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Archive for January, 2009

The Same, Only Different

with 3 comments

I’ve been wandering around for several hours thinking about Robert’s second comment to thie last post, and feeling fairly flabbergasted.   It literally never occured to me that somebody would want to know, before the book even started, how the plot would turn out.  In fact, I can honestly say that I’ve never done that in my life.  I’ve even done the opposite thing, at least once, if you can talk about an “opposite” here.  I remember reading a book by Alice Hoffmann that centered on one of those cases where a guy who has committed a crime when very young and then disappeared is suddenly discovered rooted in a good and honest life, which is then disrupted so that he can be brought to justice.

I wish I  could remember the name of this book, but this morning the name just escapes me.  What I do remember is being honestly in suspense throughout the story, and feeling frustrated that it was not an effect I could ever produce in a mystery.  But precisely because this was not a mystery, because the narrative arc was not determined in advance, I didn’t know how it was going to end.  And, in fact, it didn’t end as I expected it to.

And let me make myself clear–in the standard murder mystery example of this plot, the way the book ends is not to bring the hiding criminal to justice, unless that hiding criminal is painted as a complete and utter jerk.  If the hiding criminal is, instead, a very good person who made what looks like one mistake back there and has since lead an exemplary life, trust me, in an ordinary genre mystery, the writer will find some way to make sure her character doesn’t go to jail at all, or only goes nominally, so that the readers can be confident that his good and exemplary life will not, in the long run, be destroyed.

When  I was talking about challenges and being made to think, I wasn’t talking about the (apparently political) things Robert referred to in his first post, but about things like vocabulary and the predictability of events. 

The vocabulary thing makes me absolutely wild.  I got sick of people complaining that I use “big words” by the time I was ten.  I don’t use “big words.”  I use words.   I use the same words when I write as I do when I  talk, so, yes, I really do sound like this.  I don’t understand people who, faced with a word they don’t know, not only won’t look it up, but resent the writer for using it. 

But the predictability of events thing is much worse.  I’ve already gone on and on about my exasperation with the standard serial killer novel, so let’s try a different one, but one that’s just as teeth-scrapingly trite:

The members of the Big  Bad  Corporation have a Secret.  If the Secret gets out, they’ll lose a lot of money and maybe even go to jail.  Our Hero is a new hire who stumbles on the  Secret.  When he does, he becomes a target for all the  Big Bad Corporation’s dirty tricks, including, eventually, hit men.  He struggles valiantly to bring the truth to light, with only minor help from the one man inside the Big Bad Corporation who seems to have any integrity left at all.  And that’s the guy, of course, who turns out to be the mastermind behind the whole thing.

One of the reasons I could never take Silkwood, or Erin Brockovich, seriously, is precisely because they both present just this plot, in spite of the fact that they’re supposed to be true stories.  I don’t mean that no large corporation has ever done anything wrong, or that none of them have ever tried dirty tricks or even murder–but my best guess is that the incidence of such things, especially inside the United States, is vanishingly small.

Consider, if you will, the last several years, from the fall of Enron and Worldcom to the surrender of Bernard Madoff.   Enron was practically a textbook case of a corporation with a secret and a whitleblower, but although Skilling and company did what they could to discredit the whistleblower, there’s no evidence they tried to plant drugs in her apartment, get her children arrested, or have her killed.

In fact, if you can believe what I think is the best of the books on the Enron collapse–it’s called The Smartest  Guys In The Room, sorry that I can’t remember the author at the moment–the actual reaction of the actual holders of Enron’s Secret to the unraveling of their lives was less sinister than funny.  It would have been funny even if thtey hadn’t been running around calling each other nicknames out of Star Wars.

Here’s a side note:  I think the SEC and the other financial regulatory institutions ought to have a written rule that whenever they come upon a business that has started using names and designations out of science fiction, they ought to immediately launch a first-class, no-holds-barred audit.   I keep remembering this guy back during the S and L scandal who had taken a little storefront bank, Ponzi schemed it until it looked like something huge, and then built himself  a highrise he called his “Galactic Headquarters” in the West Texas desert.   “Galactic Headquarters” was the key.   I mean, really.  The regulators are supposed to be sober, conservative New York bankers.  Get a clue.

But back to the men and women who scheme and fraud and crime their way into millions:  at least the ones who do it with Big  Bad Corporations or major international law firms seem to have no interest in dirty tricks or contract killers.   They end up in minimum security prisons because they’re not much interested in violence.   The real stories of most of these collapses are more like something out of the Three Stooges than something out of Graham Greene, or  John Le Carre, or even Robert  Ludlum.   Do a little fraud here, do a little fraud there, buy six houses and a private plane, charge your private art collection to the company, spend half a million dollars on your daughter’s sweet sixteen, realize you’re about to get caught, rush to the computer to cover your tracks–and run smack into the fact that  you don’t have the faintest idea how to run the damn thing.

I get absolutely no suspense from the Big Bad Corporation books at all.   I know how they’re going to end.  I know before I start what almost all the characters are going to do.   Even the personalities of the individual characters run to standard types.  

And I can’t be alone in this.  Anybody who has read two or three of these books must be having the same experience I am–so why, then, does anybody want to read them?  And people do read them, in droves.

Robert said something in one of his posts about books that have “entetained and inspired millions,” and I’m probably not quoting that the way I should. 

But I’m not talking about books that inspire anybody, and  I’m not talking about books that have lasted for generations.  And  I don’t know what the word “entertainment” means when people say they can be entertained by books they know the outcomes of before they start.

Written by janeh

January 9th, 2009 at 6:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Readers

with 8 comments

One of the comments yesterday or the day before asked why I write murder mysteries, which is not a question I get very often.  I know that sounds odd, and I even think it’s odd.  I’m not J.K. Rowling, or John Grisham, but I do get interviewed from time to time, and for some reason that’s not a question anybody wants to ask.   And I’m not sure I know how to answer it.

What I do know is that I don’t have the faintest idea what readers want.  I’m not even entirely clear why most people read, or at least why they read fiction.  

Some people here have suggested that they read for “escape,” but I don’t know what that means.  If it means, as it seems to for some people, the desire to remove oneself from the problems of real life, then I can say with some confidence that I don’t read fiction to escape.  I really don’t read it to “relax.”  If I want to drift off into a kind of not-coping-with-the-world-haze, I have a lot of puzzle books and magazines from a small Connecticut publisher called Penny Press.   They’re the best publishers of puzzles in the country, and you can get their stuff in everything from brain-busters to “could do while comatose.”  I’m fond of the “could do while comatose” ones.  They put me right to sleep.

