Sunday, September 14, 2008
Book Order Bleg: If The Wire were a novel…
For some time I’ve been struggling with the question of what, if anything, to add to the reading list for my winter term course on ‘mystery and detective fiction’; it belatedly occurs to me that lots of smart, widely read people pass through The Valve who might be able to help me. Just to be clear, I know there are lots of good mystery novels out there, and I’m not asking for reading recommendations or names of people’s favourite authors (well, actually, I’m always happy to get these). I’ve been trying to bring my list more up to date and 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 the core list (admittedly idiosyncratic, but also reasonably representative, I think, of key developments in the form):
The Longman Anthology of Detective Fiction (for short fiction including Poe, Conan Doyle, Hammett, etc.)
Collins, The Moonstone (first and best!)
Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Golden Age / puzzle fiction)
Hammett, The Maltese Falcon (hard-boiled, of course)
James, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (English literary detection + feminist critique)
Grafton, ‘A’ is for Alibi (feminist revision of hard-boiled convention)
Ranking, Knots and Crosses (police procedural; Scots gothic / noir)
I’ve been reading around for new ideas, some old (Chester Himes), some new (Inger Ash Wolfe, The Calling), some international (Henning Mankell), but I haven’t been inspired by any of them. 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 Dennis 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 (James? Rankin?).
I have about three weeks now before final book orders are due. Sure, I can read another 600-pager. No problem. But I’d be glad to get suggestions. Does this direction make pedagogical or generic sense? Is Clockers the one I should be looking at? Should I leave well enough alone? I should add that I’ve put in the order for the other books, so it’s too late for me to re-think using Grafton instead of, say, Sara Paretskty, etc.
I’m asking myself if Bonfiglioli represents a new development in the form. Possibly. Does the anthology contain the relevant Borges?
As for “Dickensian,” it seems that the show revealed its preference there by having the sententious executive editor in the fifth season repeat it constantly. Clay Davis’s citing of Prometheus Bound was more on the mark.
For something a little different, you might consider an example of the detective novels that have come to dominate Russia’s popular literature market in recent years (their impact is difficult to overestimate: they occupy around one quarter or one third of the space given to fiction in any general bookshop).
In English translation, your best bet is Boris Akunin’s ‘Erast Fandorin’ series, and it is as well to start at the beginning with Azazel (1998), translated as The Winter Queen (trans. Andrew Bromfield: Random House, 2004).
For background and discussion, see the short review article: Anatoly Vishevsky, “Answers to Eternal Questions in Soft Covers: Post-Soviet Detective Stories" Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 45, No. 4 (Winter, 2001), pp. 733-739 [JSTOR]
Have you considered the “crime story” as part of this tradition? From the Newgate Calendar to Jim Thompson to David Simon, it provides an interesting formal contrast with the mystery/detective genre.
Then there’s the postmodern mystery, such as Auster’s *New York Trilogy* or Ishmael Reed’s *Mumbo Jumbo* or something by Robbe-Grillet.
Finally, the spy/espionage novel could be included.
Just some thoughts.
Thanks all, for the suggestions so far. Nobody has an opinion specifically on Clockers?
Luther, one of the (arbitrary) lines I’ve drawn in working on this course is between mystery/detection and crime fiction more generally--just to keep the options a bit under control! The same goes for spy novels or thrillers/suspense novels. Plenty of novels blur these lines, to be sure, but like the equally blurry distinctions between ‘periods,’ sometimes you just need a reason to do one thing instead of something else.
I haven’t read Clockers, so I can’t comment on it, but I like Simon’s idea of going more global or using detective mysteries to look at contemporary issues of trafficking and global crime --- right now I can think of _Dirty Pretty Things_ and _Maria Full of Grace_, but neither quite fits into the detective mystery format.
In a totally different direction, Jonathan Lethem has a sci-fi twist on the hardboiled noir ---- _Gun, with Occasional Music._ And my friend always throws in a “postmodern” mystery story into his detective fiction class, like _The Crying of Lot 49_ or, as someone mentioned above, _Mumbo Jumbo_.
As a student taking that lit class I would want a reason, a central and primary reason for teaching genre fiction, which is defined by its limits, formulaic conventions. All ages have examples of great crime fiction that explode the conventions of “mystery” and “detective” fiction and show them for the rather severe constraints they are: The Odyssey, Les Miserables, Crime and Punishment, Beloved, The Wizard of the Crow. Or at least, I would like the course to critique the formulas/conventions for functionality/dysfunctionality.
By definition, you don’t get the most free play of the intellect in genre fiction, however you may well get something more vital and useful at times - streamlined point and purpose and scope. So I’m not disparaging genre fiction; it can be extraordinarily valuable and lively especially when freed of the repressive norms of the status quo.
