Books: The Revolt of the Pendulum — The Guidebook Detectives |
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The Guidebook Detectives

If you’ve spent a couple of years being unable to get past the opening chapter of one of the later novels of Henry James, it’s hard to resist the idea that there might be a more easily enjoyable version of literature: a crime novel, for example. After all, quite a few literary masterpieces spend much of their turgid wordage being almost as contrived as any crime novel you’ve ever raced through. On page thirteen of my edition of The Wings of the Dove, Kate Croy is waiting for her father to appear. “He had not at present come down from his room, which she knew to be above the one they were in...” But of course she knew that; knew it so well that she wouldn’t have to think about it; she is only thinking about it so she can tell us. If a narrative is going to be a clumsy as that, can’t it have some guns?

It’s been a long time since Sherlock Holmes cracked his first case, and by now every country in the world must have at least one fictional detective with half a dozen novels to his name. Some countries seem to have half a dozen fictional detectives with twenty or thirty novels each. Can’t even one of these current sleuths be surrounded by classy prose like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, so that we can get the art thrill and the thriller thrill both at once? Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean. Great idea, great sound, great sociological significance. But above all, an eventful narrative to make you read on. Something unputdownable, to make you feel less bad about the unpickupable, such as The Wings of the Dove, which surely deserves everlasting blame for the kind of sentence it so wilfully refuses to include. “Kate Croy looked up at the fully dressed but headless corpse hanging from the ceiling fan and realised with a surge of fear that unless there was another equally well tailored man with the same cuff-links, this was her father...”

If the author does that kind of stuff well enough, he starts counting as literature. That’s the possibility that keeps us, the readers, on the case: the search for the gripping story that counts as good writing as well. It could be that we are dodging our obligations to high art, but for as long as Patricia Highsmith brings a poetic touch to the narrative details of how the central character of Deep Water just happens, in the swimming pool at night, to lean on the rival for his wife’s affections and hold him under, are we really going to kick ourselves for not having finished reading that novel by Willa Cather? There can be no question that the best genre fiction has always aimed, and sometimes successfully, at usurping literature’s place. The question is about the extent to which the crime writers have dominated genre fiction. In answer to that, even the science fiction writers would have to admit that the crime writers have pretty well taken over.

In all the European languages, there were many famous fictional crime-fighters after the demise of Sherlock Holmes and before the advent of Maigret, but it was Maigret’s prolific inventor, Georges Simenon, who really started the crime novel on the way to its current aspiration to seriousness. Supposedly helping to fuel the aspiration, but perhaps also helping to ensure that it can rarely attain its object, is the presence of a recognizably characterised detective. There had always been a space-warp area in which gifted writers wrote noir books that hovered trembling between thrills and thoughtfulness, but without a star detective the gifted writers had trouble writing enough of them, and one of the imperatives of the genre fiction business is that you must publish enough books to survive in a market where everybody else is publishing a lot of books for the same reason. It helps to have your own sleuth and get people hooked on him. Simenon, with the organization and instincts of a Colombian drug-runner, got the whole world hooked on Maigret.

Not only did Maigret sell by the million in every tongue and in all media, literary critics praised his author’s stripped-down style. Though it could be said that the style was stripped-down because Simenon was essentially styleless — he said he spent hours taking out the adjectives, but he also said he was irresistible to women — nevertheless he acquired such prestige for Maigret that his action novels without Maigret in them started counting as proper novels, the absence of the star turn being thought of as a sign of artistic purity.

Seriousness is a tag that most genre writers can be counted on to covet, even when they have made a good fist of seeming to despise it. Soon a new specially commissioned novel by the Edinburgh author Ian Rankin will be serialised in the New York Times, a prospect which has already attracted attention in the upmarket British press, as when the occasional British astronaut is deputed by NASA to do the blindfolded bean-counting experiment in earth orbit. But apparently Rankin’s famous Inspector Rebus won’t be in the story.

Interviewed by the London Independent about this startling act of self-abnegation, Rankin sounded the way Fred Astaire once did when he suggested that his forthcoming appearance in On the Beach would be a heaven-sent opportunity not to dance. For Rankin’s fans all over the world, Rebus is the ideal sleuth: a maverick (of course) cop who drinks so hard that he gets another hangover from inhaling his current hangover, he keeps his job only by the kind of deductive brain that can operate even when bombed. In Britain he is played on television by Ken Stott, with a magnificently burred accent and a rack of luggage beneath each eye.

