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Whine Country

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The title today is in deference to Robert, who complained that I’d given up on the “whine” titles without having gotten to this one.

I hadn’t really given up on the “whine” titles.  I just felt really scatterbrained yesterday and it didn’t feel to me like the post had anything coherent in it.

Today, I think I’ll just sort of tick off the various things I’ve been thinking of:

1) For an aside, the harpsichordist–I wasn’t trying to depict a particular harpsichordist, but a particular harpsichord.  That is, one made by Peter Redstone, a Brit now living in Virginia. 

It’s one of those things.  Some day, I’m going to have both the intestinal fortitude and the funds to commission Peter  Redstone to build a dual keyboard harpsichord for me, and then I’m going to buckle down and learn to play the thing. 

I’m not the kind of person who tends to wish for things without doing something about getting them, but for some reason I’ve spent the last ten years mooning about this and I’m no closer to the goal.  I’ve got no idea why.

But I really want that harpsichord.

As an aside to an aside–yesterday was Gustav Leonhardt’s 82nd birthday.  Leonhardt is the greatest living harpsichordist, and definitely the one whose CDs you want for Well Tempered Clavier and the Goldberg Variations.  He made his professional debut the year before I was born, which I admit makes me feel a little depressive. 

2) In regard to Bill Pronzini’s essay–neither I nor any of the other suspect-focussed mystery writers I can think of fits either of his definitions.

Both Bill’s character-driven and plot-driven categories refer to the status of the detective in the case, not of the suspects. 

The character-driven category in that essay has the problem I was talking about–in no time at all, the detective’s life must look and feel like soap opera, and leave all connection to reality whatsoever.

Most successful mystery series of that kind–I’m talking about artistically successful, here–are limited to eight or nine volumes at the most.

But when I’m talking about character-centered mysteries, I’m taking about mysteries centered on the lives of the suspects in the case, who change with the crime they’re confronted with and who are different in every book. 

3) Gregor Demarkian has, in fact, changed considerably throughout the course of this series.  He just did it in the first four or five books.

Even a suspect-focussed mystery of the kind I’ve been talking about has to have at least one book that is focussed on the detective, and that is usually the first.  In the first book of a character driven series, whehter it’s my kind of character driven or Bill Pronzini’s kind of character driven, there has to be a complete or near-complete examnation of why the detective is a detective and why it is that he’s detecting.

I don’t think that even this, though, and not even something like Bill Pronzini’s idea of a character driven series, can save the amateur detective.  The situation is just inherently implausible.

Interestingly enough, as I write, there is, in this area, an ongoing unsolved case that may or may not be a murder–it’s a missing person–in which there is most definitely an attempt by the (possible) victim’s family to investigate the case on their own.

Not only have the amateurs not solved anything–in four years–but the result has been lawsuits and arrests for harassment by the alledged “suspects,” and a police and judiicial system implacably determined to get them to butt out.

The half hearted attempts to fend off the amateur sleuth that occur in most detective novels are nothing at all like the full force opposition that would occur in real life, and I can never believe that Jessica Fletcher would get anywhere near any of the evidence, never mind a solution.

I also don’t believe that the police in subsequent cases would ask for her help.

Contrary to some impressions, Gregor Demarkian is not an amateur.  He is a consultant to police departments, a position for which he is officially hired and officially paid, except in a small number of cases where he is doing favors for friends.   And even there, he defers to police departments.  He doesn’t go running around trying to out-sleuth them from behing.

4) To answer a question from a couple of days ago from Steve Lewis’s blog–there are a number of reasons to choose to write mystery novels instead of mainstream novels.

One of them I’ve already referred to.  That is the fact that the mystery provides a frame, just as a poetic form, like a sonnet, provides a frame.  Frames are useful things to have, and they make some stories interesting where they would not have been on their own.

But I think, in the end, the most important thing is this:  the choice of a literary form is first and foremost the choice of an audience.