Ben Shahn in The Shape of Content emphasizes the great degree to which form is determined by and derived from content. Things change, content (sub-stance) changes, form must keep up. Genre may choke off changes in sub-stance, in under-standings. So conventions of form - seeming largely aesthetic matters - are often more lucidly understood as conventions of content - experience, values, ideas, things and people.
In the Valley of Elah is a high quality classic mystery/detective/crime movie related to the Iraq War. Rendition, also related, is a quality melodramatic example. G.I. Jesus is a high quality atypical surreal and “domestic” example. The movie Missing is a great example of a progressive and classic crime/mystery/detective fiction set in Chile. Romero, more atypical. These are movies - like John Le Carre’s more recent The Constant Gardner film and novel - that marry investigations, detections and mysteries of state crime with individual investigative work and individual human homicides: slain priests, slain journalists, slain social workers, slain activists. Very often they portray middle class status quo types reluctantly moving toward progressive or “radical” understandings and acts, typically due to their involuntary immersion into some intimately connected great crime, usually murder, often corporate-state mass murder individualized. These are examples of crimes typically supported by the US. Canada has its own track record and complicity in some of this too. Canadian naval vessels have been patrolling with US naval vessels mere meters outside of Iranian territorial waters for the past year. Canada’s involvement in Latin American has been atrocious, particularly Haiti. All funded by our tax dollars. The greatest crimes are state crimes, or state-corporate backed. It would be interesting to see to what extent commercial genre crime fiction (or any fiction) has touched on or engaged it.
John le Carre’s novel The Constant Gardner (about murderous pharmaceutical company practices in Africa) seems like the other types of books you are teaching. You may be disappointed that, some new content aside, it is too like them. (At least I was.) After the novel had come out le Carre says he didn’t go far enough. Though I believe he want to Africa to research that novel (or another), the corporate depradations turned out to be worse than he had portrayed. I don’t think he portrayed the new reality there nearly well enough. If he had, I think it would have bent his mystery/detective/thriller genre…all out of genre - all out of commercial genre at least, though there are overly constrictive literary genres too.
Ishmael Reed thinks The Wire and other such works should be submitted to the Jim Crow museum at Ferris State University. From this indispensable interview with Wajahat Ali: http://goatmilk.wordpress.com/2008/03/13/ishmael-reed-interview-3-of-3-jabs-low-blows-and-knockout-punches/. He mentions some works he values. He might have some interesting other suggestions if you dropped him a note.
REED: The Wire - you know, [ David Simon and I] have a running controversy for years. It all stems from a telephone call I made to KPFA [Pacifica radio] when he was a guest there in the 90s. [Chris Welche’s show]. He was going around the country with a Black kid from the Ghetto to promote something called The Corner - it was all about Blacks as degenerates selling drugs, etc.
ALI: Was that HBO?
REED: Yes. HBO does all this kind of stuff. I called in and told Simon, “You’re using this kid.” Later I said it [was] like Buffalo Bill going around the country exhibiting Indians. He got really pissed off and went to the New York Times, where he has a supporter there named Virginia Heffernan, another Times feminist who, when it comes to Black Urban Fiction, can’t tell the difference between the real and the fake; she’s his supporter. She said that George Pelecanos, David Simon, and Richard Price are the “Lords of Urban Fiction,” when the Black Holloway authors like Iceberg Slim can write circles around these guys when it comes to Urban fiction.
Simon, Price and Pelecanos’ Black characters speak like the cartoon crows in those old racist cartoons ["Heckle and Jeckle."] Henry Louis Gates knows this about “The Wire,” yet his right wing blog, The Root, carries an ad for “The Wire” today and a glowing article about this piece of crap. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is an intellectual entrepreneur all right. He condemns my work as misogynist yet supports Simon’s Neo-Nazi portrait of Black people. “The Wire” and novels by Price, Pelecanos, should be submitted to the Jim Crow museum at Ferris State University - this is the website: http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/, where they can have a honored place alongside of some of Robert Crumb’s Nazi cartoons.
