieves, book publishers, mass murderers, children, priests, lovers, arsonists, 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. A minority of optimists 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.

It is a comforting thought -- 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 candid admission of what separates characters in the overwhelming majority of detection tales from those in the ‘straight’ fiction world. If the status quo is to be overthrown, it is a pretty basic first step definingwhat the hell that quo is.



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Also by Donald Dewey:
The Expectation Medium
Crisis in Critics
Words Not to Live By
Knowing the Killer
Racism to the Rescue
Punk Times
Not Playing It Safe
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


Paul Finley Mysteries Book Two
A newly arrived Bolivian seaman is found murdered in a Manhattan roach hotel. An address book on the body lists three American contacts, one of whom is private investigator Paul Finley. The trouble is, Finley has never heard of the man or, for that matter, of anybody in Bolivia. Another trouble is that the other two people in the address book are dispatched in quick order and Finley finds himself enmeshed in an assassination plot against a Bolivian diplomat.

Trade Paperback - 6 x 9 x .7
164 Pages
FICTION / Mystery & Detective / Private Investigators











Arts & Opinion, a bi-monthly, is archived in the Library and Archives Canada.
ISSN 1718-2034


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