I have a feeling, however, that most people don’t mean this sort of complete mindlessness when they say they read for escape.  Oh, some of them do–the fan from that earlier post, the one who complained that I was actually writing about real things like politics, and she didn’t want that, because it upset her–that woman said she reads for escape, and  I believe her.  And I’ve run into people over the years, especially on  Usenet discussion boards, who declare that they don’t care about anything, it doesn’t matter if the history is all wrong or the writing is terrible, as long as it’s a “good story” they’re happy.  They read for “entertainment.” 

I once got very annoyed by a very good writer named Cynthia Ozick when she was quoted in Esquire, having been asked about detective novels, “I am not entertained by entertainment. ”  My problem wasn’t just that she was being condescending, but that she was being condescending without cause–she obviously hadn’t read enough in the field to know that there’s quite a bit published that isn’t “entertainment” as she was using the word.

But I did understand her sentiment.  I’m not entertained by entertainment, either.  Books that are the printed equivalent of Die Hard movies bore the hell out of me, and that’s in spite of the fact that I really enjoyed Live Free and Die Hard.

What most people seem to mean when they say they read for “entertainment” or for “escape” is not this, however.  They don’t want to be relieved of the real world, so much as they want to be relieved of their little part of it.  I don’t do this either, but it doesn’t make me roll my eyes the way the other thing does.  And it’s possible that I don’t do this because I’m not capable of it.  When I’m worried about something I tend to go into a state of super focus, so that there is nothing else anywhere but this one thing that worries me.   If I could manage to take my mind off it one way or the other, I’d probably love it.  It’s just that nothing I do seems to work like that for me.

But that sort of explanation leaves a lot of open ground, and to me it’s like the landscape of Mars.  I just don’t have a map to it.

I know what I want when I read.   The first thing is very, very, very good prose, and despite the complaints of some people who comment there, you can define that.  It requires decent grammar, punctuation and spelling–correct where it should be correct and suitable where it should be suitable–but beyond that I’m looking for an elegance of rhythm, a precision in vocabulary, a spareness of expression and an attention to the necessary detail.  There’s also the lack of the unnecessary detail and the absence of cliche.

If a book is very, very well written, I can often read it even if I’m completely uninterested in the content, as long as the content isn’t actually wrong.  By that I mean that it does matter to me that a writer gets his history right, at least where I know the history, and his geography right, too.  The  Da  Vinci Code is very badly written, but even if it had been perfectly written, I still would have put the thing down by page twenty-six.  Somebody needs to send Dan Brown a book explaining who and what the Merovingian Dynasty was.  

But the simple fact is that I experience very, very good prose the way I experience music–it is a kind of music, and I love it.   This has led to a number of odd experiences.  Years ago, living in Paris, I bought a copy of Norman Mailer’s one foray into the detective field, Tough Guys Don’t Dance.  Bill hated that book, because it was the typical product of a literary writer who knew nothing at all about the modern detective story:  one long hackneyed cliche about a hardboiled private detective who walks these mean streets in an alcoholic haze.

But Mailer is very definitely a very, very good writer, and I sat down to read this thing one afternoon and surfaced several hours later, suddenly aware of a fact:  the entirety of the last sixteen pages I had read made no sense at all.  None.  The writing was so good, it had put me in some kind of fugue state, and it was only the intrusion of real life in the form of needing to cook dinner that brought me to my senses.   I read that book again several years later.  It did the same thing to me the second time around.

From what I can see, most readers do not respond to prose this way, and many have the same trouble hearing the difference between good and bad writing that I have hearing the difference between good and bad music.   I’m not tone deaf, so it isn’t that I have no ear at all, but maybe from lack of training, and certainly from lack of talent, I have a great deal of trouble telling the difference between great compositions and merely servicable ones.

And there’s nothing really wrong with servicable prose.  Agatha Christie wrote servicable prose.  It’s clean.  It’s unobtrusive.  It gets the job done without a lot of fuss and bother.  I’d much rather have that than the angst-ridden self important fulminations of Phillip Marlowe.  Down these mean streets, a man must go, but I don’t have to go with him.

The impression  I get, however, is that most readers respond to prose the way I respond to  Gustav Leonhardt playing the Goldberg Variations.  Leonhardt is the greatest harpsichordist in history.  I  can tell that he’s better than most of the other harpsichordists I’ve heard.  The fine distinctions escape me, however, and I can listen to lesser lights playing Scarlatti and  Bach without feeling any sense of loss.  

All of this is a very good thing, because I’m hardly the  Gustav Leonhardt of prose fictoin, and if everybody had a perfect ear, nobody would read anything I wrote.  I’m aware, however, that many readers seem to be the prose equivalent of tone deaf.  They can read even really bad prose, hackneyed, cliched, ungrammatical and leaden, and it doesn’t bother them at all.

The rule of thumb in publishing is that the quality of the writing bears no relation at all to the sales of the book–not that bad writing sells, but that bad writing sells no better than good writing, and vice versa.   The quality of the writing is just not something most readers care about.

And it won’t work to say that if you just have a book where the protagonist takes charge and fights a conflict and good triumphs over evil, the book will sell, because an awful lot of books that fit that description don’t sell, and an awful lot that don’t fit that description do. 

What’s more, the same writer writing on the same subject can “work” with readers one year and not the next.  The Godfather sold like crazy, but none of Puzo’s other novels ever did.  Sue Miller had a smash with The Good Mother.  Four books later, she’s just one more “literary” novelist on the writer-in-residence circuit.

Then there’s the phenomenon called “finding and audience,” which really mystifies me.  P.D. James’s first books sold badly, so badly that it was a struggle for her editors to keep her in print in the United States.  Then came Innocent Blood, and suddenly she was being reviewed in The New York Review of  Books and splashed all over everybody’s best seller lists.  This might have made some sense if the books that followed Innocent Blood had been significantly different from the books that preceeded it, but they weren’t.  For some reason nobody understands, people who were completely uninterested in Year 1 were  passionately interested in Year 10. 

But what really mystifies me is why so many people seem not to read at all.   There are twice as many people in the United States now as there were in the year I was born, but the numbers for hardcovers (except for the few superwriters, like Rowling and King) are no better, and the numbers for mass market paperback are demonstrably worse.  Never mind finding 100,000 buyers for a paperback edition of Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagaination.  You’d be hard pressed to find 100,000 readers for any novel at all, even the ones that are supposed to be “popular.”  And nobody bothers to write, or to publish, the kind of old-fashioned bestseller that used to be churned out by Irving Wallace or Leon Uris or John O’Hara.

So I have no idea what readers want, but I’m pretty sure I know this:  you don’t know what you want either.

Written by janeh

January 8th, 2009 at 6:59 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Victims of Reality

with 4 comments

It’s about four thirty in the morning, and I don’t usually write posts this early, but I’m still in the middle of a very bad working week, so here we are.   I’m also in the middle of a very bad weather week, so that I’m sitting here wondering whether what’s going on outside my windows is going to mean no school for the younger one today or an attempt, by me, to negotiate ice and slush to get him to class.  There are a lot of things I like about private schools, but one of the things I don’t like is the fact that they don’t come with snow days. 