When I was researching my novel Reckless Eyeballing, I attended a lecture sponsored by the San Francisco Holocaust Museum, March 26,1984. The program said that the stereotypes about Jewish men in the Nazi media was similar to that about Black men in the United States. I thought, what on earth are they talking about? And then I went out and examined some of this junk, especially the cartoons in the newspaper Der Sturmer - see Julius Streicher Nazi Editor of the Notorious Anti-Semite Newspaper Der Sturmer by Randall l. Bytwerk. I was shocked. Jewish men were depicted as sexual predators, raping Aryan women. They were exhibited as flashers. Both Bellow and Phillip Roth’s books include Black flashers. Jewish men especially those immigrants from Russia were depicted as criminals. Jewish children were seen as disruptive, a threat to German school children and so on. If any one looks at this stuff for example, you’ll find a perfect match for the way that David Mamet, David Simon, George Pelecanos, Stephen Spielberg and Richard Price portray Blacks. They are very critical in their projects about the way Black men treat women, yet none of them has produced a project critical of the way that men of their background treat women.
Unlike Scott, I don’t think it’s one of his best books, but you could try Stone by fellow Valve poster Adam Roberts if you want some SF crossover into the genre. It’s a book where the identity of the criminal and the nature of the crime are both known, but the mystery concerns finding out the reason for the crime—which reason is not, strictly, psychological. It also has a bit on criminality and crime-fighting within techno-utopian societies. (Sample bit: the protagonist stabs a victim through the heart, and she looks down and says something like “Oh, you slipped”—her nanotech is already repairing the damage, and she doesn’t even understand that he’s trying to kill her.)
Regarding “pomo” “detective” “fiction”, you can’t go past City of Glass by Paul Auster (or even the entire New York Trilogy (mid-80s).
You might also like to try Pat Cadigan’s Tea from an Empty Cup (early-90s), which does detective fiction in “cyberspace” context (successfully working with two opposing generic traits or imperatives: how do you determine “who dunnit?” in an environment that is celebrated for enabling people to play with, abandon or invent their identities?).
Finally, I’m also very fond of The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl (mid-00s). As a (kind of) detective novel about Poe’s death, this is great for really ramming home the metafictional possibilities of detective fiction.
Rohan, I agree with you. Here’s a short version of my syllabus for a detective and mystery course I teach in the summer to high school students:
Newgate Calendar (especially Sawney Beane)
Poe, “Rue Morgue” and “Purloined Letter”
Christie, *The Mousetrap*
Films: *M.*, *The Big Sleep*, and *Kiss Me Deadly*
and then I’ve varied the last work:
Himes, *Cotton Comes to Harlem*
Auster, *The New York Trilogy*
Haddon, *The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time*
Haddon’s novel is perhaps the most universally loved novel I’ve ever taught. Every student who reads it adores it, so I cannot recommend it enough. (And you can set it up by teaching “Silver Blaze” by Doyle, from which Haddon gets his title.)
Simon was in Berkeley last week to give a talk sponsored by the Townsend Center for the Humanities. Webcast here:
During the Q & A he talks about his role as a storyteller, about the importance of narrative (in contrasting his work w/ that of Chomsky).
Great discussion. I would add Leonardo Sciascia to the list (Pynchon, Auster, Reed) of postmodern detective novels and note that Jim Thompson’s The Kill-Off might fall into the “mystery” category.
Also, there’s some nice feminist revisions of the analytic detective story, such as “A Jury of Her Peers” and Unpunished.
Thanks again for these fascinating suggeestions. One thing this kind of thread does for me is expose (or remind me of) my limitations. Wayne Booth has proposed that (for ethical reasons) we regularly teach (as enthusiastically as possible) works we really dislike, so we don’t get stuck too comfortably in our biases. I think an equally good principle would be to teach regularly, for intellectual reasons, texts we need to work hard to learn enough about to teach. The postmodern suggestions, the SF suggestions, and the international titles would all require some real (but no doubt beneficial) stretching of my expertise--keeping in mind I’m a fairly traditional Victorianist the rest of the time! The only convergence I see here is towards Auster’s City of Glass, making that the most likely new idea for me to follow up right now.
Haddon’s book is a very tempting thought: I really enjoy it myself, and it is certainly unlike the other books on my list in terms of the kind of mystery it is about. In some ways, I can see that for me that would still be playing it safe (as would Benjamin Black’s [John Banville’s] Christine Falls, another one that has been on my short list for a while.)
I too really like “A Jury of Her Peers”: it’s one of my ‘must haves’ when I choose my anthology for this course.
I’m starting to feel that I just don’t have time to make a very far-out choice for next term, but I sure have a good list of things to read and think about before I do this course again.
If I could throw in one more post-modern and international suggestion (which also touches on, maybe not SF, but certainly speculative fiction) would be Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.
If I teach that summer course on mystery lit and film, I almost feel a responsibility to teach Haddon’s *Curious Incident* again. Ten finicky teenagers loved it, and almost none of them was a reader in his/her off-time.
It’s accessible, but it also has great depth and formal richness. I know for sure that a small group of teenagers now knows about parataxis.
