Sunday, September 09, 2012

Otto Penzler is wrong.

Last week, Publishers Weekly posted an op-ed by esteemed publisher and bookseller Otto Penzler entitled "Why the Best Mysteries Are Written in English". It is one of the most wrong-headed and detestable things I've ever read on the subject of crime or mystery fiction.

First off, let me say that I have nothing but respect for Penzler as a publisher and editor. I have been a faithful reader of his annual Best American Crime Writing (later Reporting) collections since 2002, and the creepy signpost logo of his Mysterious Press imprint is, to me, a guarantee of quality. Mysterious Press has published some of my favourite crime writers: James Crumley, Jerome Charyn, Paco Ignacio Taibo II. So when Penzler has something to say, I am damn well paying attention.

Unfortunately, what he has to say here is ridiculous, and frankly, beneath him.

He begins with a thesis and a disclaimer:

It is an inarguable fact that virtually everything of interest and significance in the history of detective fiction has been written in the English language, mainly by American and English authors.
This is not chauvinistic, racist, insular, or opinionated; it is merely reportage.

Racist? Okay, it's not racist. Chauvinistic, insular or opinionated? And how! Reportage? In a very broad sense, it is, but it's also poor reportage.
Penzler's argument starts off silly, claiming that fictional detectives can only be successful if they are based on real-life models. To me, this unqualified bunk. Fiction is, by its very definition, made-up. The factuality of its origin is entirely irrelevant. Richard Price, who describes his writing style as "photo-realistic", told Paris Review this:

Actual writing is no fun for me. Going out and hanging out and getting impressions out there on the streets, that’s fun. I was running with everybody. I was like one of those guys who jumps off the stage into the audience and gets passed around. I got myself passed around for three years. So you’ve got all these good lines in a notebook, but then what? I think it was Norman Mailer who said that the fact that something really happened is the defense of the bad novelist. At some point I got so hooked on research that after a while it seemed out of the question to make things up. Ultimately, everything in Clockers was pure fiction, but in the beginning I had to learn enough about the texture of truth out there in order to have the confidence to make up lies, responsible lies.

Penzler goes on to describe how these models of proper detective fiction can only exist in democratic societies. Very excellent books--written in English, mind you--by Dan Fesperman, Martin Cruz Smith and Philip Kerr put the lie to Penzler's weird claim that heroic police protagonists can only exist under British or American democracy. Then he brings up poor old Auguste Dupin, Edgar Allan Poe's amateur sleuth, and it becomes clear that Penzler is talking here about a very specific kind of detective story but, infuriatingly, he never really pins down what that is. Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is the only English language story he cites.
The column devolves from there into broad generalizations about detective stories of other countries. Russians write "novels of simplistic sex and violent crime"; Asian mysteries "tended to be of the Arabian Nights variety"; Scandinavian potboilers are "depressing, with dark skies, cold winds, self-destructive alcoholic detectives, and an utter lack of humor."
"If you want to wallow in noir," Penzler writes, ScandiCrime books are "a good bet."
Whatever argument Penzler is making here reeks of whatever we're going to call the crime fiction equivalent of Rockism. He's not really arguing that the best detective stories are written in English, by Americans or Brits, he's tautologically saying--reporting, going back to his disclaimer--that detective stories in the style of American and British writers are best written by writers who are American or British. Which is a fine thing to say. You know? If he had written a column that started along the lines of "Hi, I'm Otto Penzler, one of the most important behind the scenes figures on the American crime fiction scene of the last 40 years. Here's what I like and here's why I like it." I would have read that with gusto and learned something. Instead, we've got this muddled mess of ill-got conclusions from ill-considered premises that Penzler's own work as an editor and publisher disprove.
As I mentioned before, many of Paco Ignacio Taibo's books--among them Leonardo's Bicycle, my personal favourite detective story ever--were published in English by Penzler's Mysterious Press, translated from Spanish. Granted, L's B definitely falls outside of the tradition of Poe for which Penzler seems to be claiming exclusive authenticity.  But it was because of Penzler that this book became readable to me, an act for which I am obscenely grateful. Reading Taibo opened my eyes to what sort of writer I could be, what sort of writer I wanted to be. (Read him, he's great.)
But--and this is most definitively my opinion, I make no claims of reportage here--two of the finest series that do adhere to the Anglo-American police procedural tenets were written in languages other than English. From Sweden, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's ten-volume Martin Beck series remains unsurpassed in the police procedural subgenre. Contrary to Penzler's accusations, the series is full of humour, as the following passage from The Fire Engine That Disappeared shows:
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.
For more on the Beck series, go read Canadian critic Rohan Maitzen's excellent essay over at the Los Angeles Review of Books.
And then there's Belgian Georges Simenon and his inexhaustible Maigret novels.
By my reading, the Beck books and the Maigret books defined the contemporary crime novel and I rate them, on a whole, higher than the works of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. And I like those guys a lot. But that's me.
I'm not nearly as well read as I'd like to be, but here's a quick rundown of a few other non-English crime writers I enjoy.
And then, if you want to go even further, dig Akashic's great international noir series, and meet really good crime writers from far-flung reaches of the globe like Barcelona, Mumbai, Haiti or Toronto.
Speaking of Toronto, Penzler made absolutely no mention of a certain crime-writing country that shares a common language with the UK and America. As my Internet friend, acclaimed Ottawa-based crime novelist Peggy Blair tweeted to me "And no mention of Canada, which has produced some pretty incredible mystery writers. Like our own award-winning Louise Penny."


Peggy Blair said...

Brilliant, Emmet. Cheers, Peggy

Malcolm said...

More, please.