What are your thoughts on the genre vs. literature debate and the concept of crime fiction as a document of cultural history?
I think real crime fiction – or at least the best crime fiction – always makes an attempt at social realism. The best crime novels – and films noir – have always struggled to be contemporary, more so than most genres, so they often end up as time capsules of a certain place or era. Plot and character aside, Raymond Chandler’s novels are glimpses of life in Los Angeles in the 1940s. Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key – in my mind, his greatest novel, better than The Maltese Falcon – tells us a lot about American big-city life in the late 1920s, early ‘30s, or at least a certain type of life.
Later on, John D. MacDonald’s novels were vivid time capsules of Florida in the 1950s and ‘60s, when development began to rage out of control and wheeler-dealers were carving up the wetlands. No so-called ‘mainstream’ novelists were addressing that quite as directly, but MacDonald’s books allowed him to do it in the context of a crime novel. They were also prescient of where it would all lead, his 1977 novel Condominiumbeing a good example. His 1962 pre-Travis McGee book A Flash of Green is ostensibly a crime novel, but it’s also one of the best Florida novels ever written. Is Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers – which won the 1975 National Book Award – a crime novel? It fits all the criteria. So do almost all of Pete Dexter’s books; his Paris Trout also won a National Book Award. Does that make them ‘crime writers’?
Richard Price, in my opinion one of America’s greatest living novelists, used to take offense when his books were referred to as crime novels, though all of his recent books, from Clockers on, fall squarely into that category. He spends more time with characters and social observation and dialogue and scope, but they are, at heart, crime novels. George Pelecanos is moving further away from genre writing with each book, but he’s still considered a crime novelist. Coincidentally, both of them wrote for the HBO show The Wire. Was that an attempt at social realism or a crime drama? It was both. It addressed an entire catalog of social concerns, but was also a terrific cops-and-gangsters story that entertained on all those levels as well.
The great gangster films of the 1930s – especially The Public Enemy and Little Caesar – all began as novels that tried to delineate a certain American character and show the social realities – Prohibition and the Great Depression – that created them. Despite what he’s said, I think Price does write crime novels – great crime novels – mixing in social concerns and biographical elements, as does Pelecanos. New writers would be better off trying to emulate them rather than Chandler and others of his ilk, especially when it comes to affecting that phony first-person tough-guy noir voice. As great as Chandler’s books were, the style was a cliché by 1950.
How has this literary history affected contemporary reading preferences?
I think readers fall into two camps – those who want their crime and thriller novels to reflect life as it is, and those who just want an escape from the everyday, will accept the wildest contrivances imaginable, and are perfectly fine with a novel that bears no relation to anything that has ever actually happened at any time on the planet. Both are equally valid, I guess. But I think only one of them is actually worth reading – or writing.
Does the recent trend towards fully developed criminals and villains in crime fiction indicate a broader desire to identify with those who break the law in the spirit of wish fulfilment and perhaps even a humanitarian concern?
All that is true, but there’s more to it as well. Crime fiction is always – at least at its best – an attempted explication of things that are troubling or otherwise inexplicable – sudden death, crime, violence, etc. That fear of violence, coupled with a protagonist who can deal with it and master the situation, is a pretty strong wish fulfilment fantasy. But personally, I’m also fascinated with novels and films that focus on the criminal as the protagonist – the ‘Parker’ novels by Richard Stark/Donald E. Westlake are a good example, as are the books of Eddie Bunker, E. Richard Johnson, Peter Rabe, etc. These are less about heroic wish fulfilment and very much about alienation and survival, outsiders who make their own code and accept where it will take them – including possibly prison or death.
In fact, their alienation has led them to the point where they don’t want to be part of society, at least not anymore. Two of my novels, 2005′s The Heartbreak Lounge, and Gone ‘Til November, due out in the U.S. in Jan., devote almost half of their narratives to the point of view of the ostensible villain or criminal.
One of the best examples of this split narrative, of course, is Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon. You sympathize with the killer, Francis Dolarhyde, even though he’s a brutal murderer who ultimately must die. Essentially there are two kinds of crime fiction, just as there are two kinds of horror fiction: stories that progress through chaos and end with order restored, and stories that end with no order restored, and in fact more chaos.