Looking and sounding like a man who has slept under a horse, Rebus will be a big absence from this new story. But the new story will still be set in Edinburgh, which offers the advantage, even as it becomes more prosperous, of offering, along with plenty of well-preserved classical architecture, an infinite number of equally well-preserved dank staircases leading down into squalid areas where Rankin’s reeking hero can find bodies in even worse condition than his own. Other Scots detectives get to operate in the less ambiguous setting of Glasgow, where far fewer classical outlines have survived to frame the rough stuff. To indicate that they are not pampered, the actors who play the Glasgow flatfeet on television say “murghder” instead of “murder”. With throats that hurt from the accent, and teeth chipped from being gritted, Glasgow tecs are tougher. But Edinburgh looks better, a fact bearing implications to which we might return.

Most lone detectives belong to a police force nowadays, because it gives the writer an easier task: in a police station, there are a lot of other personnel for the hero to interact with. In the days when the lone detective was alone, he interacted mainly with the bottle, à la Philip Marlowe, who had nothing else in the top drawer of his filing cabinet. Even with Marlowe, the action improved when the regular cops showed up, so that Marlowe could hate them and they could hate him back. A requirement of today’s lone detective is that the police force he serves on is riven by faction if not corruption. This is where Italy scores heavily. With dozens of different Italian police forces jostling for position to get on the take, there are plenty of mean streets available for a man not himself mean to walk down. Also — a factor we should note now in case we need it later — a lot of the Italian streets are lined with attractive old buildings. Against such an inherently interesting background, the swarming lone detectives are in many cases invented by writers who are not native Italians, but just visiting.

My younger daughter, an expert on crime fiction, was the one who tipped me off that the Italian maverick cop who really counted was Inspector Brunetti, created by Donna Leon. Inspector Brunetti operates in Venice. Donna Leon, however, is not Venetian, or even Italian. She might have lived in Venice for twenty years, but she benefits mightily from the outsider’s traditional love of the Serenissima. Donna Leon is an American, and although the Brunetti novels are bestsellers in many languages, she has so far not allowed their translation into Italian. Thus her fans are either non-Italians or else Italians who read foreign languages. It seems a fair guess that the factor uniting them all is a sad involvement with Venice. In every fan’s first-pick Brunetti novel Acqua Alta, she gives intimate details of the decaying city while never delaying the action for a moment. Hers is an unusually potent cocktail of atmosphere and event. People get addicted. There will be another Donna Leon out imminently, but meanwhile, in our house, everyone is lining up to read the last one.

Always vowing to give up soon, by now I have read about ten Brunetti novels and have got well past the stage of remembering what happens in which book, even though the author, for the length of time it takes to read the text, is pretty good at not letting background detail overwhelm foreground action. You always know which canal the body is in, but the inspector never takes his eye off the way it has been lashed to the piling. (“Although the fish and crabs had been at her during the high water of September, he knew it must be the Englishwoman, Kate Croy...”) Inspector Brunetti is happily married and eats well, the way Maigret used to when Madame Maigret fixed his lunch. Usually, in this sort of book, the sleuth is divorced, eating badly off a snatched sandwich, and drinking hard, especially if he is Irish. But Inspector Brunetti can’t wait to get home to his hot wife and her subtle tricks with the calimari. He is kept on the case, however, by crimes of rare intricacy that would take time to solve even if he was not frustrated all the way by an incompetent senior officer. Meanwhile the beautiful city sinks slowly but irretrievably into a sea of corruption. Down these means streets a man must row who is not himself mean.

Another of the vast crowd of Italian lone detectives, Inspector Zen, is also the creation of a non-Italian, Michael Dibdin: based in Seattle, background in England and Northern Ireland. Typical among Dibdin’s several Zen novels, Vendetta reveals that Dibdin commands a precisely literate prose. He knows what it means to “eke out”, for example. But he doesn’t know that the action would move faster if Inspector Zen didn’t take what feels like a hundred pages to get across Rome, mentally noting every detail, as if he were a writer. Since Zen is nominally functioning in the Criminalpol section of the Ministry of the Interior, and is already unpopular with his superiors for being too honest — no wonder he’s divorced — this tendency to annotate the atmosphere can only hurt his image. The disadvantage of an author’s being a straniero is thereby starkly revealed. Non-Italians find Italy too fascinating. There is thus room for the home-grown writer to score on the level of economical evocation.

Featuring prominently in this department is Andrea Camilleri, inventor of the Inspector Montalbano mysteries. Montalbano’s bailiwick is Sicily. If mainland Italy is corrupt, Sicily is corrupter, and Montalbano has some plenty-mean streets to walk down. He does so at a brisk pace, and it is because Camilleri knows his background too well to be impressed. He speaks the language. Camilleri’s regular translator Stephen Sartarelli has made a well-deserved career out of rendering Montalbano’s Sicilian dialect first into Italian, then into English, and then into your living room, where you can back it up, if you like, with subtitled DVDs, because Montalbano is an all-media phenomenon in his land of origin.

