“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “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.

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?”