“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Crime Carnival Cometh. Again

Barbara Fister (right), the ever-radiant mastermind behind the Crime Carnival concept, was kind enough to get in touch about a month ago to ask if I’d be interested in hosting another Crime Carnival. My reply ran thusly:
“I certainly wouldn’t mind hosting the carnival again, although I’d probably do a different kind of job on it ... I think the concept has probably exhausted most of the crime fic sites out there. Maybe phase two could be about generating discussion and debate on the merits or otherwise of crime fic blogs and sites, get us asking one another what it is exactly we’re trying to achieve ... and how best to achieve it?”
  Barbara thought that that was a good idea, in principle at least, and so here we are …
  The problem now, of course, is that I have to back up my initially whimsical suggestion with some hard facts and examples. I think the first thing to be said is that every blog and site is different, a diversity which is in itself one of the joys of the crime / mystery fic community. It further needs to be said that the notions I outline below don’t apply to all blogs and sites, on the basis that most of us have a set of well-defined parameters we work within, and are quite happy to keep on doing so.
  For example, Crime Always Pays is for the most part dedicated to Irish crime fiction, but I’m always delighted to feature non-Irish crime writers on it. Further, I tend to broaden the parameters on a whim, and in the last couple of weeks have blogged about quantum physics, Lawrence Durrell and Marsha Swan’s new book, all of which have nothing whatsoever to do with crime fiction. Further again, anyone familiar with Crime Always Pays understands that I blog about Irish crime fiction in general in order to promote my own writing in particular – it’s not about the hard sell, but it would be disingenuous of me to suggest otherwise.
  In other words, different blogs have different objectives, and the last thing I want to do is offend anyone by suggesting that their work doesn’t come up to a certain standard or mark. That is most definitely not the point of this exercise.
  So what is the point? Well, it’s about where crime fiction itself is going, and what blogs and sites can do to help it get there. For the most part, as you well know, crime / mystery fiction has not, historically, been taken as seriously as it should be by the gatekeepers of the traditional media. Those gatekeepers also tend to man the portals of the various awards available to fiction writers, which is why there was such a furore recently when Tom Rob Smith’s CHILD 44 breached the Booker Prize defences.
  With a few notable exceptions, crime / mystery writing tends to get short shrift in the mainstream press, and as often as not finds itself shoehorned into a review ghetto, wherein five or six titles will be briefly assessed in the same kind of space that would be given over to single, more ‘literary’ title. That very fact, of course, is one of the main reasons for the proliferation of crime / mystery fiction blogs and sites available on-line, and in a perverse way, it should be celebrated for inadvertently creating such a dynamic and vibrate on-line crime / mystery community.
  By the same token, many mainstream commentators have suggested that the blogging format doesn’t lend itself to the quality of commentary available in mainstream media. To a certain extent, this is true. The blogging paradigm lends itself to shorter, more direct forms of communication than that of the traditional mainstream press. Further, most bloggers are not being paid to read and review books, and are for the most part doing it as a labour of love in their spare time. Another factor involved is that to be a ‘successful’ blogger – i.e., to achieve the kind of exposure that makes your time and effort worthwhile – it is necessary to blog on a regular basis, or at least far more regularly than the traditional media reviewer needs to review. For all these reasons, and more, the on-line community lacks the resources (but mainly space, time and money) that has allowed the more literary community build up a corpus of critical work on literary novels.
  That’s not to say that there isn’t superb critical work available. There is, and there’s plenty of it. By comparison with the literary corpus, however, which has not only colonised the traditional media and its prize-giving off-shoots, but also the libraries and campuses, and which has a head-start on crime / mystery fiction that can be measured in hundreds of years, the critical work on crime / mystery fiction is very much in its infancy.
  One point, before we go further: I am NOT saying that crime / mystery fiction should strive to be taken seriously by the literary establishment. They do what they do, and good luck to them; my personal reading habits involve quite a lot of what would be considered literary fiction, and I have no beef with what they do or how they do it. By the same token, and speaking only for myself, the last thing I need or want is a pat on the head from the literary establishment. What I AM saying is that the critical work on crime fiction needs to develop of and through its own metier, that the Johnsons of the crime / mystery community require their Boswells, and that I believe heart and soul that crime / mystery fiction needs and deserves the kind of widespread, top-to-bottom critical work that would in turn inspire the writers to strive towards ever-higher standards of work.
  Here I need to hold my hand up and admit that Crime Always Pays does not offer the kind of critical work that I’m talking about. In mitigation I plead that (a) the blog was always intended as an information resource, (b) I blog in those precious few cracks I can find in my daily schedule, and (c) I’m nowhere near as smart as I’d need to be in order to raise my game to that standard. I’m sure that most bloggers would say the same thing, excepting (c).
  But here’s the thing – crime / mystery fiction is the most popular genre on the planet, it is inarguably the most relevant and important fiction out there, and that’s why I believe it deserves more. It deserves more from me, certainly, than reviews that run along the lines of, “This is a great book because I liked it and I liked it because it’s a great book.” It deserves the kind of dynamic, rigorous, extensive and constantly evolving critical work that the interweb is perfectly placed to provide, and it deserves to be critiqued, justified and praised not by the kind of commentator who will suggest that a particular novel has (koff) ‘transcended the genre’, but by those who understand that good crime / mystery fiction is simultaneously scourge and balm, panacea and drug, a fiction for the world we live in that is also its truth.
  I’m going to leave you with an example of the quality of work I’m talking about, and I sincerely hope I haven’t offended anyone’s sensibilities with what has gone before, or by mentioning only one blog. It’s Glenn Harper’s outlet at International Noir – when I dropped by today to check it out, this is what he had to say for himself
Classical Unities and Crime Fiction
“I’ve just finished Peter Craig’s HOT PLASTIC, published a few years ago. The novel shares a good deal with Jim Thompson’s great THE GRIFTERS, but I didn’t like HOT PLASTIC very much. I’m wondering why it didn’t satisfy, though I usually find grifter novels appealing. One thing that occurred to me is that it violates a modern version of the classical unities, while THE GRIFTERS does not. Aristotle said that tragedy should not violate three rules, unity of action, unity of place, and unity of time. That is, one main action or plot with few subplots, one setting, and a time-frame of no more than 24 hours. Obviously, the modern novel violates those rules in all but a few cases (ULYSSES, for example), and some forms of the novel (the picaresque, for example) violate all the rules most of the time. But keeping those rules in mind nevertheless provides focus for fiction as well as drama, but crime fiction actually adheres to the rules more closely than a lot of so-called mainstream fiction (think of those family dramas covering four generations and three continents). The biggest difference between THE GRIFTERS and HOT PLASTIC is that Thompson maintains enough of the unities to give the novel a sharp, while Craig’s novel is more of a picaresque or romance, following several characters through a number of adventures that don’t follow a common plot though they eventually lead back to a kind of repetition of the original situation. HOT PLASTIC has more of the structure of a mainstream novel, following the relationships of the characters more than any coherent story. Fine, if that’s what you’re after, but to me it suits the crime genre less well. Even when a crime novel covers a large-ish frame of time; to use just two famous examples, ROSEANNA by Sjöwall & Wahlöö or FACELESS KILLERS by Mankell stretch a police investigation over a considerable time and numerous false leads, but the doggedness of the investigator and the concentration on a single crime maintain a unity of story or action. Adrian McKinty’s THE BLOOMSDAY DEAD obviously derives its unity of time from Ulysses, but many other crime novels, from the famous FAST ONE by Paul Cain onward, adhere to a tight time-frame. And when subplots seem to be more important or as important as a main plot in a crime novel, there’s a coherence provided by those plots moving toward a common endpoint or in their relation to an investigation or a crime (as in false leads). Unity of place is possibly the most adhered to of the rules in the kind of crime fiction that I like best (that is to say, localized stories rather than globe-hopping thrillers). So what do you think: Are crime novels Aristotelian? Or should they be?”

