Saturday, March 14, 2009

Thrillers and class

Can we talk for a moment about the world of mysteries and thrillers and its bizarre obsession with class? This week I went to the library and took out my usual stack of crime fiction, hoping one or two of the half dozen would work out all right, and this blurb caught my eye. It's on the back of the Peter Abrahams novel Deception, and is taken from a review by Michele Ross, published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, of Abrahams' last book, Nerve Damage:

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.

22 comments:

rmellis said...

Well, duh. It's because a lot of thriller writers *themselves* don't respect the genre and feel the need to prove that they are in fact real writers. And they have to dismiss "literary" writers as posers so that they can carry the mantle of "true writer" themselves.

Some literary writers are posers, of course. In fact, I would say that the "literary" novel IS a genre.

bloglily said...

I've never noticed this purported snobbery about mysteries among the readers I know -- so many people who read mysteries and thrillers also consort with that other genre, you know, the "literary novel." But these things you point out DO sound defensive about class. I think class differences can be very interesting -- one of the things I like about Dorothy Sayers is the Wimsey/Vine matchup. I wonder if there is some notion afoot that you only have integrity as a writer of mysteries and thrillers if you and your characters have union cards and grow up with relatives who work as cops and firefighters. I think this might be an American thing, actually -- English mysteries tend to be all about mixing up the classes, with nobody ever really coming out on top.

Anyway, I did like hearing about how you come home from the library with a stack of mysteries and you don't feel compelled to read them all. I do the same thing, but sometimes I feel guilty about checking out things I abandon ten pages in. (why do I feel guilty? because I'm a working class catholic girl, of course.)

jrlennon said...

I'm from working class Catholics too, and I used to feel the same way about abandoning books. But as 40 draws nearer, I find I've been able to leave that stuff behind. Catholicism, too, I'm afraid.

Anyway, I agree, British mysteries are different, though many of them address class in their own way. Ruth Rendell is obsessed with it--I can never decide if she's a hardcore anti-snob or secretly a snob herself. And class sure is a good subject for a novel, I agree. When the subject bothers me, it's because I sense that the writer is unwittingly channeling his own pretensions and prejudices, rather than dispassionately observing the world's, as is often the case in these thrillers.

jon said...

Charles Willeford wrote some insanely weird and funny novels in the 50's and 60's in which class, and writing hard bolied fiction, are explcitly, but surrealy part of the plot. In The High Priest of California the protagonist is a womanizing used car salesman who in his private time listens to avant-garde jazz and is translating Ulysses into common speech. It's meant as a joke but it struck me that Willeford was serious about feeling totally marginalized because he is working class. Pulp fiction in America has been working class fiction in the past which has also attracted literary and intellectual fans. Look at the masters, Dashiel Hammet, a Marxist, lover of Lilian Hellman but totally working class and hard boiled with manners offensive to rich or sophisticated people, and Raymond Chandler, who wrote for the pulps, had a British public school education and was an oil executive. He felt very defensive about his literary abilities. I read a terrible dish of his work, a snide dismissal, by Joyce Carol Oates. I'll take him over her any day. Noir and pulp fiction is attractive precisely because, at its best, it can talk about things polite people don't discuss in America, especially resentful, criminal working class drifters and our tendency towards fraud and violence. Noir movies play this out endlessly. But the marginalization, and popularity, allow for innovative and interesting stylistic eccentricities, like the lighting in noir film and the weird poetry of Chandler and Cain, or the analytic savagery of Hammet. this is the bog from which modern American mystery writing grows, and though there isn't the need for the resentment anymore, it persists as a habit. And there's always that Joyce Carol Oates sneering down at it. Sorry for going on so long! Oh yeah Willeford's Miami books are amazing, for anyone who hasn't read them.And Jim Thompson's first person narrator sociopaths are terrifying.

Mark said...

Are you sure JC Oates dismissed Chandler out of snobbishness, Jon? She's written romance novels under another name and a whole bunch of "serious" horror/suspense under her real name.

Jim Thompson does that Culture-dropping thing. The Killer Inside Me: "Oh yeah, by the way, I can read Spanish and French and German and some of them other foreign languages, even though I can't talk em too good and this ability of mine will not figure into the plot in any serious way." It doesn't to me suggest that Thompson is insecure but that he expects his audience to be ignorant and easily duped. And there often is a big difference in this regard: literature means not having to pander; the presence of pandering suggests that marketers are at least partly in charge. Noir doesn't have to pander, but it often does, probably because publishers underestimate the intelligence of working-class readers.