Robert asks if realism is really what we want to go to fiction or, and Lymaree says that tolerance for the kind of realism Rendell dishes up probably varies with life circumstances–I’d say it probably also varied with personal temperament–but if we go back to the idea that literature is what tells us “the truth, even if it didn’t happen,” as Kesey put it, then it’s not realism that’s at issue, but honest.

And oddly enough, Kesey had a line for that, too.   The thing about “the truth, even if it didn’t happen” occurs in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.  The other line occurred in Sometimes A Great Notion.  It went:  some things aren’t the truth, even if they did happen.

And part of my problem with Rendell may be that, for me at least, the moral universe she creates does not feel like the truth, even though I know that the specific events in it occur frequently in real life.

But let’s look at another difference between crime novels and life:  at the victims.  The victims are what’s bothering me this morning, because the victims are what’s causing me to have such bad days at work.  Well, at least one victim is.

Let’s start out by stipulating the obvious–in real life, real murders are mostly vastly, mind numbingly stupid.  Some guy gets liquored up and starts punching the lights out of some other guy and somebody has a knife, or a gun.   A woman leaves her boyfriend alone with the baby and the baby won’t stop crying and the boyfriend bashes its head against the wall.  A nineteen year old kid with a bad cocaine habit runs out of money for drugs and decides to hold up the local liquor store, in the course of which he finds that if your hands aren’t steady the gun is likely to go off and hit just about anything, including yourself. 

This is the kind of thing that happens all the time, and I’m not interesting in reading about it, and I’d guess that neither are most of you.  I think one of the reasons that serial killers have had such a vogue is that they seem to provide some meaning and purpose to the act of murder.  Hannibel Lecter, Jeffrey Dahmer–their motives are bizarre, but at least they’re motives.  Next to the guy down the road who beat his wife to a bloody pulp becausae…because…well, he doesn’t remember exactly because…he’d been smoking a lot of weed and then she came in from the club and then…don’t know what happened then…there was a bottle of  Jim Beam–next to that guy, Jeffrey Dahmer is almost a relief.

But although the kinds of murders that are common in murder mysteries aren’t common in real life, they do happen, and when they happen they provide fodder for episode after episode of American  Justice.  But American Justice, like it’s cousins, concentrates on the mind and motives of the murderers and the detectives who track them.  What attention is paid to the victim tends to be not only cursory, but largely synoptical.  If the victim is particularly awful, that would be acknowledged, but most victims are given a sort of minor league hagiography.  Linda Sue?  She was beautiful, and everybody loved her.

I could go on about that beautiful thing at length, but at the moment I’ll let it go.  What interests me at the moment is the fact that the victims of murder-mystery-like murders in real life come in two varieties:  opportunistic, and real, downright, God awful shits.

Opportunistic victims are the ones who are just in the wrong place at the wrong time and surrounded by the wrong people.  They’re the last surviving relative keeping a younger member of the family from a trust.   They’re nice guys who marry women who start taking out life insurance policies on them before the honeymoon is over.  One of the reasons why shows like American Justice concentrate on the mind of the murderer is that in many of these cases, the victim could have been anyone at all.  The murderer was going to murder no matter who happened to show up in his line of fire.

The other kind of victim is less common, and that in itself is an interesting point.   For all the talk about how violent human beings are as a species, it’s remarkable to me that more of these people don’t end up dead.  Abusive spouses and abusive parents–if the abuse is physical, you often do get a murder, but in the cases of spouses and parents who confine themselves to the verbal and manipulative, victims just seem to go on taking it year after year after year.  

When the victims don’t, you find yourself in an odd situation:  here is the victim, dead, and there is half the country, thinking:  served him right.

Of course, whether or not you think it served him right has something to do with life circumstances, too.  One of the first jobs I had after I left graduate school was as assistant to a newspaper writer who was going up to Scarsdale to cover the Jean Harris trial.  This was a long time, and you may not remember it, but Harris murdered her lover, diet doctor and best selling author (The Scarsdale Diet) Herbert Tarnower, because he was about to leave her for a younger woman.

One of my duties that trip was to go around asking people in the street who had come to witness the trial whether or not they thought Harris was guilty.  The men said various things, guilty, not guilty, not sure, but the women all said the same thing:  of course she killed him, but you wouldn’t want to put somebody in jail for something like that.

From all reports, Tarnower was the kind of victim I’m talking about here:  emotionally manipulative, arrogant, often verbally abusive.   And in real life, his murderer went to mail, and should have.  We don’t have the right to kill other people even if those people are poor excuses for human beings.  

When we move out of the real world and into the fictional one, however, we’re faced with a problem.  It’s really not a good idea to give the reader a victim so spectacularly awful that the idea of bringing his murderer to justice just feels…wrong.

And there are people like that.  The other night, flipping through channels because I really should have been already in bed, I ran across one of those “documentary” shows about prison life.  The prisoner being profiled had a cell to himself because he kept maiming or killing his cell mates.  The last one he’d killed had been a rapist who’d shown up boasting about the things he’d done to women and girls–the nipples he’d cut off of one, the way he’d cut up another.  So our hero, so to speak, decided to make sure his cell mate never did any boasting again, and rammed his right arm to the elbow up the rapist’s…uh…you know.

And part of me went, “okay.  That works.”

But it doesn’t work, of course.  It really doesn’t work.

I think one of the things people use crime fiction for, one of the reasons why they read it, is to be presented with a world in which “justice” is done, where “justice” is defined as that satisfying tit-for-tat that means the bad guys have been punished.

And yes, the bad guys need to be punished, and a world where that did not happen would not be a good one.  And there are people out there who do things so awful that it sometimes seems that there’s no way on earth to even the score.  Nothing that the law could have done to  Frederick and Rosemary West, even if England had still had the death penalty, could even approach the ugly terror they visited on each and every one of their twenty-odd victims. 

But.

There are different kinds of justice, and different definitions of the term, and the murder mystery–not the crime novel in general, but specifically the murder mystery, the tradition that includes Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple and even Perry Mason–the murder mystery is primarily concerned with justice as a process, of the reassertion of order and reason on the chaotic intrusion of violence.

Obviously, even the most determinedly rationalst writer has forays into vigilante emotionalism.  Hercule Poirot solves Murder on the Orient Express by inventing a clever cover story so that the twelve murderers of the man sho masterminded a famous kidnapping can go free.

In general, though, they don’t, and I think that’s because the very concept–that it is permissable and maybe even laudatory for individual vigilantes to fix “lapses” in the justice system–is m ore dangerous than any dozen of the nasty victims who are so summarily dispateched. 

