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Vol. 18, No. 5, 2019
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Robert J. Lewis
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Donald Dewey has written some 40 books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as contributed scores of stories to magazines and other periodicals. He has also had some 30 plays staged in Europe and the United States. Dewey was editor of the ASME-award winning magazine Attenzione and was editorial director of the East-West Network, overseeing a dozen in-flight magazines and the PBS organ Dial. His most recent thriller novel is Red Herrings.

Detection stories seem to radiate the active --- the cop, the private eye, the annoying snoop dig ever more deeply for revealing the perpetrator of an evil deed or five. They knock on doors, introduce themselves to one stranger after another, keep getting in and out of cars. They are in perpetual motion.

But look closer. The typical detection tale actually operates off a protagonist sublimely passive. Crimes, suspects, red herrings, more crimes and suspects --- essential ingredients for a plot that leads the protagonist by the nose. He (or she) is markedly reactive. Even when he tries to get ahead of an arch fiend, researching histories and ancient records and anything else illuminating precedent in order to zero in on the culprit, he is a tram running down tracks laid firmly into the asphalt. Some of the stops might have been decommissioned before his interest in them, but they magnetize that interest.

What took you so long to get back here and get off, shamus?

A straight novel that depicts a protagonist exclusively at the mercy of external developments would be hard-pressed to elicit sympathy for him and likely bathe both reader and tale in creeping ennui; merely sustaining interest in endless objectification, when not victimization, would be a battle. Not that there haven’t been successful novels of the kind. The melancholies of central European and Midwest fiction, for example, have thrived on it, sometimes to an artistic degree. But for the most part, the protagonist of the straight novel is somebody changing his life because he has seen what had previously gone unnoticed, whether in his home, in his social surroundings, or in his mirror.

He ignites ferment, takes on the consequences of his belated awareness and its unavoidably rising cost, maybe transforms more than himself because of it, maybe gets defeated by it, but certainly can’t indulge any illusion that he is the same person that he had been before his awakening.

In the typical detection story, on the other hand, the major change is from the miscreant unidentified and not captured to the miscreant identified and captured. The investigating protagonist’s proclivity isn’t so much for the fertile expanses of logic as for the narrow restraints of syllogism: There is a grievous deed needing resolution, I am looking into the grievous deed, ergo I will resolve the grievous deed. Why seek more subtle deductions? The day after the last page of the crime tale, the sleuthing characters can be assumed to be back operating as they had been before the reader had opened to page one (and for the most popular franchises, awaiting the next grievous deed in another part of town). Nothing at all complicated about it if you accept that the genre knows best and you acquiesce to its traditional demands.

The predominantly passive nature of the detection story hero affects more than the evolution of the tale as such. More often than not, it makes the protagonist less of an interesting character than his quarry, even when the latter remains nameless in the shadows.

While the villain has demonstrable desires, execrable as they might be, the protagonist is usually restricted to a series of professional urges (this occurring ironically even in stories in which murderously whimsical urges are advanced to define the acts of the culprit).

Character in the most encompassing sense falls to a figure synonymous with the obscure, the unnamed, and the evil while its opposite, the putative hero present from the narrative’s opening words, struggles to acquire more than caption-detail substance. If only from the nature of the body count, we know what the villain wants -- always a fundamental beginning for deciphering a personality. By contrast, the detective figure is chronically depicted as being layered only through the morose, the manic depressive, or some other self-abusing quality equating colorfulness with self-pity. In most of these cases, character complexity comes down to a choice between Johnny Walker and Jack Daniels.

Does it have to be this way? What about a joyful policeman absorbed in a pursuit because he knows that every case he makes will earn him more reason to love the world? A private detective who couldn’t care less about a culprit but just wants to meet more people with idiosyncrasies? A busybody who has always craved writing a sequel to Rear Window and is determined even to falsify evidence to attain that end?

Hmm. Haven’t seen any of them in a detection tale lately. And yet, the possibilities should be there. Who condemned the crime story protagonist to his professional functions and nothing more? In fact, there are suspects, and none more compromised than the pulp magazines that survived on detection fiction for so long on the premise that readers wanted conciseness more than subtlety, immediate immersion in a plot more than intimations of cavernous characters, and formulas of one and one equals two more than of speculation about infinite numbers. But the statute of limitations has long expired on that blame; the only visible heirs of those magazines are TV cop shows where in the name of character the heroine detective attends AA meetings and a hero detective can’t shake off his childhood memory of once having encountered extraterrestrials in his backyard.

For more serious crime literature, there is little reason why a protagonist cannot be, as the ugly redundant neologism has it, both a pro and active.



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Also by Donald Dewey:
Not Playing It Safe
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

Red Herrings by DON DEWEY

For years Charley Sylvester has buried himself as the Obituaries Editor of a major New York daily.When he decides to take a vacation in one of his old hunting grounds as a correspondent in Italy, the bodies resist complacent editing. Surrounded by suicides and murders, he finds himself in the middle of political intrigues involving three countries andold friends who are no longer the friends he remembered.

Trade Paperback - 6 x 9 x 9
360 Pages
FICTION / Mystery & Detective / Private Investigators











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