A typical Montalbano novel, and one which I recommend heavily for when you can spare a couple of sunlit afternoons from The Wings of the Dove, is the impeccably grimy The Shape of the Water. Hookers, junkies, scarey crime, inspired sleuthing, great sexual tension between the happily fixed-up Montalban and the vampy young female cop Corporal Anna Ferrara. Notable is the way Camilleri can do a character’s whole back-story in half a paragraph, and only rarely do you get that giveaway trade trick by which one character tells another what he already knows, so that you can find out. “You know what he’s like,” says A to B about C, and then proceeds to tell B what C is like, as if B didn’t know after all. But at least Camilleri is aware that these technical requirements exist, and that it really is a lot easier all round to depict the character outright, rather that plant him in front of a mirror and give him Rembrandt’s ability to depict himself.

That last habit is one of the sure signs of the beginner in genre writing. Italy’s most recent home-grown crime-fiction wonder boy, Massimo Carlotto, hasn’t got even that far yet. But unlike most crime writers, Carlotto has a criminal record, which gives him a flying start with the street cred. In the days of the Red Brigades, he was rounded up in an anti-terror sweep and did time in gaol before being sprung into a life of writing. If only he wrote better.

Carlotto’s latest hit, The Master of Knots, is a story of torture, snuff movies and arbitrary death that once again features his free-lance fighter for justice, nicknamed Alligator. Alligator drinks Calvados the way the Scots and Irish boys drink whisky, but unlike them, and like most of the other Italian sleuths, he lines his stomach with decent food, evoked in some detail. His friend Max is a cook. “Max had prepared linguini with a cream sauce containing prawns and aubergines.” Philip Marlowe never ate anything like that. On the other hand, Philip Marlowe never had to listen to anything like this. ‘“We’ve absolutely got to find a way of stopping the Master of Knots and his gang.” Max said angrily.”’ Those are the moments that make real writers wonder if they shouldn’t get into the crime fiction business and run up a score.

The temptation is as old as the discovery that any real writer can use a cash cow. The British poet C. Day Lewis was once the crime novelist Nicholas Blake, and for a while Julian Barnes was Dan Kavanagh, whose bi-sexual private eye Duffy patrolled Soho in search of loose change. All over Europe and all through modern history, there have been real writers sending out a sleuth on the same mission. John Banville is the latest to fall for the lure. Banville has adopted the pseudonym Benjamin Black in order to produce a crime novel called Christine Falls, starring a police pathologist called Quirke.

The action is set mainly in Dublin and Galway of thirty years ago, so that Quirke can smoke and drink all he wants, which is a lot. There can also be poverty, secrecy, fear of pregnancy, bungled abortion and all manner of Catholic scandals of the fine old type. In today’s Ireland, as prosperous as Monaco, you practically have to be a Russian au pair girl to get killed, but in Quirke’s days of yore there are bodies everywhere. There are also some fine incidental phrases. Banville is a real writer who can really write, and that’s the trouble, because the high quality of the incidental prose makes you wonder if his heart is in the main action. Raymond Chandler proved that a gifted writer could occupy himself with genre fiction, but Chandler didn’t have all that much gift left over — a serious theme would have left him short of analytical tools. Christine Falls actually does face you with the question of whether you really want your crime writer to have that much literary talent — the very question you started off with when you got tired of wondering whether Kate Croy’s elaborate description of a house she already knew inside out could not have been juiced up a bit with the presence of a dead body, preferably hers.

In that regard — the question of literary talent — my pick of the current avalanche would have to be Gene Kerrigan’s The Midnight Choir, starring Inspector Synott. The book is set in today’s Dublin, but Synott manages to find a few mysterious bodies in among the parked BMWs. Synott is divorced, drinks whiskey, and eats particularly badly: three scrambled eggs and a couple of slightly off tomatoes when cooking for himself, a cardboard box of kung-po-beef takeout when he’s in a hurry. But Kerrigan’s prose (always supposing that there really is a Kerrigan, and that this isn’t Seamus Heaney hustling for a buck) is luxury stuff: brief, funny descriptions, phrases that give you the speaker’s age (“Every move totally ace”), and a complete financial analysis of a city whose property prices are going up like a flock of flamingos off a lake of money.

I would gladly believe it all, except that Kerrigan doesn’t. Synnot, his man of integrity, spends the first half of the book being incorruptible, and then the second half trying to frame the perps. Serpico turns into the Prince of the City, and finally we have no hero. Down these mean streets a man must go who is as mean as the streets are? Genre fiction that gets too far into the ambiguous tends to remind us that if we had a hankering for the quasi-meaningless we could have stuck with le nouveau roman. It would be nice to think that Kerrigan had got himself lost in a genuine search for complexity, but I fear that he just became impatient with the form.