13 comments:

maxine said...

There was a recent leader in the Times (of London) that is highly relevant to the issues you discuss in your post. See Petrona for a quote plus link to editorial:
http://petrona.typepad.com/petrona/2008/09/in-praise-of-crime-fiction.html

Summed up as: "I think they've realised something"!!!! (Even if they could have come up with a better exeplar author.)

Glenn Harper said...

Declan: Thanks for the vote of confidence (I'm taking it that way anyway) in quoting me in your Carnival entry on criticism and crime fiction. I mentioned in another recent post that I think blogging about crime fiction is a great way to think about the subject and converse with other folks who are also reading and thinking--much more immediate and responsive than trad. media, and a better space to explore both the fiction and what there is to say about it.
Thanks again,
Glenn
internationalnoir.blogspot.com

Declan Burke said...

Hi Maxine - I haven't read PD James, so I'm not qualified to comment as to whether they could have found a more exemplary author ... In saying that, you could easily apply what the reviewer is saying to James Ellroy, Elmore Leonard, George Pelecanos, Ken Bruen, John Connolly, Dec Hughes ... the list is virtually endless. And yes, it's about time they realised what crime fic fans have always known.

Glenn, you're more than welcome, squire. I think what you're doing over there is terrific ... I wish I had your chops.

Cheers, Dec

Dana King said...

Crime fiction review blogs are still in the process of watching the cream rise to the top. Though more respected, there are plenty of mediocre critics published in what we Yanks call the Mainstream Media; their venue lends them credence the bloggers still aspire to.