In a democratic and rational society, justice resides in the process, not in the verdict.  It is the process that must be protected against incursions of emotonal and individual retribution, even when that retribution is deserved.   The process protects us all.  When that process results in a wrong verdict–when somebody is convicted of a crime they haven’t committed, or acquitted of one they have–dedication to the process itself requires that we try all we can to correct the mistke, but only within the process itself, not by sticking a knife in the ribs of the murderer who managed to convince a gullible jury to set him free.

In the kind of case more common to crime novels–the murder of a man or woman who has committed no crime, but who s so nasty, so obnoxious, so innately destructive of the people around him that every day he exists serves only to bring more pain to more people–I think there is also a tacit recognition about the way these cases actually go in real life.

I come through dozens, maybe hundreds, of true crime cases every year.  I’ve come across several in which the victim was a first class waste of breath and who was murdered by exasperated lovers, spouses, children, employees, fellow workers, whatever who just couldn’t take it any more.

In not a single one of thse cases have I found a murderer who was clean.  The crime noel cliche is that the murderer in these situations is a fundamentally decent human being who, through that fundamental decency, is driven to kill.  The true crime reality is that the murderers are almost never thoroughly decent human beings.  Most of them are at least as sociopathic as their victims, and maybe even more narcissistic, solipsistic and arrogantly selfish.  

In the end, I think, murderers are not good people to leave on the street, no matter how deserving their victim, and outside of clear cases of immediate self defense, murder is not justified.   If literature is supposed to be “the truth, even though it didn’t happen,” then something like Murder on the Orient Express has lost its bid to be literature even before we start talking about things like the writing or the thematic structure. 

And  I’m sitting here stuck with one of the most obnoxious victims in my entire writing career, and I’m human enough to be going–somebody killed her off?  Oh, good.

Written by janeh

January 7th, 2009 at 6:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Emo

with 3 comments

Writing a book is a very odd thing to do, at least for me.  I say that in spite of the fact that I wrote my first one before I was eleven years old, sitting in the enormous upstairs room my father had built for me when he was expanding our house, at a metal typing table he’d had himself when he was in college, working on a manual typewriter his mother once gave me for Christmas.

I think  I was six years old when  I decided I was going to grew up to write novels, and my family all knew about it early.  So did The New Yorker, which got a steady stream of my short stories–one a week, at least–almost as soon as I hit puberty.

I say all this as a lead up to admitting that I didn’t get any work done today, or at least not any that I  can keep.  I am not an “emo” writer, as my sons would put it.  I’ve got no patience with the sort of person who doesn’t put finger to keypad for weeks at a time because “the work just isn’t flowing” or “I just can’t seem to get inspired.”

Writing is like anything else we do.  The only way to do it is to do it.  If the work is going badly, the best solution tends to be to just whack away at it until you shake yourself free of whatever inner hesitation is holding you back.  I’ve often had to whack my way through impossible plot or character tangles that wouldn’ work out because they couldn’t work out.  When  I’d made a big enough mess, I’d finally see I had to just cut about fifty pages and start again at some earlier point, and then everything would be all right.

There is one thing, though, that can make it very difficult for me to write, and especially very difficult for me to write fiction.   That’s what I read.  Of course, most of what’s available for me to read has no effect at all on the way I write, because the narrative voice isn’t particularly strong or the mechanics aren’t particularly good or bad.

And I can read almost anything and still write nonfiction.  If nonfiction goes wrong, it’s almost always because I haven’t thought out the argument well enough, or done enough research, or something else that’s procedural and can be fixed in an organized way.

With fiction, though, I almost never know when I start how I’m going to end, and the project depends on my ability to get inside my characters’ heads and let them work out their lives on their own.  In a way, it’s like being able to hear music inside my skull.  Different characters have different music.

And some writers are so tone deaf, I can’t hear anything inside my skull after I’ve read them, except maybe the pounding that means I need some aspirin.  The Da Vinci Code was like that for me, and some of the cutesy-wootsey, giggly-wiggly cozies.

Some writers have such strong narrative voices that they’re all the music that’s left when I’m done with them.  The early  Stephen  King was like that.  I’d read The Shining and then half sound like King for a week. 

Some writers, though, are sure things–I can write fiction when I’m reading them, and sometimes I  can actually write fiction better when I’ve been reading them.  Sometimes it’s not the writer but the particular book.  I can write fiction while reading George Steiner, no matter what the book is, but with Alice Hoffmann it has to be Seventh Heaven. 

Oddly enough, some of the best books for me to read while I’m working are the very “literary fiction” things that make me the most nuts when I’m not.  Ann  Beattie’s characters are a mind numbing array of upper middle class narcissists that make me want to scream most of the time, bu the prose has a good rhythm to it, and the rhythm strikes something in me that works.

Over the years, there have been particular books that have worked all the time, books that even make me want to write when I don’t have a project going.   On the top of the list of those is the novel A Taste for Death, by P.D. James.   I was reading it when I first sat down to work on the first Gregor Demarkian novel in the spring of 1987.   I had it sitting on my worktable right next to the big electronic typewriter I used then so that I could stop and read pieces of it when the writing seemed to flag.

Like most writers I know, I tend to remember clearly only my bad reviews.  I even remember the first professional review I ever saw of a book of mine, the Kirkus on Sweet, Savage Death–“an amateurish mess of a plot.”  Lasst year I got a review from some online guy I’d never heard of that, in the middle of everything, declared, “I don’t understand why anybody would read these books.” 

And, you know, being a writer, and therefore a neurotic, I had a near nervous breakdown over it, even though I’d already managed to get starred reviews for that same book in Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and Library Journal. 

But I’ve been wondering today what that reviewer reads in his real life.  It’s not a question I often ask of revierwers, although  I’m careful when I see somebody on an online forum recommending this or that.  I need to know what they “like” before I can know if their recommendation would make sense for me.

The book in question–the one the reviewer didn’t know why anybody would read–was Cheating At Solitaire, and I don’t think it’s the best I’ve done in my ongoing attempts to be a detective novelist “just like P.D. James.”  But that is something I’ve been trying to do, for a long time, and it’s still something  I’d be happy to achieve.

And  P.D. James has all the elements that the online reviewer seems not to like very much.  Her books are highly introspective.  They not only concentrate on character, but they take place largely in the characters’ heads.  The focus of interest is not on her detective–Dalgleigh is all right, but not exactly charismatic, at least for me–but on the suspects, because the suspects define not only the crime but the social reality in which the crime has taken place.  

This has always seemed to me to be the most intersting thing about murder mysteries, or detective stories, or crime novels, or whatever you want to call them.  It’s even what interests me in Agatha  Christie, who is in no sense a fine writer, or even a particularly serious one. 

