September 14, 2008

Mysterious Reading Plans: Another Idea

I'm still struggling with the question of what, if anything, to add to the reading list for my winter term course on 'mystery and detective fiction.' Just to reiterate, it's not that there aren't lots of good mystery novels out there, but I'm trying to see what type of novel I might assign that isn't already represented on my list, what author or book models some kind of significant recent development rather than a modern twist on a familiar genre (such as the hard-boiled private eye, or the British police procedural).

Here's my most recent thought. I've just finished watching the last season of The Wire. I'd love to incorporate television crime drama into the course--but I lack the expertise to do so responsibly, and even if I thought I could study up, there seem to be a lot of logistical problems. I was thinking about what I admire about The Wire, though, and part of it is the way it uses its 'cop show' framework for broad (or do I mean deep?) social criticism: many critics have used the adjective "Dickensian" for it, and I think they are right in that it resembles a novel like Bleak House in the range of its interests and in its strategy of showing not just connections between, but also variations on common themes across, a wide social spectrum. In other words, among other things it is an updated take on the 'condition of England' novel--though of course it's the 'condition of America' that's at stake in The Wire. I don't have anything on my syllabus that is so overtly ambitious as social criticism, though of course many (perhaps all) of our readings are at least implicitly critical of key aspects of modern life (The Moonstone and The Maltese Falcon being the best examples). Ian Rankin uses his detective fiction for something like this purpose: Fleshmarket Close is one that comes to mind. But I like Knots and Crosses, already on my syllabus, for its twist on Gothic fiction. Still, I could replace it with one of Rankin's more socially and thematically capacious novels. Or, it occurs to me, I could look at the books written by the guys who wrote for The Wire: what about Richard Price's Clockers, for instance, or his more recent Lush Life? The problem is, I haven't read these yet--and also Clockers appears to be 600+ pages. What about David Simon's Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets? It's non-fiction, so perhaps that's out of line. I'm reading Denis Lehane's Mystic River right now. It's certainly compelling, but it's as much a thriller as a detective novel, and it's an inward-looking psychological drama too, not unlike Knots and Crosses (both remind me of the line from Gaskell's "Old Nurse's Story": "What is done in youth can never be undone in age!"). Lehane (and Price, and George Pelecanos) have a lot of other books between them, but Clockers seems to be among the most critically praised. If it is the kind of book it sounds like, it would bring the course around in an interesting way to Victorian ideas about crime and society and about fiction's role in addressing these issues--but in a 'gritty' contemporary way. But then maybe I'd need to cut something.

I have about three weeks now before final book orders are due. Sure, I can read another 600-pager. No problem.


Jonathan David Jackson said...

Dear Rohan:

How about The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith, a fascinating post-colonial and even feminist excursion into the mystery/detective genre set in Zimbabwe, featuring a Botswana woman, Precious Ramotswe as the sleuth.

But it seems to me that when we teach detective fiction (and any of the classic genres) we might best be concerned with whether the texts we assign are intellectually and emotionally honest, to use John Gardner's legendary criterion from his Forms of Fiction.

For Gardner, intellectual and emotional honesty means that the fiction is not reducible to the probable gimmick of its structural/generic formula:

- if it's horror it does more than scare;

- if it's mystery/detective fiction it is more thematically than a superficial, weakly characterized, stereotyped forum for solving a crime or fulfilling an investigative procedure;

- if its erotica it does more thematically and structurally than "get us off";

- if its romance (yes, small "r") it does more than traffic in unearned emotional responses like sentimentality;

- if it is science fiction or fantasy it does not become a mere vehicle for the fetishization of gadgets, technology, and past/future cliches;

- if it is self-consciously experimental it does not traffic in avant-garde structural gimmicks that reduce the work to its supposedly oppositional pose.

Beautifully enough, in The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series sleuthing is not the gimmick on which the works depend. Rather, sleuthing is just one of the means that the works convey vital ideas about inter-cultural and intra-cultural conflict, justice, and belonging.

For Gardner every fictional genre was valid and every genre had the potential to be truly literary, or intellectually and emotionally honest.

This then is the threshold of quality that I face when I share the classic genres with my writing students.

As always, your blog is wonderfully enjoyable to read.


dorian stuber said...

Hmmm... I am a bit less enamoured of No. 1 Ladies... than your previous commenter (though I still managed to read 4 of them...), since, in the guise of offering Western readers a shrewd taking apart of Orientalist cliches, it simply seems to reinscribe them.

In terms of Richard Price, who I like a lot, I'd recommend Samaritan, especially for its self-consciousness about how we tell stories, esp. mystery or crime stories. It is also a bit shorter than Clockers. I would call Lush Life an interesting failure.

My own, left-field thought is that the course needs a text that interrogates the bourgeois, volitional tendencies of the genre. By that I mean a text that considers crime structurally, and casts into doubt that any detective, PI, or hero possesses the sort of agency routinely valourized in crime fiction. The Wire, brilliant show that it is, remarkably gets this. (Compare it in this regard to Homicide, which I also love to pieces, but which is a bit more conventional in terms of its characterization.) But as you say, it's tricky to know how to teach it. (I've been trying to figure out how for years.)

So my suggestion is one of Jean-Pierre Manchette's crime novels from the 1970s, such as 3 to Kill or The Prone Gunman. They are part Marx, part Baudrillard, part I don't know what. Also very short. Not lovable, but that's the point. A good way to talk about what work style performs in a crime novel.

For something a bit more conventional (its hero is immensely sympathetic) but still quite through in its socio-political critique, you might try the Marseilles trio by Jean-Claude Izzo. The first one is called Total Chaos. Also wonderful for foodies.

It's so much more fun to make syllabus decisions for other people than for oneself...


Rohan Maitzen said...

Jonathan, No. 1 Ladies... is an interesting thought. I like them, but I have found them so understated I wasn't sure what to do about them. Both you and Dorian suggest (though Dorian's take is more negative) that I've underestimated them. I think something like Gardner's criteria, especially the first and second, already implicitly guide me, which is why I often reject books that are enjoyable enough to read in this genre as not right for teaching. Requiring your students to invest a lot of thought in something means you yourself stand behind it in some way.

Dorian, thanks for more interesting suggestions. At this point I guess I'm running out of time to thoroughly survey the possibilities (I'm getting more at The Valve, too). All of them are, as usual, sort of humbling--no matter how much you read, there are always, always more books.... I think your point about agency and The Wire is a really good one, and that may be one of the reasons it has been reminding me of Bleak House, in which the fog is really too much even for the best-intentioned characters.

One suggestion at The Valve was Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. I liked it very much when I read it but didn't really think of it as an example of detective fiction. I can see it being a very popular choice with students; that's another one I'll go take another look at.

Julie said...

Hi Rohan,

Here's my 2 cents on mystery ideas.

For something Dickensian that gives a sprawling indictment of corruption a la The Wire, how about James Ellroy's L.A. Confidential? It's a fabulous book... he's created a whole world that feels authentic in 1950s L.A. It might be tough to teach because it's deliberately un-politically correct, but I think that is part of what he's trying to do as an author - show us a less sanitized version of the 1950s.

I also thought Walter Mosely's Devil in a Blue Dress was a pretty good idea, with it's 1940's L.A. African-American setting. You could get into some discussions about race and class and have a nice contrast with the British drawing room style mysteries earlier in your syllabus. And Mosely has created a great character in Mouse.

Finally, I thought one of the bibliophile novels that have been so popular lately might be a little different. Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind is set in 1945 Barcelona and concerns a mysterious book.