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Detective Stories

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Sometime this month–it may already have happened; I admit to being less than attentive to the content of commercials–a movie called Sherlock Holmes is going to open. 

I tend to be relatively in favor of somesthing like this, because I like Holmes.  And I like Robert  Downey, Jr. who is playing Holmes, although the real Sherlock Holmes will always look, to me, exactly like Basil Rathbone.

What bothers me, at the moment, is that when I do pay attention to the commercials, it looks as if they’ve managed to make a Holmes movie with lots of action and shooting in it.  And I don’t get it.

For me, at any rate, the most attractive aspect of the Holmes stories has always been the fact that they relied on intelligence and critical thinking–God, how I hate that term–and not on action, that the focus of the stories was on a man thinking. 

It’s what I like about Hercule Poirot and  Miss Marple, too, and what I like about Martha Grimes and P.D. James.  If there is a real distinction between Golden Age fiction and the fiction of most of the stuff produced present day, it’s just this:  that the Golden Age and a very few people writing now are writing about thinking, and most “crime novelists” today are writing about action.

I am, I think, in a minority here.   I fall asleep or go to the bathroom during fight scenes at the movies, and action sequences in books make my eyes glaze over.  I literally do not understand why people find this sort of thing “exciting.” 

And it’s not that I’m entirely immune to the attractions of violence, either.  I can rubberneck at accidents with the best of them, and I’ve got a morbid fascination with those World’s Most Shocking  Crimes shows that come up on television every now and again.

Although I really wish they’d dispense with the D-list “celebrity” commentary that clutters up a lot of them.

Two people fighting, though, or people shooting at each other, or scenes where the cop tracks the killer through the subway tunnels of New York in order to stop him from blowing up the  Empire State building just bore the hell out of me.

And they bore the hell out of me in a way that natural disasters–in movies at least–do not. 

The movie 2012,  for instance, is one long cascade of natural disasters:  earthquakes, tsunamis, erupting volcanoes, you name it. And I loved every minute of it.  In fact, I love disaster movies of all kinds.  Hit California with a 10.2 on the Richter scale?  Absolutely.  Level half of Oklahoma with a series of killer tornadoes?  I’m in.  I even liked The Day After Tomorrow, in spite of knowing that it was, scientifically, a piece of crap.

There’s just something about human on human violence that doesn’t work for me.  It’s why  I can never get through War and Peace–too much war, and I really don’t care about battles.  When I was in school, the big “classic” book everybody had to read was The Red Badge of  Courage, and I could barely force myself through it. 

But it’s not just war.  Thomas Harris is an excellent writer, but I just don’t care about Hannibal Lecter, and descriptions of what serial murderers do to their victims always come off to me as completely useless.  I don’t understand why readers would want to read that kind of thing, or why moviegoers would want to see it, often in graphic detail.

It’s not just that it’s gross, it’s that it seems to me to be, at base, nearly definitively stupid.  Hannibal Lecter is supposed to be some kind of genius, but he’s a guy who can’t think of anything better to do with his time than eat other people’s livers with fava beans on the side.

Every once in a while, TCM will do a day of old mysteries from the thirties and forties.  There was a time when movies did portray detectives detecting–not only Sherlock Holmes, but Nick and Nora Charles, The Saint, and a dozen B-movie imitations.  Last week there was a marathon of movies about an amateur gentleman detective called  The Falcon.   On any objective level, those movies were awful–but, well, I watched pretty much all of them.

If you ask people in the business today, they’ll tellyou that this sort of mystery does not sell very well any more, or that it only sells respectably if it’s part of a “cozy.”  I suppose there must be some truth in that, because I can only think of a couple of writers still doing traditional mysteries–not cozies–and ending up on the best seller lists.

Every time I bring this up–and I know I keep coming back to it–I get a little rain of books from various people trying to prove me wrong, and those books almost always are the same thing:  if not actually cozies, then cute attempts to “write just like Agatha!”