And it’s not that I’m interesting in becoming a clone, because there are things about  P.D. James’s world that I do not see in mine, and could not reproduce and still be honest.  James’s London, like that of many British crime writers at the higher intellectual end of the field, is a landscape of failure, real failure, not the spectacular smash of somebody like Bernard Madoff but the small, grinding, petty, pinched day by day of hopelessness and giving up.

I know a lot of people who live in reduced circumstances, as Dame Agatha would have put it, but none who life with the hunched, straining despair of old Miss Wharton and Father Barnes at the beginning of A Taste for Death.  I think there is something deeply antithetical to the  American temperament in the kind of lives those two characters lead, and many other characters across James’s work. 

Still, I have more than a little respect for the fact that James did not resolve Miss Wharton’s problem in the way almost any American author would have done.  At the beginning of A Taste for Death, on the very day they find the bodies, Miss Wharton has developed one of the few emotional attachments in her life, to a street kid who has become attached to her as well, whose own mother is a drunken waste and who needs an emotional connection of his own.

I think almost any American novel I can think of, certainly almost any American crime novel, would have tied up this relationship by finding a way for  Darren (the boy) to be taken from his sodden mother and given to Miss Wharton as a foster child.  In A Taste for Death, Darren is indeed taken from his sodden mother, but the Social Services department not only don’t give him in to Miss Wharton’s foster care, they do eveything they can until they have broken the two of them apart, leaving Miss Wharton to sink back into her unrelenting loneliness and Darren in the care of foster parents who seem more in it for the money than anything else.

It’s probably more true to real life than the alternative would have een, but it is profoundly depressing.   It interests me that it doesn’t bother me that it is profoundly depressing.  I’ve read that book a good dozen times–I’m reading it again as we speak, because I mentioned it last week and then I went looking for my copy in the office–and I find, over and over and over again in that little side plot something very satisfying to contemplate.  Maybe I need a writer who will be realistic about the “compassion” of social service departments, and also about the “compassion” of the people who work in them, who always seem to me to be more interested in their own power and authority than in the damage they do to so many of their “clients.”

But it can’t be just that, because I could say the samething about h alf a dozen novels by Ruth Rendell, and I hate them.  This is one of those distinctions I’ve talked about before.  I’m not saying that  Rendell is a bad writer.  She’s not.  She’s a spectacularly good writer.  And her characters, although unattractive, are no more unattractive than James’s are. 

But I don’t think I’ve ever been as truly, thoroughly angry at a book as I was after reading Rendell’s King Solomon’s Carpet.  The book is one of the ones she wrote as  Barbara Vine, and therefore not an entry in her long running Wexford series, but then I’ve never read any of the Wexfords.  Maybe I’d respond to them differently.

My problem with King Solomon’s Carpet is with a plot not entirely central to the murder, or maybe it was.  I find I  have a hard time remembering what else went on in that book besides the thing that upset me.   And the thing that upset me was this:  one of the main characters is a young woman who wants to be a classical musician.  She has grown up in a home where she has never been encouraged.  Her mother is a monument to spite, a nasty, brutish evil woman hose only purpose in life seems to be to keep her daughter down.  The daughter finally gets up her courage, leaves the maternal home, goes out on her own and tries to follow her dream.

And faile.   She not only fails, but she fails for just the reason her mother said she would–because she’s a bad musician, not even tolerably mediocre.   She fails.  She’s humiliated.  Her mother is allowed an {assumed) triumphant victory–

And if Rendell had been less good of a writer, I probably wouldn’t have been so angry, angry enough that I can’t write about it now, fifteen years later, without getting angry all over again.  But Rendell is very good indeed, and that mother is so real to me, so real on the page, that the only thing I can feel for that book is complete and utter revulsion.  And it’s one of those books, too.  There are some books that you love and then you lose them in the house and can never find them again.  I keep running over this one every time I pick up the dining room.

Which, granted, is not that often.  But there’s a bookcase in my dining room.

I do understand that  Rendell’s portrait of this young woman and her mother is entirely realitic, and much more realistic than the usual story of the young woman who follows her dream and proves everybody in her life completely wrong.  And some of what’s going on with this may be my own relationship to my own mother, at least as it existed before the dementia.

But I think, on reflection, that what it really is is that I sense, under James’s very nondidactic, measured prose, a fondation of objectively derived and steadfastly held moral principles, in the light of which everything that happens is judged.  With  Rendell, I sense no such thing.  Failure and misery seem to exist just because they do.  It what the world looks like when there is no reason or purpose to anything.

I have no idea if  Rendell herself, as a person, is anything like this, if she holds any of these ideas about morality or purpose or anything else.   For all I know, she may be nothing at all like her Barbara  Vine novels.   Maybe I’d see a different Rendell if I read the Wexfords instead.

I just know that what James makes me feel when  I read her novels is the urge to write some of my own.  What Rendell makes me feel is a desire to commit some kind of violence, as a kind of equal and opposite reaction.

Written by janeh

January 5th, 2009 at 1:20 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The Body in the Library

with 5 comments

I’d barely hit the button to publish yesterday’s post when it suddenly hit me–a Romantic sensibility might be behind attraction to various kinds of revolutionary violence, but it doesn’t seem to be necessary to an attraction to violence per se.   Or at least, one needn’t be a Romantic to find something vaguely exhilarating at being in close proximity to somebdy who has done murder.   Bookishness alone seems to be enough of an impetus to that.

Let me try to unwind this a little, since it’s probably confusing.  First,  I’d probably note that Romantics come in right wing as well as left wing versions.  National Socialism was a Romantic movement, as was Mussolini’s brand of Fascism, and most fascisms now, as were virtually all forms of Communism, no matter how hard they tried to portray themselves as “scientific.”  I think you have to have a Romantic sensibility to hunger ater that kind of violence, or to hunger after a vicarious experience of it.

But if you leave the realm of politics and look into the relationships between writers and individual murderers, it’s evident in no time that political orientations matters not at all to the disease. 

And it is a disease, I think.  Robert and Sarahartburn would probably call it original sin.  Signmund Freud would have called it the death wish.   There’s no reason why all of these things couldn’t be true at the same time.  Logic wouldn’t argue against it.

The death wish, however, seems to me to indicate something more like the odd attraction that suicide has for so many people, and the need so many others have to concentrate their fight for “rights” on those rights that kill things–abortion, “assisted suicide,” active euthanasia.  I’ve read a number of arguments by people who claim that it is a contradiction for someone to be both opposed to legal abortion and in favor of the death penalty, but see just as much contradiction in people who oppose the death penalty while at the same time championing the “choice” of getting the doctor to kill people because they’ve become too old and sick.  And if the people in the second camp honestly believe doctors, given the option, will only kill those people who ask for it, they’re too naive to be allowed to vote.