It’s who you want to write for, who you want to talk to, that matters in the end.

The contemporary mainstream novel is not particularly mainstream.  It tends to be “literary,” and it is aimed at a very small group of people who share tastes, politics, education and culture to an extent that is only equaled by the audience for atonal music and art installations.

People here complain about the endless “literary” novels concerning neurotic coming of age stories or upper middle class people having angst about nothing in particular–but such books exist because they speak to an audience that shares these concernes.  Ann Beattie writes not only about overeducated upper middle class neurotics, but FOR overeducated middle class neurotics. 

And, okay, I’m sometimes one of them.  She writes beautiful prose.

Mystery readers, though, come in all sorts of varieties.  There are overeducated upper middle class neurotics among them as well as working class straightarrows who always liked to read (lots of waitresses–I don’t know why).  There are conservatives and liberals and libertarians and nutcases.  Really.  You should see my mail.  There are religious people and areligious people and outright atheists.  There are vegans and carnivores.

This country has become so polarized in its politics and its culture that I can’t think of many places outside genre fiction where large ideologically and intellectually diverse groups of people come together and listen to the same thing. 

I’ve got nothing against talking to overeducated upper middle class neurotics.  I am one, in many ways. 

I just prefer to talk to a wider audience.  And there’s a lot to talk about besides whether the killer used an axe or a ceremonial sword and wanted his uncle’s inheritance or a chance to marry his aunt.

If you see what I mean. 

I think, in honor of GL, I’ll go put on the Goldberg Variations.

NEVER listen to that when somebody plays it on a piano.  It was written for the harpsichord for a reason.

Written by janeh

May 31st, 2010 at 8:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Whine Country'

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  1. Good luck with the harpsichord. My “some day if I had the money” list is two commissioned oil paintings and a rulebook–none of which will ever happen.

    Jessica Fletcher could be of immense use to the police, properly utilized. Once she shows up on a case, discard all of her friends and relatives as suspects, and concentrate on the non-hispanic white male with the highest socio-economic status. He’s your man. The only exception I ever saw was when he was covering for his duaghter, the highest SES non-hispanic white female.

    For a Perry Mason rerun, line up the suspects and determine whose guilt makes for the happiest ending. Simple rules like this let one call the outcome early and then go make popcorn in the middle of the show.

    Fully agree about audience. The “hook” of the genre–whether one means plot or setting–provides a wider audience than contemporary mainstream. Worth noting the intra-genre squabbling, of course: country house vs hard-boiled in detective fiction, planetary romance vs “hard SF” over in science fiction and so forth. I’ve never heard anything about how one set of sub-genre varies from another, but they surely do. And note that with very few exceptions, if you put a mystery in a romance or SF story–and I’ve seen some well-done ones–the readership will not cross the “genre barrier.”

    Like covers, labels can be frustratingly important.


    31 May 10 at 9:43 am

  2. OOPS! Make that “one set of sub-genre READERS varies from another.” Yes, some people will read any number of genres or sub-genres–but not all, and the average varies.


    31 May 10 at 9:46 am

  3. Jane wrote: “The contemporary mainstream novel is not particularly mainstream. It tends to be “literary,” and it is aimed at a very small group of people who share tastes, politics, education and culture to an extent that is only equaled by the audience for atonal music and art installations.”

    This may be the funniest thing you’ve ever written in the blog, Jane. The mental image is priceless.

    Since of course, to a large extent, all three subject areas have the *same* audience. *snort*


    31 May 10 at 12:11 pm

  4. Gads, I’m pretty sure I’m an overeducated upper middle class neurotic too, and the absolute LAST thing I want to read about is my own angst!

    I read across a lot of genres, but I need the characters to be complex and realistic, the psychology to be right, the science to be right, and the writing to be good. It can be luminous, or it can be simple and straightforward, but it has to be good. I guess I’m just picky.



    31 May 10 at 1:39 pm

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