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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.