That said, the phenomenon that is the writer entralled by the murderer is an old one, and it occurs across the political and moral spectrum.   Norman Mailer had Jack Henry Abbot, but William F. Buckley, Jr. had a murderer of his own, and close to the same time, with much the same story.  I’ve spent a long time over the last twenty-four hours trying to find the Buckley case on Google, but I’ve come up blank.  I remember it, though, when it happened, and for an odd reason.

The most famous case of a writer attracted to a murderer was that of Truman Capote and the Dick and Perry not ready for prime time burglars who murdered the Clutter family in Kansas.  It wasn’t much of a crime.  It lacked both intelligence and originality.   It wasn’t even particulary brutal compared to the kind of things we now hear about on a regular basis.

On the other hand, Capote didn’t fool himself for a minute.  Dick and Perry were guilty.   He knew they were guilty.  He was fascinated by them and only cared to write about them and to write well.  There are people who say they ruined him, and other people who say the book, In Cold Blood, ruined him.  I’ve always thought Capote ruined himself, but that’s another issue.

In the cases of Buckley and Mailer, however, we have writers not only fascinated by murderers but utterly open to being conned, at least on the conscious level.  Mailer somehow decided that his murderer, Jack Henry Abbott, couldn’t really be a violent man because he wrote well.  He spent a considerable amount of his time, energy and prestige in the effort to get Abbott–an habitual criminal with a brutal streak who had spent almost all his life in prison and already killed one person–out on parole and into the literary life Mailer thought he was suited for.

In a way this was Mailer’s second murderer. His first, Gary Gilmore, was the subject of his book The Executioner’s Song, and it was during the writing of that book that Mailer ran across Abbott.  Abbott’s story was simple.  The murder he’d committed was a case of self defense, and everything else he’d done–and there was a lot of it–was just bad breaks and force of circumstances.

I’m depraved onna count of I’m deprived.

You’d think Mailer would know better.  What is it about writers that we always seem to think that anybody who writes well cannot be deeply and innately criminal?  Mailer helped Abbott get his first book published,  In  The Belly of the Beat, and it’s a very decent book that led to two more.  The first of those two was another memoir, about his return to prison.  The second was a book about what prisone do to prisoners.

But first, Abbott had to do something to get himself sent back to jail, and he didn’t just fail to report to his parole officer.   Instead, less than six weeks after his release to a halfway house set up by  Mailer himself, Abbot got a young writer named Richard Adan in an alley and stabbed him to death.

I wish I could find the particulars on the case Buckley involved himself in, because it was in some ways even more classic.  I do remember that the man was on death row when he wrote Buckley claiming to have been unjustly convicted and asking for help in getting off death row.  There must have been something in the way the man expressed himself, because Buckley took a personal interest, researched the crime, and then began to lobby to insure that the man was not executed. 

I read one of Buckley’s own accounts of this incident, and what I remember is that he asked Truman Capote  if  Capote thought the man was guilty.  Well, Capote said, they usually are.

And this lead to the outrage that I remember so well, to Buckley saying that this exchange proved that Capote was utterly morally bankrupt.  I remember it because, at the time I read it, I thought Capote had a point.  They are usually guilty.   And this one was, too, as it came out in the long run.

It’s like I said yesterday–I wonder what it is that has made so many bookish people, right wing and left wing, liberal and conservative, male and female, so fascinated by violence and so intoxicated by being in the proximity of people who commit it.  Some writers write about violence, of course, and then you can say that the interest is largely professional.  A lot of writers who don’t write about violence take up with criminal types on one level or another, or become attached to famous cases, or decide to do a little side trip into true crime writing when something in the local news hits a nerve.

Maybe I’m just coming back to The  Sorrows of Young Werther, here, and the issue is really the tendency to see artists as “criminals” in relation to “bourgeois” society–the artist is the odd man odd, his sensibility is too fine and his honesty too pure to survive in the vulgar world of business and ambition, he lives forever as a revolutionary of consciousness, if nothing else.  Both  Dostoyevski and Camus write about murderers as artists, after all, and they don’t seem to have been on the same side of anything  politically. 

Maybe politics is a symptom and not an essential here, with writers, with writing, with anything. 

And maybe the proof positive that I’m never going to be a great writer can be found in the fact that, on the few occasions I’ve been presented with people who I know have committed serious violence, all I’ve been interested in has been getting the hell out of the room.

Written by janeh

January 4th, 2009 at 12:24 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

John Brown’s Body

with 4 comments

This is what I think of as “Christmas vacation,” even though, given the schedule for delivery of my books,  I tend to work right through it.   It’s Christmas vacation for my sons, though, so maybe that works. 

Being Christmas vacation, though, I always think I need to hack through my TBR pile, and I’ve got a very large  TBR pile.  It’s large even when I haven’t bought books for months.  For one thing, a good chunk of my college class ended up in publishin, so I have people at most of the major New York houses who know what I’m interested in and are happy to ship it out to me if they run across it.   In the three years after Bill died, I didn’t buy a single book for myself–I couldn’t have afforded to if I’d wanted to–but I didn’t go without anything I wanted to read, either.  College is useful for a lot of things.

The other reason my TBR is so large, of course, is that people send me books out of the blue, hoping that I’ll review them even though  I  have no regular reviewing gig, or hoping I’ll give them blubs.  I try to give blurbs if I’ve got the time to read the books.  I try to give them even if the books aren’t very good.  On the other hand, I rarely do have time to read the books, what with everything going on here.

One of the books I found on my TBR pile this Christmas is called American  Bloomsbury.  It’s by Susan Cheever, who is both the daughter of the short story writer John Cheever and the great-something granddaughter of Ezekiel Cheever, who was definitely on the churh side of the witch trials in Salem.  That in and of itself is an interesting circumstance, because the book is about the Concord of  Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne, and Hawthorne’s great-grandfather was the chief judge at the witch trials in Salem.  Hawthorne was tortured all his life by the connection.  Susan  Cheever gives a page or two to declaring her own tendency to be “haunted” by it.

I don’t mean to be snippy here.  I have no reason to think Susan Cheever is anything but a nice, well-meaning, honest woman who is having a hard time following in a famous father’s footsteps.  I will admit that I have a hard time with people who call themselves “progressives”–I mean, for goodness sake, if youo’re a liberal, call yourself one, and if you’re really a progressive, a child of the Progressive Movement, then you scare the hell out of me for the same reason the Religious  Right does–but the book is both well written and very short. 

I think it might have started out to be a sort of back-and-forth in time.  Cheever writes a bit from the modern  Concord, Massachusetts, has her picture taken in front of Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott once wrote Little Women, describes the gated community that now owns the land off which Margaret Fuller drowned on  Fire Island, and then goes back to her history of the people who lived around Emerson and made up the Transcendental Movement.

