Saturday, July 3, 2010

Another four best

Admired mystery writer Laura Lippman names her four best "literary" crime novels. I've read three and own the fourth, so I'm officially cool.


Tulkinghorn said...

These lists are all the same.....

The modern taste for grim 'n' realistic is beginning to irritate me.

Writers with a lighter touch who have no interest in realism at all (anyone from Ellery Queen to John Dickson Carr to Edmund Crispin to Gladys Mitchell) are swept into the bin of history forgotten and forlorn.

Something tells me that Evelyn Waugh or Borges or Orwell would rather trade quips with Peter Whimsey than lurch from pub to pub with (fill in the name of depressed alcoholic cop here).

"Literary" detective novels are headed the way of the "literary" fiction of the fifties -- all those Mailers and Cozzenses -- middlebrow status symbols for book club members.

Generic said...

It could be argued that Kate Atkinson has more in common with Ellery Queen than with Crumley. Only one of these four books had drunks in it, and they aren't cops. The "detective" in the Woodrell book is a 14-year-old girl.

Generic said...

Tulkinghorn said...

I'd love to hear that Atkinson/Queen argument... Three of these are noir, one of them hits all the bases (When they said Crumley was influential, they weren't kidding.)

The triumph of the Cain/Chandler terse dark crime novel is now so complete, no one even notices that it was once otherwise. And the Knox rules look as quaint as county cricket.

And then you link to a movie, as if that mattered...

Generic said...

I get the feeling that on this subject I'm dealing with a guy who has "issues" and that arguing about it is basically pointless.

The link is to a good review of a widely admired movie based on one of Lippman's picks. In its first paragraph it compares the tone of the story and its view of human beings favorably to your guy Hanecke, than whom few are darker.

The reflexive contempt for all movies is becoming, as you like to say, "tedious."

Tulkinghorn said...

I know that somebody made a well-received movie from Winter Bone. I read the papers. Just didn't understand what that had to do with changing taste in books. (I imagine the book is more interesting than the movie, in any event.)

I have no problem with the anointing of any of these as wonderful books -- in fact, I had to insist on Atkinson before many of my friends would read her at all.

I am struck by the fact that twenty years ago you had to haunt used book stores to find mouldering paperbacks of Jim Thompson novels, while golden age mysteries filled the bookstores.

Today, John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen are out of print other than from enthusiast presses (Queen not even that), and Jim Thompson is in the Library of America.

I find the process fascinating and worth discussing. How did we get here and why?

Generic said...

I think that's a side-step, but what the hell.

Some books formerly regarded as trash have a harsh tone similar to what's become fashionable in literary circles. How's that? And while popular, were the cozies and locked room books ever taken seriously? And should they be? What does John Dickson Carr have to offer, exactly?

I'm more interested in the fact that writers as different Woodrell and Atkinson now seem to take it for granted that they can put everything they've got into the writing of a genre novel. No great claim that this is an epoch-making literary event but it's good news for me as a reader. Partly as standing for the re-intergration of craftsmanly storytelling into the repertoire of serious fiction. Chabon and Gaiman are happy about that, I'm sure.

Tulkinghorn said...


I was focusing on this from the POV of the genre itself, mourning the death, if you will, of the elegant and trivial in crime fiction. (Except for Reginald Hill, actually, whose playfulness and lack of seriousness is what I'm often looking for..)

However, I completely agree that from the other way round -- the insertion of balls-out storytelling into the world of the high-toned -- there is nothing about which to complain. cf. Justin Cronin, a guy whose previous notion of a good time was to win the PEN Faulkner award, who just put himself into million copy bestsellerdom with volume one of an apocalyptic trilogy about vampires.

I recently read a 'post-modern' (no shit) Agatha Christie pastiche called "The Act of Roger Murgatroyd", by a well-known (in some circles) trickster named Gilbert Adair, whose previous high point had been translating a long French novel written entirely without the letter "e" into English prose, entirely without the letter "e".. Called it "A Void".

Anyway, makes you think about the connection between puzzle novels and high aestheticism.

Generic said...

I have nothing against playfulness or fantasy, lord knows. But a lot of the stuff that tends to be celebrated as "pure entertainment" leaves me feeling undernourished. I want something that has more layers, that is entertaining on more levels. More of a gourmand, perhaps, than a gourmet. I guess it could be spun that way.

Could also be that this is my version of looking for "crime fiction for grown ups." Also why I find it hard to agree that eliminating a couple of layers or drama and romance from a TV show like DW is on the face of it an evolutionary advance. (DW has obviously -- obviously -- been made less "grown up.")

The opposition is false, though, and not true to the spirit of the coolest aspect of what's happening -- that all kinds of writers are now being encourged to do their own thing, full strength, in the crime genre Every mystery novel is partly an intellectual game, even the Crumley, absolutely Ross MacDonald. Their reputation for unvarnished realism is a bit of a hoax.

Generic said...

And what's happening here is clearly different from the way literary SF is said to work by this commenter on the Adam Roberts blog:

"The transformation of waste -- a phrase from a Patti Smith song, as noted in the most recent poem on my blog -- is what I think that literary SF is really about. SF is a lowbrow, pop genre, and literary values are highbrow values, so literary SF involves turning trash into gold. Some times a genius will perhaps write a little bit like Robert Jordan, but deliberately and subversively, and it could be a masterpiece.

"That theory of literary SF seems pretty common, to me, among people whose touchstone is PKD. Stanislaw Lem wrote in my opinion some of the best criticism of PKD, and identified his technique as making things out of trash. And the perennial argument among certain literary-SF types is about PKD's sentences: Delany will be quoted to say that they're trashy, and other people will reply that they may be individually jagged, but they have to be that way to make up the whole."