Sunday, February 14, 2010

It Helps if You Dress Like a Detective: Intro to Crime Fiction

I've always been a fan of crime fiction. I mastered reading on the Hardy Boys novels (and entrenched my fascination with detective work in The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook, which featured a brown colour scheme instead of the usual blue, underscoring its grim purpose) and DC Comics (DC originally stood for Detective Comics, but now it doesn't stand for much at all). When I returned to reading comics as an adult (after a 13-year indifference), I was surprised to find superhero comics generally lumped in with Science Fiction. To me, they had always been detective stories, four-colour morality plays of crimes punished and justice avenged. Even the more glaringly sci-fi stuff like Green Lantern featured readily identifiable elements of crime fiction.
Sure, I was into Star Wars as a kid, but my Sci-Fi/Fantasy interest didn't go much further. On my bookshelves today, non-comic book Sci-Fi appears infrequently. I have some Soviet Sci-Fi, a novel written by a Regina author, and Jonathan Lethem's Gun, With Occasional Music, if that even counts. The Yiddish Policemen's Union won a Hugo, but, hey, come on, that's a crime novel.
Richard Price talks about how he uses the act of investigating a crime as a means of taking readers to place they otherwise wouldn't have access to, be it the tenement courtyards of Clockers or the condo-converted synagogues of Lush Life. The investigation of a crime, especially a murder, is a distorted reflection of the way fiction writers work: building files on their characters, coming up with plausible scenarios and then breaking them down, constantly asking what if, what if, what if? It's no surprise, then, that so many writers use the crime novel as a vehicle to explore larger themes than merely whodunnit, and that there are so many terrifically-written crime novels. The first two entries in our series are examples of this socially aware crime fiction.

The Story of a Crime: The Martin Beck Series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö - This ten-book series is the big daddy of Scandinavian crime lit (Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, etc) and colossally well done. Hyped by Michael Connelly and Michael Ondaatje, this is straight-up police procedural at its finest, but also remarkably potent (but never polemic) social criticism. Before they started this series with Roseanna in 1965, married couple (and affirmed Marxists) Sjöwall and Wahlöö worked in poetry and journalism, and the skillsets of those two trades are used in perfect harmony here. Witness:
Ten yards away stood a lone dismal figure, a pipe in his mouth and his hands thrust deep down in his coat pockets. This was Fredrik Melander of the Murder Squad in Stockholm and a veteran of hundreds of difficult investigations. He was generally known for his logical mind, his excellent memory and unshakeable calm. Within a smaller circle, he was most famous for his remarkable capacity for always being in the toilet when anyone wanted to get hold of him. His sense of humour was not nonexistent, but very modest; he was parsimonious and dull and never had brilliant ideas or sudden inspiration. Briefly, he was a first-class policeman. (from The Fire Engine That Disappeared)

As you can probably tell from that passage, Sjöwall and Wahlöö were not interested in supersleuths or tough guys. American crime fiction is full of disenfranchised mavericks, often working in competition with the authorities, even when they themselves are members of a police force. It's that rugged individualism of one man against the world, or at least the system. But the detectives in the Martin Beck series are presented as civil servants, who solve cases not through passion but through process. They wait weeks for lab results, stumble blindly into breaks, sleuth by way of talking to people and reading reports. In between, they go home to their wives (the books were published between 1965 and 1975 and reflect an era when there were few women in policing), their model ship kits, and Sax Rohmer novels. The series epitomizes Walter Mosley's idea of the Novel as "a pedestrian work of the everyday lives of bricklayers and saints."

Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by Walter Mosley - This is the first of three collections of short stories featuring Socrates Fortlow (the others are Walkin' The Dog and The Right Mistake). Mosley is one of Bill Clinton's favourite writers, and also one of mine. In the Watts neighbourhood of L.A. of the early 90s, we meet Socco, fresh from a 27-year bit in an Indiana prison for the murder of two people. We follow him through his neighbourhood as he struggles to give purpose and meaning to life on the outside. Mosley never shies away from Socrates's darkest parts, and never resorts to sentimentality, all the while creating a remarkably sympathetic portrait of a very hard man. HBO made a pretty damn fine miniseries out of it starring Laurence Fishburne Jr.


softball bat said...

I love crime fiction, I read several novels of Hardy Boys and I found both interesting and exciting, I love the art of reading, when one reads can be transported to history and to enjoy, reading is lovely when you read something that really catches your attention.

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