All the great noir films fall into that latter category, even if they seem to ostensibly fall into the former. A good example of the latter is Chinatown. The case gets solved, the truth revealed, but everyone is worse off than before – good people suffer and bad guys get away. Taxi Driver too – Travis has his catharsis, but he’s no better off than before and, in fact, his pathology may be even more entrenched. James Ellroy’s novels follow similar patterns, I think. Questions are answered, mysteries solved, but things are as screwed up as ever, if not worse. Somewhere in the middle are the stories where order is restored, but the doing of it changes the protagonist forever, and not in a good way. Again, Red Dragon is a great example. Will Graham kills the Tooth Fairy – and prevents countless future murders – but it costs him his sanity and nearly his life.
Are critics right to worry about the bandwagon effect of sympathetic criminals in crime fiction?
I doubt it. Most crime fiction has little to do with actual day-to-day crime as perpetrated on the streets and in the houses of the U.S. or U.K. If you were to judge from current crime fiction, you’d think the two countries are awash in serial killers, even though that type of crime is extremely rare. I don’t think people read crime fiction to learn how to deal with crime. I think they read it for escape and the pure narrative pleasure of a well-told story in which major issues – like the lives of characters we care about – are at stake.
All of us feel alienation at one point or another – the conflict between isolation and community is an essential and primal human conflict. The allure of the criminal outsider is that their outsiderness actually empowers them. They not only survive outside of society, they flourish. And that’s a seductive fantasy. Hence the eternal popularity of the gangster film. They started making them as soon as they started making movies and they’re still making them today.
Do you wish to reveal the root causes of crime in your work?
Personally, not so much. I am interested in looking at different walks of life and how people become criminals – how they got dealt a bad hand or made one bad choice and how it changed their lives forever, the whole nature/nurture/character/destiny thing. But as far as analyzing social structures, no. I leave that to George Pelecanos, Richard Price, David Simon and the rest of the writing staff of The Wire.
Is the critical world doing society a disservice when it prevents consideration of the serious issues that such crime fiction raises by setting it apart from undefined ‘literature’ and well beneath it in terms of merit?
I think crime fiction gets as much critical attention as it deserves, at least in the U.S. – it may be different in the U.K. There are a lot of crime/mystery novels published every year and the majority of them aren’t that good, mainly formulaic genre fodder for an already existing audience, not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with that. The good and worthwhile books do get critical attention, though sometimes it takes a while. Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, John D. MacDonald and Lawrence Block were all popular crime novelists, but the majority of critical attention they received came later in their careers.
But things are better now than they used to be. Back in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, most crime fiction was published as cheap paperback originals. Now those same types of books are published in hardcover by major houses and reviewed by The New York Times. Lee Child is hugely successful, but Jack Reacher is essentially the modern-day equivalent of the Fawcett Gold Medal series heroes of the 1950s and ’60s. So there has been increasing critical/mainstream attention in the last 30 years, and that’s good. But the ultimate critical attention, of course, is someone laying down their money to buy your book. If you’re selling 10 million copies of each book, you’re doing something right.
If a more visceral emotion goes with curiosity satisfied, is it the love of seeing confusion restored to order and poetic justice served?
I’m sure that’s part of it, yes. And for the hope that order can be restored, though we know that it never really is. Catching a murderer is a societal imperative, but it doesn’t heal the wounds and emptiness left by the crime. To quote James Ellroy, “closure is bullshit.” Nothing is ever the same again.
What do you make of Tartan Noir?
I can’t say I’ve read much, as a large majority of it isn’t commonly available in the States. I’ve read some early Rankin, but not enough to speak intelligently about his work. I have enjoyed Allan Guthrie’s books, but I’m slightly prejudiced in that we’re friends and I contributed to an anthology he edited, though it has yet to be published. Coincidentally, Louise Anderson’s Perception Of Death just showed up in the mail this week, though I haven’t read it as yet. Going back a few years, I did read Gordon Williams’ The Siege of Trencher’s Farm, and likely have a Campbell Armstrong novel or two around, as well as odds and ends from other writers.
As far as British crime fiction, I’m very partial to the books of Ted Lewis – I’ve read them all – and Derek Raymond, aka Robin Cook. I’m about to start a Martina Cole novel, which will be the first of hers I’ve read. I’m woefully under-read on Scottish writers though, it seems.
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