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February 1, 2016 BOOKLIST
Find more Hard-Boiled Eggheads
No matter how highfalutin’ a writer’s work, no matter how often their prose has been dissected using terms such as trope, motif, and anxiety of influence, they all secretly want to write hard-boiled crime fiction—and most of them are brave enough to put their own names on it. (We’re looking at you, John Banville.) Don’t believe us? Just check out this list of 16 books by writers whose brows grow high on their domed, idea-crammed craniums. We wish we could laugh at their pretensions of expanding the horizons of the genre, at their pathetic attempts to write tough-guy dialogue, but the sad fact is, most of these eggheads have pretty damn good taste when it comes to hard-boiled fiction. Most of them. (We’re looking at you, ghost of Norman Mailer.)
Amberville. By Tim Davys. 2009. Harper, paper, $10 (9780061625138).
Who is Tim Davys? That’s a mystery. The publisher’s bio says that “Tim Davys is the pseudonym for a well-known Swedish public figure,” but at least one critic has speculated that Davys is actually Walter Moers, a German best known for highbrow fantasy fare such as The City of Dreaming Books (2007). Is the Swedish clue a red herring? Either way, Davys’ take on the detective novel is highly adventurous, using a cast of stuffed-animal characters to puzzle out a crime with metaphysical implications. A wonderful first book of a quartet that ultimately fizzled out.
And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks. By William H. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. 2008. Grove, paper, $14 (9780802144348).
Burroughs and Kerouac wrote a crime novel? While publication of this long-lost collaboration undoubtedly caused chain-smoking college undergraduates to hyperventilate, the actual book offers neither the bizarre artistry of Naked Lunch (1959) nor the relentless drive of On the Road (1957). Based on a real-life murder committed by the dissolute genius Lucien Carr, a member of the Beats’ inner circle (both authors were arrested as material witnesses in the case), this is told in a hard-boiled voice but without any other trappings of a crime novel. Carr, aka Phillip Tourian, would have been a great character for a real crime writer—but this novel will be of interest only to Beat scholars (and the occasional breathless undergrad).
Christine Falls. By Benjamin Black. 2007. Picador, paper, $15 (9780312426323).
Booker Prize winner John Banville was too high and mighty to put his actual name on a humble crime novel, so he chose the alliterative pseudonym Benjamin Black. Pride, however, prevented him from keeping his actual identity a secret—as curious a mix of humility and vanity as you’re likely to find. This first foray turned into a full-blown crime series starring lonely, hard-drinking Dublin pathologist Quirke. Atmospheric and painstakingly detailed, this is complex, deeply ruminative . . . and really, really slow.
The City & the City. By China Miéville. 2009. Del Rey, paper, $15 (9780345497529).
We’re cheating here, as Miéville has made a habit of borrowing, blending, and beating into submission a whole range of genres, including urban fantasy, steampunk, western, and nautical adventure. But even if Miéville does eventually write one book in every genre (and we can’t wait for his romance), we can’t ignore the ingenious fantasist’s unique spin on the police procedural. And what a twist it is: Tyador Borlu, a lonely police detective, is assigned to the murder of a young woman in the decaying old European city of Beszel. But, in Miéville’s astonishing conceit, Beszel shares much of the same physical space with Ul Qoma—a psychically separate living arrangement accommodated by elaborate rules, rituals, and bureaucratic enforcement. As Borlu chases clues, readers puzzle out the way this world works.
Death before Bedtime. By Gore Vidal. 1953. Vintage/Black Lizard, paper, $14.95 (9780307741431).
For our money, Vidal was one of the most entertaining literary figures of the twentieth century. He wrote social and historical novels; he offered one of the first mainstream depictions of homosexuality; and he employed his rapier wit as a frequent sparring partner of Norman Mailer and other egomaniacs. Buried among his better-known achievements, however, were three sexually charged mysteries published under the pen name Edgar Box. He may have become a leading man of letters, but he did it financed by the ill-gotten gains of early crime. This second of the three sex romps stages an Agatha Christie–style whodunit, with a murder, a houseful of suspects, and a sleuth, but it’s unlikely Dame Agatha would have turned out something this gleefully tacky.
The Game of Thirty. By William Kotzwinkle. 1994. Felony & Mayhem, paper, $14.95 (9781933397689).
Kotzwinkle may be best known these days for cowriting the 32-page kids’ book Walter the Farting Dog (2001), but in his long career, he wrote mainstream and fantasy fiction for adults, screenplays, and, of course, a work of detective fiction. Making masterful use of the first-person narrative, he introduces Jimmy McShane, who is hired to solve the grisly murder of a shady dealer in rare antiquities and is pitted against a killer whose methods include cobra venom and disembowelment. The killer is a bit of a game player as well, and he’s using all of New York City as the playing board. Imaginative, funny, and unique, this multilevel story is simply first rate.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. By Haruki Murakami. 1991. Knopf, paper, $15.95 (9780679743460).
This book may or may not belong on the list—read it, and you’ll see that it’s not really a departure for the best-selling Japanese author, just Murakami doing what Murakami does best. But it has the words hard-boiled in the title, for crying out loud! And, once you get past the sf/fantasy trappings (sound-cancellation devices, dead unicorn skulls, etc.), it offers serious questions for serious thinkers, such as: Was Lewis Carroll an influence on Raymond Chandler? (Side note: Murakami claims to have been influenced by Richard Brautigan, also on this list.)
Inherent Vice. By Thomas Pynchon. 2009. Penguin, paper, $16 (9780143117568).
For some lauded literary authors, crime fiction is a way of trying out a new voice or a new persona, and you can almost imagine them wearing a fedora or drinking bourbon while they write. Pynchon is not one of those authors. This mystery, set at the roach-end of the 1960s and starring Doc Sportello, sole proprietor of LSD Investigations, can pretty much be summed up by this quote: “A private eye didn’t drop acid for years in this town without picking up some kind of extrasensory chops.” Yep, it’s played for laughs, but it’s pretty much Pynchon as usual.