He was right to. As a form for real writers, the detective novel is bound to be a dry well in the end, because a detective novel, no matter how memorable in the detail, is written to be forgotten. Not even a sure-touch writer like Donna Leon would stay in business if you remembered every bit of every book. You need another meal because you digested the last one: if it had stayed intact in your stomach, you would stop eating. And no matter how carefully depicted, whether by the omniscient author or by themselves looking at length into their own shaving mirrors, the maverick detectives are too consistent to be true characters. As for the action, there is only a finite number of angles at which the hooker’s headless corpse can hang from the chandelier. So finally there is nothing left of the books in the memory except the place they are set in.

Essentially they are guide books. That’s why a maverick detective from Edinburgh outranks a maverick detective from Glasgow, and why we can’t get enough of the detective from Venice, and why even Elmore Leonard, who can get so much out of a small American city whose main drag consists almost entirely of franchises — some of which, admittedly, come equipped with a dead body in the dumper out in back — still gravitates towards Los Angeles as the natural stamping ground of Chili Palmer, who neatly reverses the cliché of the cop with criminal tendencies. Ideally, an author should turn out a sequence of detective novels that will generate a bus tour in the city where they are set.

As a demonstration of that principle, the biggest detective fiction sensation in Britain in recent years has always been the rather tedious Inspector Morse, because the novels about him and his even more tedious assistant Sergeant Lewis are set in Oxford, and when the Morse mysteries are transferred to television the colleges look wonderful already, even before the enthralled viewer finds out that there is a dead body nailed to an oak door in almost every one of them.

And that’s why the indisputably least fascinating item in the current tsunami of detective novels is The Return, by the Swedish writer Håkan Nessler. It’s set in an unnamed country in Northern Europe, so we don’t get to see even the clinically shining pavements of Stockholm. (Down these clean streets...) It’s just set somewhere out in the countryside, where Inspector Van Veeteren is investigating the mystery of the headless corpse wrapped in a carpet and dumped in a ditch. A transcription of Van Veeteren’s thought processes is the main narrative technique. “Here I am, he thought.” Van Veeteren is profound. “The world, he thought. Life.” But so is the author. “What strange worlds there were in existence.” Perhaps so, but not in this part of Scandinavia. There is scarcely a building of any kind to remember. Some spur road into the woods off the highway is the closest the book gets to having any mean streets. As for a man to go down them, Van Veeteren doesn’t even remind you of Van Der Valk, the Dutch detective who made a Euro-hit thirty years ago because he was co-starring with Amsterdam. Van Veeteren is playing opposite a ditch.

Rarely have I laughed so much at a dead body without a head, hands and feet. It was a male, though, so it couldn’t have been Kate Croy. But Van Veeteren himself , though flat as a tack, is not far enough below his many international rivals to stand out, as it were. No matter how carefully depicted, whether by the omniscient author or by themselves looking into the shaving mirror, these purportedly maverick detectives are too much on the one note to be true individuals. Given all the other constraints, including the finite number of angles at which the hooker’s headless corpse can hang from the chandelier, there is by now a looming danger that even the travelogue aspect is fated soon to wear out. In some respects, Henry James had it easier after all. It may be tempting for the reader faced for page after page with one of those placid Jamesian sitting rooms to imagine it being sizzled up with some extra action. “As the butler entered with her father’s head in one hand and a blood-stained Horikawa Kunihiro Samurai sword in the other, Kate Croy’s nickel-plated automatic coughed once, twice.” But that’s just an adventure holiday. The real adventure, less gripping but far more memorable, is waiting to begin again on page 14.

(New Yorker, April 9, 2007)


As Edmund Wilson discovered when he dared to ask the question ‘Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?’, people with a deep commitment to genre fiction are reluctant to concede that their passion might put a question mark over their sensitivity to fiction practised as an art. After I published this piece, I was the target of many letters accusing me of snobbery, when I should have thought it was obvious that I was wide open to the possibility of a genre piece making it on the artistic level: a development always to be welcomed, as long as it actually happens. When Michael Dibdin died, people told me I had been unfair to him, as if there has been a connection between my limiting judgment and his demise. I managed to brush that off, but I am still trying to get over the fact that the excellent Will Self, when he wrote an article about the number of times Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe gets hit on the head, seemed never to have seen my article, collected in my book As of this Writing, which touched on the same sensitive subject. When one lavishes time and effort on the analysis of the evanescent, one hopes that the cognoscenti will get with the programme. But wait a second: why should they? One of the definitions of genre fiction is that it entertains without benefit of explication. One explicates in the hope of proving that the subject is a bit more serious than that. But if it really were, the point would need no proving. There is a conundrum in there somewhere, and it is permanent.