In other words, the books are set in the Thirties or Forties or even Twenties, they take place in impossibly quaint English villages…and all the rest of it.

I don’t know why nobody seems to be writing, or reading, books about a detective who solves crimes by thinking rather than running around shooting at things, set in the present in ordinary places.  That is, after all, what Agatha  Christie did, and what  Conan Doyle did, too. 

I’m always brought up short by the fact that Agatha herself still sells very well, and that most of those Golden Age mysteries seem to be in print, or at least the ones from the best selling writers of the period.

Maybe it’s that readers perceive such work as “quaint” and “cozy” simply because it’s written about an era in the past, an era that feels remote and whose writing conventions barred the use of bad language and graphic sex.

Of course, I’m not much interested in bad language and graphic sex, either, but at least those things tend to be annoying without being endless.  Chase scenes can go on for forty pages. 

Sometimes it seems tome that some readers are trying to turn books into television, that what they’re looking for is a place where they can just turn their minds off and slide. 

Boom! Bang! Crash! Shoot! Run! Jump! Be in danger!

I suppose the one thing it doesn’t require is thinking.

Written by janeh

December 5th, 2009 at 9:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Detective Stories'

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  1. I’m with you – I’ve been seeing those commercials on the TVs where I work out and all I can think is, what does THIS have to do with Sherlock Holmes?

    I will say that the guy who appears to be playing Watson looks perfect for the part – dim, with muttonchops.


    5 Dec 09 at 11:23 am

  2. So close, but yet so far. I’m with you 100% on classic detection, and the excitement of rigorous thinking. Tey, Heyer and Sayers are on the Bookcase of Exile and Stout is in cardboard boxes because there wasn’t room.
    “Action” stories I can live with, while “relationship” stories–always excepting romances–leave me between indifferent and actively hostile.
    Natural disasters AS SUCH leave me completely cold, but the human response to a natural disaster–or an unnatural one, come to that–is a very different story. Which is why Niven & Pournelle’s LUCIFER’S HAMMER made the Bookcase.
    And which is why there is an important distinction within action and adventure stories. Some just tell how close our hero came to buying the farm this time, or assure us that he is, indeed, faster or stronger than the bad guy. (When I was very young, Andre Norton did a land office business in juvenile adventures in which our hero or heroine won by following some mysterious impulse she never quite understood. I liked Andre Norton, but those scenes were always a disappointment.)
    But there is another type. In fact, there are two. There is the story in which the real decision-making is moral. The physical danger exists to put pressure on our characters, but deciding–or doing–what’s right is the important thing. This is Lois McMaster Bujold pretty well straight through–again, I recommend SHARDS OF HONOR and THE CURSE OF CHALION–and Edgar Rice Burroughs on a good day. (The high points are Tarzan suppressing evidence of his birth so the estate will pass to Jane’s fiance at the end of TARZAN OF THE APES, and Carthoris of Helium restoring the woman he loves to her lawful protector at the climax of THUVIA. “My acts have constituted proof of my honesty of purpose. Good-bye.” Stiff-necked and victorian–and we could use them by the gross.)
    The other type involves winning the fight through intellectual superiority. O’Donnell’s old “Modesty Blaise” books were a classic example. They were written to formula to a degree: Chapter 1 almost without exception showed the champion Modesty or Willie would have to defeat, and about the penultimate chapter one or the other did so. But they were never stronger, faster or luckier. Like a classic detective story writer, O’Donnell put all the clues before his readers and dared us to find a way for Modesty or Willie to win by being smarter–at least in terms of tactics–than their opponents. David Drake and David Weber have also taken this up in recent years. The setting is science-fictional, but the reader who pays attention to his text knows the capacities of both sides, and when Daniel Leary wins it’s not because God looks out for the Republic of Cinnabar, but because Leary is a better tactician than his opponents–and if we were clever enough, we could have seen it coming. This too is an intellectual triumph.