I’ve even learned things from this book.  I had been fed the usual drivel mythology about Thoreau and  Walden Pond in high school, then told in college that the man was just a rich dilletante who went “back to nature” but took his laundry into town to be washed.  As it turns out, both those story lines are mythologies, and neither of them are close to true.

Thoreau didn’t “go back to nature” at Walden Pond.  He grew up poor, hunger-inducing, grindingly poor, and he stayed that way all his life.  The only comfort he ever knew was when he lived in a spare room at Emerson’s house and did odd jobs around the place.   He went to Walden when he and Emerson quarreled and Emerson was no longer willing to have him in the house.  Emerson owned the property on the pond.  He loaned it to  Thoreau and Thoreau built a shack for himself where he stayed for two years because he had no other choice. 

I know I’ve been obsessing lately about New England between the Revolution and the Civil War, but this time I’ve actually got a connection with murder and bloodshed and even  Lizzie Borden.  Lizzie Borden was a New Englander, too.

In the meantime, I find it interesting to note that, at least in America, it seems always to have been true that class and money were not the same things.  Thoreau and his family were so short of wherewithall that they often had nothing to eat but root vegetables and game, but Henry and his brother John went to Harvard.  Education was more of a necessity than food or warmth or a roof that didn’t leak.  When I was growing up, we called this attitude “plain living and high thinking.”  You can still find it lying around in places.

The circumstance that reminds me of Lizzie  Borden is, of course, the problem of John Brown.  For those of you who know nothing about American history–and lots of you aren’t Americans, so there’s no reason you should–Brown was a radical abolitionist in the era just before the American Civil War.  He would have been a radical abolitionist in the  Civil War, but he managed to get himself hanged before it started.  This was neither surprising nor unwarranted.

Back when I first brought up Brown, I think in connection with Bill Ayers, somebody  posted to the comment board that at least Brown was a real revolutionary.  He took real risks with his life.   He wasn’t just hanging around coffee houses trying to sound dangerous when he wasn’t.

And it’s true enough that Brown took real risks with his own life.  It’s also true that he was a homicidal nutcase, and a world class thug.   And he made no secret of his activities.  In an era when the demarcations between states were much stronger than they are now, when you could “go over the state line” and be immune from arrest by the state you left, it was less risky than it is now to boast about felonies miles from where you’d committed them.

The felony in question was the raid on Pottawatomie, Kansas n the night of May  24, 1856. 

I’m not saying here that John  Brown didn’t serve a righteous cause, becuase he did.  John Adams said, at the very founding of the country, that allowing slavery to continue under the Constitution would prove to be the worst decision we ever made and would haunt the nation forever, and I think he had a point.  But the “raid” at Pottawatomie is sometimes called a massacre for good reason.

Brown and his sons–they were often called his “men” in contemporary press accounts, but almost all Brown’s “men” were sons or sons in law–set out on horseback after dark and went from one remote farmhouse to another.  Once they got to a house, they would storm it, drag the adult men outside and then murder them.  Some of these men were shot.  Others were literally hacked to pieces.  The killings were done in full view of the men’s families.   At the farm of James Doyle, Brown and his sons dragged James and his two adult sons away from their screaming wife and mother and younger brother. 

What’s more, none of the men murdered on the night of the  Pottawatomie raids owned slaves.  They were only suspected of being pro-slavery, and of being willing to vote to bring slavery to Kansas. 

I think “homicidal nutcase” fits here, even if we allow some of the events preceeding thre raid–a raid by pro-slavery forces from Missouri into Kansas a few nights before, the brutal beating of Massachusetts senator Charles  Sumner by pro-slavery Senator on the floor of the Senate itself–as mitigating factors.  The beatin of Sumner was inexcusable, but more a matter for the District of  Columbia police than for an act of vengenace, and the raids from Missouri were brutal and destructive but more along the lines of causing general mayhem than cold blooded butchery.

There is simply no possibility that Emerson, Thoreau and their friends did not know what Brown was, or what he’d done.  They still came to his lectures in Concord and invited him to speak in their homes.   What’s more, they were thrilled to meet him, and passionate in defense of them. 

What fascinates me is that Cheever, although she acknowledges that this was a moral lapse of some kind, spends no time at all wondering if the things they believed in led them inexorably to their support of something they should not have supported.

I don’t mean their convictions against slavery.  There were plenty of abolitionists out there who had no use for Brown, and who saw him–probably rightly–as a hindrance to the cause of ridding the country of the peculiar institution. 

I do mean that this seems to be another case of bookish people with strong feelings about their need to become “authentic” in some way they don’t think they are being drawn to violence in other people, drawn to violence as if violence itself is the only  real authenticity, dreawn to it the way drunks are drawn to liuor.

This is, of course, the whole point in Camus’s The Stranger and in Crime and  Punishment as well, that the only way a man can get free of the “artificiality” of civilization is by committing murder, and best of all by committing murder with no practical motive at all.

Those little gatherings in Concord parlors for John Brown and his sons remind me of the “reception” Leonard Bernstein gave for the Black Panthers–all such “receptions” are given not in spite of the violence of the guests of honor but because of them.  And they are always given by people who profess to believe that civilization is “artificial” and that human beings only do wrong at all because they have been corrupted by it.  

I said this had something to do with Lizzie Borden, and I meant it, and not just with Lizzie Borden, either.  To the extent that this country’s culture is now and has been a “romantic” one, as romantic was defined by Yvor  Winters a few posts ago, I think we have a fascination with violence, and an attraction to at least some of the people who commit it.   To the extent that this country’s culture is now and has been a Puritan one, we’re like Cecil B. DeMille–we need sermons and tits.  We can only indulge our fascination with violence when we can put it in the context of a moral fable.

Lizzie Borden.  Myra Hinckley and Ian  Brady.  Fred and Rosemary West.  Ted Bundy.   Jack the Ripper.  Hannibal Lecter.  Che Guevera.  Good old Fidel.

We tell ourselves we’re just interested in their psychologies or we’re supporting their rigthteous causes or whatever it is that makes it possible for our Puritan side to allow our romantic side to revel in blood, but really I think there’s just a part of us that likes the feel of that psychic drunk.

Written by janeh

January 3rd, 2009 at 8:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Murder Mystery

with 4 comments

Well, it’s the new year, and I’m feeling a lot cheerier, so I’m half obsessed with murder and mayhem, or something.  Not really.  Yesterday, for some reason, I spent a lot of time thinking about Lizzie Borden.  The Borden case continues to fascinate a good solid swath of the American public, and for all I know of other publics as well, and I think it may have something to do with the fact that there isn’t any sex in it. 