Dashiell? On the Valve? I’m surprised. Are his politics consistent with my [almost certainly mistaken] conception of the Valve’s?
Not perhaps precisely what you’re looking for, but a possible addition might be Carlo Gadda’s That Awful Mess on Via Merulana. It certainly has tones of Dickens, since it’s a comprehensive analysis of Italian society under Fascism as well as being a precursor to many themes of post-modernism. Besides being a damn good book, though very thick (416 pages in the NYRB edition).
I would also heartily second Josh’s recommendation of Leonardo Sciascia. Something that might also be interesting is Simenon’s roman durs. Which provide a lot of interesting contrasts with the hardboiled school happening at the same time in the US. Dirty Snow and The Man Who Watched Trains Go By are my favorites.
OK, I’ve read City of Glass;here are my first reactions.
I was struck by how everyone here is writing about Dickens without suggesting using him. How about Great Expectations? Collins’ work even inspired it.
On a completely different note, what about Ian McEwen’s Enduring Love?
I read Clockers years ago; Homicide too. Either one would be wonderful choices. Clockers, though long, is a fast read. Gritty and yet so ... beautiful, somehow. I don’t know if I’d call it a “detective” novel, though. It’s more of a crime novel, with the heroes are on the wrong end of the law.
Homicide is also long, also a fast read, also just terrific. I think it might bring a certain roundness to your reading list because of the fact that it’s nonfiction: It speaks to the recent popularity of the true crime genre, without being trashy like most Ann Rule-type books of the genre are. Sort of a precursor to the Devil in a White City-style of literary nonfiction.
And have you considered Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins novels? If length is an issue, he’s typically far less, well, looooong than the others. I suppose maybe he’s less of a “significant recent development” than a “modern twist on a familiar genre,” as an African-American—but then so is Sue Grafton as a woman. I studied creative writing with Susan Sims (she writes as Susan Straight), who told me that she learned how to write a novel by reading Mosley.
Whatever you decide, you should absolutely read all three writers if you can find the time—you won’t be sorry. Clockers and Homicide are both absolutely heart-rending.
A couple of other thoughts (though my own votes would go with the ones above): Smilla’s Sense of Snow, The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead, Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn.
The most recent Richard Price, Lush Life. Not a great novel, not even his best (that would indeed be Clockers), but as gripping and undergraduate-friendly as any of the books on your list. There’s a murder at the beginning solved (by persuasively rendered cops) at the end. It has the subversive bonus of picking on the recent liberal arts grads who have ruined the Lower East Side. Mostly dialogue but a wide social canvas as well. You could read it along with that impassioned and not wholly inaccurate Ishmael Reed rant that Tony supplied, and let your students decide who’s right.
I also love Tony’s suggestion: play it unsafe by including great literature in a genre course. Crime and Punishment would work. How is it, and how is it not, a detective book. That seems the best way to understand genre
ps—if you include some Richard Price (as you absolutely should) and want to cut something, I’d cut either Grafton (far inferior to PD James) or the Maltese Falcon. Apostasy, I know, but you’re including Hammett short stories, and a little of that stuff goes a long way.
Thanks, Tom. I’m reading Clockers now and finding it interesting but not that well written--maybe I’m missing some dimension of it, but its style is literal to the point of being almost laborious. The plot is thickening, though, so perhaps I’ll enjoy it more as I get further on (I’m about 1/3 into it at this point). I thought the Ishmael Reed “rant” was just that and thus not something I wanted to engage with.
As for great literature, I agree that much of the interest of studying “genre” fiction is considering how far it does in fact differ from works we categorize as “literature”. Although I wouldn’t put it necessarily in the same class as Crime and Punishment, I do include Collins’s The Moonstone, and I think The Maltese Falcon also stands outside a narrow interpretation of genre fiction (when we get to it, I use it as a chance to heat up our discussions of what makes a work ‘serious’ or ‘literary’ or if these distinctions hold up under scrutiny). At the same time, I can count on my students having lots of reference points for “real” literature outside my course, and I can refer to them quite freely (we start with Thurber’s “The Macbeth Murder Mystery,” for instance, which puts Macbeth sort of unofficially on the syllabus). I use Grafton for her critique of hard-boiled conventions, which is not really what I think P. D. James is up to--so “inferior” as a novelist, sure, but inferior as far as being useful to my course, probably not.
Anyway, for this year the die is cast, as I’ve ordered City of Glass for our final text (I had already ordered most of my books for January by the time I put this post up). But next time, I’ll have lots of new ideas, so thanks again to everyone for the suggestions.
"I can count on my students having lots of reference points for “real” literature outside my course.”
You must teach in Canada or something.