Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “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.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

That’s Entertainment?

Maybe we can blame Graham Greene, who famously - or infamously - labelled his crime novels ‘entertainments’, although I suspect it goes back a lot further than that. I’m talking about the notion that crime novels - all genre novels, really, but we deal in crime writing here - are obliged to be entertaining, as if it’s incumbent upon crime novelists, or their books, to be clowns, regardless of how sad the clown might be behind the garish make-up.
  A recent and very positive review of Alan Glynn’s BLOODLAND in the Irish Times is a case in point. Anna Carey wrote the review, and did a very fine job too, in my opinion, finishing up thusly:
“A good thriller is there to entertain the reader as well as make her think - and [BLOODLAND] is a very entertaining book.” - Anna Carey, Irish Times
  Now, I’m sure Alan Glynn was very happy with that review, but I do wonder about the distinction being made in that line. There’s no good reason, for example, why the word ‘book’ couldn’t be substituted for ‘thriller’. After all, it’s the function of every book to ‘entertain the reader as well as make her think’. Crime, sci-fi, chick-lit, literary, fantasy, romance, historical biography, quantum physics - if a book on any given topic isn’t entertaining, which is to say enjoyable to read, then why would anyone read it? Are there books that are deliberately written not to entertain? Has any writer ever sat down at the desk with the express intention of writing a book that will bore his or her reader into a coma?
  I do hate the notion of ‘special pleading’ on behalf of crime fiction, but I think there’s a case to be made for declaring a moratorium on the use of ‘entertaining’ when it comes to reviewing the genre. I mean, if the book receives a positive review, then surely the fact that the reviewer was entertained is implicit in the good vibes. The moratorium might even be extended to the phrase ‘page-turning’. No, seriously - how else are you going to read a book if it doesn’t involve turning pages?
  I suppose what I’m suggesting, and not for the first time, is that crime fiction requires a more rigorous analysis than it generally gets. ‘An entertaining, page-turning read’ is a description that could apply to any good book, from Noddy to ULYSSES. Is it the case that crime fiction is more about breadth than depth, than it’s prime function is to entertain, and saying so suffices as a valid review? Is it the case that the genre doesn’t actually require or deserve a more subtle, nuanced lexicon? Or is it the case that the genre, being perceived as little more than a lurid distraction, and particularly by comparison with other kinds of books, is being ill-served by a self-perpetuating simplification, as often as not by the readers and fans of the genre itself?
  In the last month or so, I’ve read a number of books - among them BLOODLAND by Alan Glynn, THE BURNING SOUL by John Connolly, THE END OF EVERYTHING by Megan Abbott, THE KILLER IS DYING by James Sallis and THE END OF THE WASP SEASON by Denise Mina - that are as good as any novel of any stripe I’ve read in the last few years. They are all unmistakably crime fiction titles; all are beautifully written, first and foremost; they also have in common a rare quality of psychological insight as they pursue the flaws and foibles of the human condition. All of which are the essential elements of any good novel, it seems to me.
  Anyway, I opened up talking about Alan Glynn, and there’s a lot him about right now. Here’s an excerpt from an interview with the Faber blog, The Thought Fox:
[TF] BLOODLAND has the kind of plot where tiny details at the start lead to huge revelations by the end. How hard is it when writing a story like this to keep back secrets from your readers?

[AG] “It’s not easy. I continually re-read, re-write and revise. At the same time it’s an organic process and the subconscious does a lot of the heavy lifting for you. A connection that in the context of the story might seem inevitable, something meticulously and very deliberately placed there by the author, will often in fact have occurred to me at the very last minute. Maybe it was there all along, waiting to be discovered but the poor sap at the keyboard isn’t necessarily the first one to see it. But then when it all becomes clear, you have the luxury of being able to go back and re-arrange stuff, to re-weight and re-calibrate scenes in the overall context of the story. As the writer, you just have to pay attention, which I suppose isn’t too much to ask. Another way of keeping secrets back from the reader, of course is by not knowing them yourself, as you go along. No plan, therefore, no outline. It’s a good way of keeping things fresh and unpredictable, but it’s also fraught with danger. You can write yourself into a corner. Or fall off the tightrope.”
  For the rest, clickety-click here.
  Meanwhile, you can bag yourself a free signed copy of BLOODLAND over at the Harrogate Festival’s interweb lair, with the competition running until October 9th.
  For a couple of nifty reviews to complement Anna Carey’s take in the Irish Times, there’s one here at International Noir, and another courtesy of Laura Wilson at The Guardian.
  Finally, for Alan Glynn’s take on his ‘Book of a Lifetime’, aka THE GREAT GATSBY, jump on over to The Independent
  Oh, and as I mentioned a day or so ago, I’ll be doing an event with Alan Glynn at The Rathgar Bookshop this coming Thursday, October 6th, at 7.30pm. He’ll be reading from BLOODLAND, I’ll be reading from ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL, and if there’s anyone still awake after that little lot, we’ll be talking about, y’know, good books and stuff. If you’re around, I’d love to see you there …


Dana King said...

Entertainment and thought are not mutually exclusive. In fact, most entertainment requires a certain amount of thought. Mindless "entertainment" is boring, which is basically the opposite of entertaining.

At least it does for me. Maybe that's why I'm so far out of the mainstream when it comes to what entertains me.

Okay, so maybe I wasn't the best person to comment.

lil Gluckstern said...

I think that Dana is talking about entertainments that are like cotton candy-you know, empty calories. For me, an entertaining and satisfying book is one that touches me, makes me laugh, and bends my mind a little-or a lot. I admit to liking cotton candy once in a great while, but it isn't very good for me, and sends me running to books that are described here. I've ordered the Flann O'brien book; that's what I like about this site-it stretches my reading. And entertains me, too.

Fred Leonhardt said...

Declan, the following is from Pete Dexter's review of Jim Harrison's new novel, The Great Leader, in today's NY Times Book Review: Entertaining the brain "is one of the two possible reasons to write, or for that matter read. To enlighten and to entertain: what else is there? And while good books -- even so-so books -- serve both functions, if you ever have to choose one over the other, keep in mind that a book that entertains without enlightening can still be a guilty pleasure, but a book that enlightens without entertaining is algebra."

seana said...

I think engaging is a better word than entertaining. We can be engaged at many levels, and crime fiction sometimes comes in at the very highest.

On an aside, I am glad I read this post for a very off topic reason. I had missed that the Irish Times reviewer was Anna Carey. Anna was a vital member of a great books forum that I'm still part of. Despite my inability to manage the Irish phone system, I somehow managed to meet her and a friend of hers for dinner at a sushi place in Dublin, the first and only time I went somewhere where the sushi rolled around on a little track and you pulled it off as you pleased. I then literally had to run across Dublin to see Lady Windemere's Fan. I'm sure she thought I was a very odd duck, but she was quite a nice person and I'm glad her writing career is going places.

pixymagic said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Peter Rozovsky said...

I started Bloodland today. Its first chapter is a brilliant as anything I can remember reading. If the rest of the book is as good, this is a high-water mark in crime fiction that will be remembered for years and, yes, worthy of consideration alongside novels of any kind.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"