But what really started me thinking about Lizzie Borden was that I remebered a ook, written in the eighties, I think, or possibly a little earlier, written by a woman who had been a young girl in one of the “better” families in Fall River, Massachusetts, at the time of the crime.  The  Bordens were a member of those same “better” families, and the book was fasinating because the woman who wrote it was quite clear that, in her recollection, the entire social establishment of  Fall River knew that Lizzie was guilty and did everything they could to obscure the fact so she wouldn’t be convicted.  Then with the acquittal safely in hand, they stopped talking to her.  Lizzie’s own sister stopped talking to her a few years later, propelled out of the house they shared because of mortal fear for her life.   At least, that was the rumor.

Here’s the thing.  I understand why people would want to read a book like that.  I understand why people are fascinated by Lizzie Borden.  What I don’t understand is why people read murder mysteries.

Or “crime novels,” if you prefer.  I personally think the term “crime novel”  was invented in order to get myseries out of the mystery section of the bookstore, and the reviewing pages, and into the consciousness of the general public.  But it seems to me that “crime novels” are so much in the consciousness of the general public that it sometimes looks as if there’s nothing else on offer.

And not just in books, either.  There’s television.  I mean, how many versions of Law and  Order and CSI

Back in the first “golden age” of detective novels–there’s an alternative term for you–there was a fairly easy division between British (Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, amateur detectives, country houses) and American (hard boiled private eyes walking down mean streets and meeting women who slept around and murdered people). 

Okay, that’s not fair, and there were of course other kinds of detective novels even then.  The police procedural has been around from the beginning.  The television shows mentioned above, the ones that clone themselves every forty-five minutes, are police procedurals.   And there have always been true crime or nearly true crime stories–about Jack the Ripper, about Dr. Crippen–although those tended to be written more like horror novels than like detective stories. 

But what interests me, at the moment, is the mountain of material on offer in books and on television–in movies, not so much–that is one kind of detective story or another, so that almost anything anybody can do has already been done forty times last week.

That wouldn’t necessarily matter, because there really aren’t a whole lot of different plots out there to choose from.  Shakespeare never invented a new plot in his life, and yet he was able to make everything old new, just by being Shakespeare.

Most people are not Shakespeare, or  Stephen King, but what we have now is not just the same plot over and over again, but the same sensibility.   This is what I think of as the “I’m a cop, and I know that all human beings are really scum” sensibility.   You can substitute something else–private detective, social worker–for “cop” and have it work quite well, and some people do.  So we have a ot of different kinds of cops and private detectives.   We’ve got pathologists, park rangers, insurance investigators, forensic psychologists–you name it.

What’s more, all these people live in a world where crime is not only pervasive, but committed willy-nily by all sorts of people from all walks of life.  It doesn’t matter who you are.   If you’re Mother  Teresa and you show up in one of these novels, or on one o these television shows, you’ll be a phony, a liar, and a fraud, and that’s if they’ve decided to like you.

A lot of people describe this sort of thing as “realistic,” but it isn’t, really.  Virtually none of us live in a world like this, and I’d guess that most of us are honest enough not even to be able to pretend that we do.  Out where I live, we don’t lock our doors most of the time.   I lived in New York for years and knew only one person who was ever mugged, robbed, or touched by crime in any way, and she was walking home alone up Broadway at three o’clock in the morning on her own.  He took her wallet and otherwise left her alone.

For all the reputation Americans have gotten about being violent and crime ridden, a number of writers who have come here from England and Western Europe over the last decade have remarked on just how very little of it there is, not only from what they’d expected but from what they were used to at home.

Of course there are terribly crime ridden neighborhoods in some places, but most Americans don’t live in them, and the neighborhoods and towns we do live in are largely stable and secure.  And there are drugs, because whereever there are teen-agers there are drugs.  There are not, however, gangs.  What there are are various kinds of people at various levels in the middle class, some of them good, some of them bad, most of them indifferent. 

If we go back to the first few days of this blog–that novels create a moral universe and ask us to live in it–my question is why anybody wants to live in this one.  There is,  I suppose, a whiff of the old hard boiled private eye magic going on–everybody is scum but me, I’m the lone pillar upholding the good and the right and the true–but even that doesn’t remain constant. 

I get a little nervous,  I think, at so many people who want to believe their world is worse than it is, and that their fellow citizens are worse than they are.   But I also get nervous at the one alternative that seems to be available in any quantity:  the sugar coated world of the modern “cozy,” a world that exists nowhere and never did, a situation comedy world with a crime in the middle of it.

As if a crime wouldn’t matter to people more than the winner of the bake-off does.

Cozies are like police procedurals, and serial killer novels, and hard boiled private eye novels–there are good ones and bad ones.  Charlotte MacLeod wrote some very good ones before her death.  I picked up The Family Vault in paperback my last year in graduate school, the first mystery I’d read in a decade and a half, and it’s probably responsible for the fact that I went on to write them.

But the essence of the cozy is the cute, and the funny, and a vision of human personalities and human relationships shaped by punch lines and lack of real conflict.   I sometimes think that “lack of conflict” is the entire reason behind the cozy as a subgenre.  These are books for people who do not want to think, do not want to feel, and do not want to be distrubed by anything like anger or hatred or greed.

There’s a kind of person who shows up on Usenet news groups and e-mail discussion groups who is allergic to anything that smacks of disagreement–no, no, we can’t have people angry with anybody!  and I want to say my piece and you have no right to criticize it!  I have an essay on the main site, called “Janes Rules of the Road,” that is an enormous fulmination on this sort of person.

I’ve become increasingly convinced, however, that these are the main audience for cozies.  A debate without disagreement is a contradiction in terms.  So is a murder without somebody being deeply and abidingly angry at somebody else.  They are like that “fan” who wrote in a while back–they want to be “entertained” and not reminded that the world is full of uncomfortable things. 

In both cases, I suppose, we’re looking at people who want fantasy and not life.  One kind, and by far the larger, wants a fantasy of ultimate mutual degredation.  The other kind wants a fantasy of ultimate irresponsibility.

What baffles me is that there are so many of them, and they say the same things over and over and over again, and nobody seems to get bored.

In the real world, most people are decent enough and law abiding enough and well meaning enough, and when they get seriously out of line they present an anomaly that has to be dealt with on many different levels.   There are writers–P.D. James, again–who try to do this, but there are very few of them, and I’ve got no evidence to suggest that readers are looking for them.

So I want to know–why does anybody read “crime novels,” “detective stories,” “murder mysteries,” call them what you want?   What do the readers get out of reading what they readd?  what are they looking for when they read?  And why read the  same thing, over and over and over and over and over again?

Maybe I’m still in the slough of despond, and just don’t know it.

I will, however, nominate for greatest “crime novel” of all time, P.D. James’s A Taste for Death.

I’ve got a copy of it around the office someplace.

Written by janeh

January 2nd, 2009 at 8:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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