James M. Cain walks the line almost perfectly, to my ear. He is extremely accessible while also honoring the intelligence of readers. He has uneducated people speaking in their own words, about their own world, which sometimes includes dispassionate observations about class differences, and they are smart as hell and convincingly murderous. He treats sensational material seriously, as literature that just happens to have a supercharged plot. Therefore he is awesome.

Maybe Ward Six should make a crime/noir/mystery list to go with your "B" list. I don't get too many mystery recommendations from the world's foremost poststructuralists.

jrlennon said...

Great comments, you guys. I will have to check out Willeford, jon, and I agree, though Oates has done some great stuff, I'll generally take Chandler over her as well. The opening of The Big Sleep is still one of my favorite first paragraphs ever.

It would be interesting to investigate the social habits of science fiction, as well--another genre that I love but which all too often seems mired in its traditional hammy, puerile roots.

As for the poststructuralist, I always seem to be the one recommending things to him. When I applied for my job, he actually asked me for crime recommendations during my job interview. Hell, maybe that's why I got hired--he ended up liking The Laughing Policeman.

jon said...

I was surprised by her comments too, knowing she has written piles of genre fiction. I tracked down the review: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1687 (NYRB, The Simple art of Murder,Volume 42, Number 20, December 21, 1995)
It is apparent she really doesn't like Chandler for all kinds of reasons, but rereading the very, very long review piece, it is less one-sided than I remember. She does think that it is absurd for the Library of America to have lavished two volumes on him, and footnotes to boot.

M. L. Kiner said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
jrlennon said...

Sorry, we welcome your comments, but that was an advertisement.

McQ said...

Just After Sunset was in the bag I grabbed as I rushed out the door to drive T to the ER after his recent, ahem, fly fishing accident. I read "Harvey's Dream" (the shortest story in the collection) aloud to keep us preoccupied in the exam room.

Take it from T: "Particularly creepy" doesn't really do the story justice if you're listening to it while awaiting a qualified medical professional to officially confirm you've really f*ed something up with that sharp knife of yours...

jrlennon said...

Oh my...fly fishing accident? Do tell.

zachary-cole said...

Off topic, but was the "advertisement" from me? My computer's been bugging out over the last few days, so a kamikaze spam post wouldn't be ordinary.

jrlennon said...

No, zc, it was someone advertising their own book. We talk about our writing here, obviously, and welcome other writers doing the same, but it wasn't a contribution to the discussion, just an ad.

Zachary Cole said...

Phew! Good to know.

Elden Zzacharias Colson said...

You know, this discussion reminds me of the mostly-forgotten science fiction writer Gorlike Salmon, whose work peppered some of the lesser 50s pulps . I examine his life, his obsession with wearing denim jeans to readings, his near-constant rejection by the New Yorker and his (unsurprising) physical altercations with the head of a Norman Mailer fan club in "The Gall of Gor", which can be found at any fine independent bookstore (I had a rather unfortunate incident with Borders' Millhaven branch that I'd rather not get into.)

- e.Z.C. -

jrlennon said...

OK, that all sounds very intriguing, but "gorlike salmon" and "the gall of gor" have no internet presence whatsoever. Why, why can't that be real, eh? Would somebody please get on the stick and make it real?

Zachary Cole said...

I'll need 14,000 francs and a snappy jumpsuit, no questions asked ;)

Aos said...

You know I think to some degree the dumbing within thrillers is an American phenomenon and not that common in other countries (including Canada). As someone already mentioned the Brits might have a bit of the opposite problem (cannot read Christie at all for her blend of condescention and shallowness). Of course, it is all generalization and there are many smart, and not hiding it, writers out there in all the genres.

Found the same stream very strong in sci/fi, and could it be that fiction is simply paying too much attention to the willingly stupid television roles so common right now? Dumb appears to masquerade as honest or sincere.

Or is it simply lesser writers imperfectly taking the lessons of hardboiled and mistaking tough for substantial?

Derek Haas said...

Hey JRobert,

Sorry you didn't like the book and had to "scratch" it... all my best... - DH

jrlennon said...

!!!

Sorry, Derek, it just wasn't my cup of tea! Thanks for stopping by...feel free to condemn my books on the internet after reading one page...

Derek Haas said...

Wait, you only read one page? You ARE demanding! ;)

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