I swear, if one more literary person says in that oh-so-condescendng tone, 'Oh, I don't read ... mysteries,' I'm going to take a novel by Peter Abrahams and smack him on his smug little head.
Where do I start? Good god. I suppose the obvious place is to ask who on earth these "literary people" are who hesitate, repulsed, before uttering the word "mysteries." As a literary person who spends almost all of my time with literary people, I have never met one. Indeed, some of the best recommendations for mysteries that I get come from the English department at Cornell, where I enjoy the benefit of an informal mystery-trading ring with, among others, a wunderkind Shakespeare scholar, one of the world's premier poststructuralists, and a department secretary. In other words, just about everyone enjoys mysteries, and there's really nobody who needs to be smacked on the head.
Of course I'm not going to blame Abrahams for his reviewer's comments. This is my third try at Abrahams, and I made it farther than ever before. But now I give up. He's not bad, but the book is so packed with "good writing" that I can't see the plot for all the fog; "good writing" in this case refers to the florid metaphoric overdescription of mundane detail that writers fill their books with when they're out of their depth. Meanwhile, the protagonist of Delusion is a sexy airhead who can't put two and two together. A pass, for me.
Next on the pile is The Silver Bear, the debut novel, about a contract killer, from screenwriter Derek Haas. It's appealingly slim and gives good flap, but the ponderous first-person narrative lost me within sentences. This is from the first paragraph:
If you saw me on the street, you might think, "what a nice, clean-cut young man. I'll bet he works in advertising or perhaps a nice accounting firm. I'll bet he's married and is just starting a family. I'll bet his parents raised him well." But you would be wrong. I am old in a thousand ways.
Uh huh. Of all the things this narrator can open his story with, he feels the need to tell us, right up front, that he IS NOT MIDDLE CLASS, OKAY?!? What professional murderer would care to ever say any such thing? This isn't the character speaking, here, it's the writer speaking to the audience, assuring them that they will be soon enjoy the frisson of empathizing with somebody outside their immediate value system. This reminds me of why I rarely like any first-person killer novels; I just never believe that this person would be talking at all. Even my favorite thrillerist, Lee Child, occasionally indulges in first-person narratives from his hero, Jack Reacher; these are terrific books, but when you read them, you have to block from your mind the absolute knowledge that Reacher would never in a million years say so many words at once.
Okay, scratch Derek Haas. Bring on the new Stephen King, Just After Sunset, which, let me say from the start, is in places really good. A few stories in here--"N.", "Harvey's Dream", "The New York Times At Special Bargain Rates"--are some of the best things King has written, so hooray for that. "Harvey's Dream" is particularly creepy.
But as regular readers of this blog already know, I consider King to be the king of class paranoia, and he doesn't disappoint. Here we have Henry, the soon-to-be-divorced husband of the protagonist of "The Gingerbread Girl," reacting to the news that she'll soon be visiting his working-class father's beach house:
"The conch shack." She could almost hear him sniff. Like Ho Hos and Twinkies, houses with only three rooms and no garage were not a part of Henry's belief system.
This is classic King--in a world of ghosts, monsters, and murderers, pretension is the ultimate enemy. Of course, Stephen King is very smart, and loves all kinds of literature, and can't resist referring, in his books, to all the great writers, musicians, and artists he has enjoyed in his life. And there is nothing wrong with that. But when he puts this knowledge into the minds of his characters, we get passages like this, from "The Things They Left Behind":
I even remember something one of those South American novelists said--you know, the ones they call the Magic Realists? Not the guy's name, that's not important, but this quote: [long quote from "the guy"]. Borges? Yes, it might have been Borges. Or it might have been Marquez.
Right. One of those guys--it's not like I care. I mean, I don't sit around, like, reading all the time, man. Mostly I repair my car and watch sports, but you know how it is, Mac, the way those Magic Realist quotes stick in your head. To be honest, it really fuckin' bugs me.
This post could go on for pages, as you probably know, if you read mysteries and thrillers. The question, of course, is why? Why is class paranoia the default mode for the thrillerist? You would think that the entire genre was made up of people whose greatest fear is that somewhere out there, some elbow-patched lit prof is thinking he's superior to them. Of course the genre was born in the pulps, which didn't used to get any respect; but of course now they do, they're taught in college classes, and oceans of ink about them have been spilled over the dissertations of the world. King especially is now widely lauded as an inspiration for all manner of literary fiction; he's certainly a powerful force behind my new novel.
Crime and thriller writers need to evolve. It's time for them to assume the habits of self-confidence and literary ambition that people like Stephen King have earned for them, and stop trying to have it both ways.