Motherless Brooklyn. By Jonathan Lethem. 1999. Doubleday, paper, $15.95 (9780375724831).
We described Lethem’s sf/mystery debut, Gun, with Occasional Music (1994), as Chandleresque—but, given the way he set his detective fiction in an almost comical postmodern landscape, maybe we should have called it Murakamiesque. His breakout novel, Motherless Brooklyn (1999), proved to be a far more successful blending of his literary aspirations and crime-fiction influences. Detective Lionel Essrog, attempting to solve the murder of his mentor, suffers from Tourette’s syndrome, and his narration is a tic-y tour de force, his uncontrolled utterances are like Zen koans: perfect, given the Buddhist angle. Buddhism? The Mafia? Tourette’s? All treated with a bold, irreverent humor that makes this a resounding success.
Murder in Mount Holly. By Paul Theroux. 2011. Mysterious, $22 (9780802126047).
Once writers have achieved a certain stature, no manuscript will remain unpublished indefinitely. Even so, it’s somewhat surprising that a writer of Theroux’s stern demeanor would dust off this quirky experiment, penned in the late 1960s, about three Americans who decide to rob a bank because the “country is at stake.” It was a good call, though: in his bizarre characters and acerbic look at the Vietnam era, it’s impossible not to see a connection to today’s Tea Party, making this peculiar relic peculiarly timely. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, too.
Night Train. By Martin Amis. 1998. Doubleday, paper, $14 (9780375701146).
Amis, the brilliant novelist many Britons just love to hate, has made a career out of defying expectations, both good and bad, but it’s probably safe to say that no one expected him to write a hard-boiled detective novel starring a foulmouthed, politically incorrect American cop named Mike Hoolihan—and a female Mike, at that. Amis masterfully uses the essential conceit of the detective novel—the assumption that truth is ultimately fathomable—to create something so unhinged from formula that fans of the conventional mystery stayed away in droves. Too bad, because it was actually really good. Fun fact: Martin’s dad, Kingsley, was a James Bond fanatic—and even wrote a Bond book under the name Robert Markham.
Nobody Move. By Denis Johnson. 2009. Farrar, $22 (9780374222901).
After winning the National Book Award for his meaty opus Tree of Smoke (2007), Johnson’s next move was obvious: publish a serial crime novel in the pages of Playboy. That’s what every National Book Award winner does, right? Well, maybe not, but it seems like the right step for Johnson, and this pinballing tale of revenge-minded lowlifes in California’s Central Valley seemed to be a way for Johnson to blow off some steam as well as letting us know that, big book award or no, he’s just a regular guy who likes to write books about psychos who threatens to eat other guys’ balls. Johnson’s next book, Train Dreams (2011), was another artistic triumph (yawn), but we can tell he had more fun writing this one.
Tough Guys Don’t Dance. By Norman Mailer. 1984. o.p.
There’s nothing Mailer couldn’t do—at least, according to Mailer—and, of all the writers on the list, he probably fits the part of the hard-boiled hero the most. Fittingly, he more or less cast himself in the lead, and the book opens with a down-on-his-luck writer waking up from a memory-blotting bender (write what you know, eh, Norm?)—and a strong suspicion that he may be a murder suspect, if not in fact an actual murderer. The writer then turns detective, naturally, with more success than the author at creating a convincing detective story. Not content with murdering the genre in print, Mailer went on to direct a film of his own book a few years later. It wasn’t any damn good, either.
The Twenty-Seventh City. By Jonathan Franzen. 1988. Picador, paper, $17 (9780312420147).
To some, Franzen is the writer most deserving to wear the mantle of American Novelist, Greatest Living. To others, he’s a bespectacled blowhard whose refusal to appear on camera with Oprah marks him as American Novelist, Most Pretentious. Time’s cover boy certainly doesn’t make it easy for himself, descending from his mystical writing aerie to bash everything from Facebook and Twitter to e-books and genre fiction. But if he really thinks he’s too good for genre fiction, he should reread his debut novel, The Twenty-Seventh City (1988), a paranoid tale of a midwestern city under assault by Third World revolutionaries. We called its plot “incoherent,” but still, it sounds like a thriller to us.
Willard and His Bowling Trophies: A Perverse Mystery. By Richard Brautigan. 1975. o.p.
Brautigan was no literary giant (even if he did influence actual giant Haruki Murakami), but the hippie naïf’s pretentious prose and poetry defined the landscape of late 1960s Northern California bohemianism. A man out of time by the 1970s, he spent the decade experimenting with genre—romance, western, and mystery—in ways scarcely recognizable to fans of the actual genres. Remarkably, the unpredictable plots and oddball characters (Willard centers around a three-year search for stolen bowling trophies; Dreaming of Babylon, 1977, has a private eye who spends half his time trying to find bullets for his gun) make for books better than the flyweight stuff that made him famous.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. By Michael Chabon. 2007. HarperCollins, $26.95 (9780007149827).
Chabon’s debut may have been called The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988), but the title was misleading: aside from some crime melodrama at the end, it was really just a coming-of-age tale. After trying fantasy with Summerland (2002), he offered The Final Solution (2004), an homage to classic detective fiction that, sadly, was rather clueless. He, and his readers, fared far better with The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, in which Chabon channeled Chandler into an epic alternate history of post-WWII Jewish life. Browbeaten police detective Meyer Landsman investigates the murder of a heroin-addicted chess prodigy who happens to have had a very powerful parent. Once our Yiddish Marlowe gets hold of the string, he can’t let go, and it leads him to the strangest places.
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