A big hurdle crime fiction reviews must overcome--though the MSm is often no less guilty--is the superficial recounting of major plot points, wrapped up with, as you so eloquently put it, "I liked it because it's a great book, and it's a great book because I liked it." Praise or criticism should always be justified. People will still agree or disagree as their tastes demand, but the reader is entitled to more than the reviewer's opinion; he should also know why that's his opinion. Mr. Harper's review cited here is a good example of what all crime fiction reviewers should be aiming for.

John McFetridge said...

One of the things about crime fiction is that it's often written in series (even sometimes the 'loose' series, with main characters becoming minor characters), so perhaps there could be more discussion about that, rather than one book a time.

The continuing main character isn't unique to crime fiction, there's Updike's Rabbit, of course, and Richard Ford's Bascombe, but it's crime fiction that's taken the character development the furthest, I think.

This also effects the storytelling in each novel, making each one more plot-oriented as the full character development will take place over many books.

So, I think crime fiction often gets overlooked in this character and theme-driven era of "literature," but only because those elements are spread out over more books. They may even be further developed becaue of that.

This might be something for bloggers, longer articles looking at a series of books and the development of characters and themes over years while newspapers continue to only review new releases.

Anonymous said...

RE:but it's crime fiction that's taken the character development the furthest, I think.

I take you're not acquainted with the phenomenon of endless fantasy series,as described in this piece of flash fiction:

TWISTED FANTASY
By Tom Williams

Tom Williams
writertom11@yahoo.co.uk

Dear Mr. Williams,

Thank you for your submission “Dark Lord of Tarizor.” Unfortunately, we have decided we cannot represent this work. Frankly, single volume fantasies are a very hard sell at this point in time. Perhaps you could turn this into a multi-volume epic?

Best Regards,

R. Jordan Esq.

Jordan & Martin Literary Agents.

John McFetridge said...

Yes, of course, I should have said genre. I really don't know anything about - well, anything, really, but certainly not about fantasy.

Declan Burke said...

John - Some terrific ideas there, squire, I like where you're coming from. Begs the question as to how often 'series character and plot development' happens in literary fiction ... Off the top of my head, I can think of Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet and the Avignon Quintet, William Golding's Rites of Passage trilogy ... Is Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy stretching it? I might blog about this tomorrow, actually ...

Tom Williams? Hilarious, sir. If wishes were horses, we'd all be riding on wishback.

Cheers, Dec

John McFetridge said...

It seems ot me when a literary-type uses the same charcter in more than one book a big deal is made about "re-visiting" the character.

I've seen Updike's referred to as the "Rabbit series," but that seems rare. Maybe Roddy Doyle's Barrytown Trilogy?

Mordecai Richler had some charcters show up in more than one book, Duddy is in Barry's Version as well as The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.

Also, it seems to me the idea of crime writers having their characters age and be affected by events in previous books is more common than it used to be.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time is another literary-fiction series, only it's not called a series because it's literary fiction. In literary fiction, a "series" is known as a "cycle."

And talking of Aristotle, he liked crime fiction:

"(I)t is an instinct of human beings, from childhood, to engage in mimesis (indeed, this distinguishes them from other animals: man is the most mimetic of all, and it is through mimesis that he develops his earliest understanding); and equally natural that everyone enjoys memetic objects. A common occurence indicates this: we enjoy contemplating the most precise images of things whose actual sight is painful to us, such as the forms of the vilest animals and of corpses. The explanation of this too is that understanding gives great pleasure not only to philosphers, but likewise to others, too ..."

— Poetics
==============
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Clea Simon said...

I was enjoying this post and thinking of leaving a comment - and as a mystery author who was named for a Durrell character (yeah, really. Glad I'm not Balthazar), I just had to chime in.

I am so sick of this genre bashing. Good writing is good writing (and I say this as a onetime lit major/"serious" critic and writer). There's always tension between art and the marketplace (or the Church or the Medicis or whoever is paying the bills), but the cream does rise to the top - and teh cream is not always the most serious/least plotted/ whatever. I could go into the bias against cozies - and yes there is an unfair slant against anything not bloody or male-dominated - but I'll leave it at that.

Thanks for the Aristotle quote, Peter. I feel justified!

Peter Rozovsky said...

You're welcome, Clea. Many philosophers are distant and so abstracted as to be of little apparent relevance to us in our day-to-day lives. But not Aristotle. He transcends his genre.
==============
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Declan Burke said...

Wow, Clea ... named for a Lawrence Durrell character? How cool is that ... I'd have gladly settled for Balthazar. Hell, I'd have stoically shouldered the burden of being called Pursewarden ... Feel free to drop me a line at dbrodb(at)gmail.com if you'd like to do a Q&A for the blog ... Cheers, Dec