Saturday, September 26, 2009

Enough Crime Fiction Already

How many ways are there to end up dead?

Don't get me wrong -- I enjoy a good detective story as much as anyone. And the genre's prolific practitioners, from Edgar Allan Poe to Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson and many more, have left us some wonderful works. But it seems to me we may have exhausted the possibilities of inventing new and ever more bizarre ways for people to be murdered. I don't doubt we can keep it up, but I question whether the exercise is worthwhile. It may even be destructive.

This doesn't tarnish my admiration for the likes of Chandler. For example, one of the many times that his hero, Phillip Marlowe, wakes up after being knocked unconscious, what does he see? A beautiful woman of course. And what does he say when describing her? "A glass of beer stood tall and amber at her side."

Is that great writing, or what? It's a line that sings, a piece of iambic poetry that jumps off the page while bringing the woman into focus. She's elegant because she sips her beer from a tall glass. At the other end of the literary scale, Mickey Spillane's hard-boiled Mike Hammer would have said, "she had a beer next to her." Not the same thing at all.

But that's Chandler for you. He had a way of giving you the whole person or place with just a pair of details. So he calls forth an entire room by focussing on the single yellow rose in a vase atop the grand piano. Or the life of a gin-soaked old woman by noticing the dead fly trapped behind her window screen. It's a kind of writing with images that must even survive translation.

Unfortunately few of those who followed after have equaled Chandler in poetry or matched his chivalric sense of bringing order to the chaos of the unlawful. The public demand for more has called forth an endless stream of imitators, many of whom must qualify only as lesser talents. But if they can't write they can still dream up endless new variations on the demented criminal mind, with loads of ingenious ways for them to torture and kill their victims.

I confess I fell into this trap myself some years ago. Combining my fondness for Marlowe with an interest in Miami history, I invented a detective of my own named Jonathan Spare who came down here from New York in the 1930's on a manhunt and stayed. My original idea was to do something different with the genre. There was to be no murder, only a haunting kind of search in which the watcher found himself being watched.

But when I arrived at the end of the novel I was dismayed to find that three people were dead, and my hero had killed two of them himself. What happened? Two things, I think.

First, the genre makes demands of its own. When I was about two-thirds of the way through and trying to figure out how it should end, I realized my hero had to confront the evil he had uncovered. If he didn't, it just wouldn't be a story. And confronting it seemed to require doing battle with it, and since good must triumph the evil ones had to perish. Well, they had it coming, after all. And my hero had to be transformed by all this.

The second thing is that I fear the contemplation of these evil deeds must have an effect on the author. We have to imagine what we write to the point of living it. Whatever our characters are up to we have to be there with them and see it through their eyes. One wonders how Jim Thompson, for example, was able to live with himself after spending so much time closeted in the dark and cramped minds of his demonic, obsessive characters.

It reminds me of a story by Jorge Luis Borges where a wealthy man gives a big party. In his basement he has a museum of weapons that he has collected, and one of his prize pieces is the actual knife that was used in a notorious murder. Later, two inebriated guests go down to look at it and end up having an argument. You guessed it: one of them dies. The knife has struck again.

So too with the "mystery" novel. Nowadays there is less mystery in it, but ever more graphic and depraved violence. The audience demands it. The publishers demand it. The movies demand it. The characters and plot demand it. What's a poor writer to do?

In spite of all this, it is not impossible to transcend these demands and to create something truly marvelous. Look what Graham Greene did in The Third Man, where a man searching for his missing and presumed dead friend finds him very much alive, but having caused the deaths of untold numbers of innocent people by blackmarketing worthless medicines. Or his earlier Brighton Rock, in which an average woman rises to heroic stature as she makes it her business to bring a couple of thugs to justice.

More recently Denis Johnson's Resuscitation of a Hanged Man accomplished something like what I had in mind -- his hero, only a part-time detective, seems to end up hunting for himself in a wonderfully detailed and dreamlike archetypal fantasy.

I had an epiphany about all this one year at the Miami Book Fair when I attended a session called "Crime, Real and Imagined." The panel included two crime novelists, one of them a woman new to the field, the other a former NYPD officer. With them was Arthur Jay Harris, a reporter for the Sun Sentinel, who had just published Until Proven Innocent, an account of a real Broward County murder and the police detective who showed that the prime suspect was innocent of the crime.

What struck me about this presentation was the contrast between the ways murder was represented. In the fictional accounts the violence was exciting, and the tension leading up to it was titillating, almost sexual in intensity. The factual book began with the first visit to the crime scene, an ordinary house drenched in blood, and the understandable horror that comes over anyone who has to see such things.

I realized that only the real-life (or real-death) account elicited the normal reaction of disgust and revulsion that most of us have when we actually encounter violent acts. The fictional stories were just playing with the idea. There was no reality behind them, so they had to make up for that with senseless excesses.

That was the day I gave up on my fictional hero. Somewhere in his alternate reality he is free now to go his own way, to choose another profession, one that will not call upon him to become as evil as those he has to pursue. He won't have to go through all those other things I had planned for him in sequels. No hunting for fascists during World War II, no encounters with KKK racists, no agent provocateurs during the McCarthy communist witch hunts.

Maybe he'll sell real estate. That used to be a good business in Miami. He can buy a house himself, settle down, maybe get married and have a kid. He can have a life. And the rest of us can get on with ours.

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