    There are crime stories without moral or intellectual content, but they do not sit on my shelves. There are adventure stories in which being faster or stronger is the entire point. They don’t sit there either–but this does not mean my shelves are devoid of either detective fiction or space opera. The distinctions within the broader genre are critical.


    5 Dec 09 at 11:46 am

  3. See, I’m kind of looking forward to the new Holmes movie. Of course, the intellectual and scientific part of Holmes is important, but previous movies have seriously underestimated his physical prowess. I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with it.

    I love Robert’s list to death. Lois McMaster Bujold’s shopping list is no doubt a paragon of intellect and morality!

    I also love the Mary Russell series by Laurie R. King. Yes, it’s a hell of a Mary Sue, but it’s also very intelligent and intellectual and a lot of fun.



    5 Dec 09 at 2:21 pm

  4. In the Holmes stories, he was always surprising Watson by turning up disguised as someone else after time away from home. Maybe the upcoming movie is filling in what he is supposed to have been doing while he was away. And he & Watson were both fairly active in The Hound of the Baskervilles if I remember right. I’ll wait & see what the movie is like (I don’t have tv, so I haven’t seen any ads or previews). To me, Sherlock Holmes looks just like Jeremy Brett, & it will be hard to accept someone else in the role.

    One author you might try, Jane, is Louise Penny. She’s not on any bestseller lists, but judging from the authors you like, I think you might like her. The characters always end up having to tackle moral or ethical issues, and the detective (an inspector with the Quebec Surete) reaches his solution by a combination of observation, thought, and contributions by his team of investigators (he chooses all the misfits in the force, & turns them into valuable assets).

    I also love Robert’s reading list (in fact, I can look at the bookcase on my right & see most of them). And the Mary Russell books are great. There’s one more way a book can get to me–if it’s funny. Donna Andrews & Elizabeth Peters are right up there with the others for me. The only way I can bear a thriller–one where there’s chasing going on–is if it’s played for laughs. If they’re serious, forget it. No serial killers, either, please.

    There are days my brain just *wants* to slide, but neither thrillers nor serial killers will achieve that for me.

    Lee B

    5 Dec 09 at 10:26 pm

  5. I’m not much interested in chase scenes or ‘real’ action on movies or TV – space battles are fine, but I never watch police or spy thriller type shows. I think I’d like natural disasters even less, but I don’t really know because I don’t watch them.

    I can read almost anything, but I don’t like the books that go into detail about exactly what the sadistic serial killer does each time.

    I’ve seen the trailers for the new Holmes movie, and I’ve got my doubts about it. I’ll probably go see it anyway.


    6 Dec 09 at 7:54 am

  6. I plan to see the new movie, but I also plan to pretend it’s a different character. That way I can sit back and enjoy the very modern interpretation of Sherlock Holmes.

    I have several book cases in my home – the upper shelf of each is reserved for ‘disposable’ books. I’ll read a lot of ‘recipies included’ books then get rid of them. My permanent shelves are reserved for authors that I re-read – if only occasionally. I get cravings that force me to return to Ngaio Marsh or Emma Lathen. Tony Hillerman gets a shelf as do Joan Hess and Sharyn McCrumb. What do they all have in common – I really don’t know. I do know that when I finish one of their books (even if I’m re-reading it), I feel like I’ve been to a good party or eaten a good meal. There is a feeling of satisfaction.


    6 Dec 09 at 1:23 pm

  7. I agree that chase scenes in plot driven detective novels and long descriptions of violence and so forth leave me cold. As for mysteries or detective fiction centering on characters who reason things through and not so much on plot, I think I disagree. In my opinion, the Harry Bosch novels by Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin’s Rebus books, the Dave Robicheau novels by James Lee Burke are more about character and theme perhaps than about violence and bang-bang shoot ’em up plots. Violence is there but not the main focus. All these writers’ works may not reach the NYT list but do sell quite well considering the print runs indicated in Ingram I-page.


    6 Dec 09 at 7:37 pm

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