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Find more One Foot in the Gutter
What makes otherwise respectable authors turn to crime? Is it money? Is it the lure of spending time with loose characters in seedy establishments, where the music is loud and the drinks flow freely? Or is it simply the secret desire to bump someone off and get away with it?
Whatever the reason, writing crime fiction has long held appeal for so-called literary writers, and the trend is only gaining momentum. Cold, hard cash is always a potential motive, of course, and as publishing-industry woes result in smaller book advances, some writers have descended from their ivory towers and discovered what veterans of the mean streets have long understood: in the numbers game that is publishing, genre-fiction sales are the brown-bag payments that keep the office safes full.
But some of these capital-L Literary writers are also capital-A Artists for whom filthy lucre is no lure. Some of them may feel they’re reviving a tired trope with their intellectual insights. Or maybe they just want to wrap their dense prose around a plot that sings. Who knows? Like any suspects rounded up for a police lineup, these writers have any number of motives rattling around their pointy heads.
Also Known As
There are two kinds of writers: those who use fake names, and those who don’t. That’s both literally true and overly broad, of course, but the litterateur who uses a fake name on his mystery sends a message that he doesn’t want to sully the name with which he signs his Important Works.
After early success and controversy with Williwaw (1946) and The City and the Pillar (1948), Gore Vidal turned out three mystery novels under the pseudonym Edgar Box. In the introduction to a reissue of Death in the Fifth Position (1952), he wrote that the profits from these lightly satirical, sexually charged books supported him for a dozen years. Eventually, of course, he became known as an all-around man of letters who could write popular satire and historical fiction—but he did it financed, at least partially, by the ill-gotten gains of early crime.
Julian Barnes both started a titling trend with Flaubert’s Parrot (from Audubon’s Elephant to Wittgenstein’s Poker) and won the Booker Prize for The Sense of an Ending (2011), but in the 1980s he published four mysteries as Dan Kavanagh. Beginning with the eponymous Duffy (1980), these feature a bisexual ex-cop whose exploits take him to seedy Soho, shady Heathrow, the aromatic locker rooms of minor-league soccer, and the sitting rooms of a country mansion. The fourth and final Duffy, Going to the Dogs, was published in 1987; two years later, Barnes told a newspaper that “some nasty road accident” might be necessary to “get rid of Kavanagh.” And no one has heard from him since.
More recently, another Booker Prize winner, John Banville (for The Sea, 2005), also has felt the need to use a fake name to perpetrate his fictional crimes. As Benjamin Black, he writes a series set in 1950s Dublin about a lumbering, lonely, hard-drinking pathologist named Quirke. Though these mysteries are likely to begin, as so many do, with the death of a young woman, we’ve described these works as “complex and deeply ruminative” and “exceptionally nuanced”—only with the fourth installment, A Death in Summer (2011), did he win the compliment “sleekly plotted.” With mysteries this brainy and highfalutin’, why the fake name?
Epic Chandleresque Experiments
Then there are writers who fear no censure, whose belief in their protean powers of creativity is greater than their fear of any genre taint. In 1991, enigmatic genius Haruki Murakami wowed critics with Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, a dreamlike novel that distills Alice in Wonderland and Gulliver’s Travels through the filters of Raymond Chandler and Franz Kafka. In the U.S., that might have been a recipe for award-winning obscurity, but in Japan, Murakami was already a best-seller. Still, don’t apply the word Chandleresque too broadly—if you think the plot of The Big Sleep was a puzzler, Hard-Boiled Wonderland might just break your brain.
We used the C-word again in reviewing Jonathan Lethem’s debut, Gun, with Occasional Music (1994)—but, given the way he sets his detective fiction in an almost comical postmodern landscape, maybe we should have called it Murakamiesque. In Lethem’s futuristic Oakland, babies speak and so do animals; a tough-talking kangaroo adds punch to a tale that begins with the murder of a wealthy urologist. Lethem’s breakout novel, Motherless Brooklyn (1999), resonated with more readers, although its Tourette’s-afflicted narrator and Zen Buddhism–Mafia collision is still a long way from the mean streets down which a true mystery author must go.
Michael Chabon channeled some Chandler, too, in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007), but that’s only one ingredient in this epic alternate history of post-WWII Jewish life. It all starts with a browbeaten police detective, Meyer Landsman, investigating the murder of a heroin-addicted chess prodigy who happens to have had a very powerful parent. Once Landsman gets hold of the string, he can’t let go, and it leads him to the strangest places. Chabon also showed some interest in the genre in his acclaimed debut, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988), a tale of romance and sexual confusion culminating in crime melodrama.
Sometimes it seems as though writers just want to have some fun. No matter how many awards they’ve won, they don’t take themselves so seriously that they can’t let loose and enjoy themselves. Thomas Pynchon has always been a bit of a mystery himself, so perhaps it makes sense that he’d eventually try to write one. In Inherent Vice (2009), it’s the late 1960s, and Doc Sportello, owner of LSD Investigations, is searching for missing construction mogul Mickey Wolfmann. Battling memory lapses and hallucinations, dogged by a nemesis cop named Bigfoot Bjornsen . . . come to think of it, it’s not so different from Pynchon’s Against the Day (2006), except it’s about 700 pages shorter.
Denis Johnson followed his National Book Award–winning Vietnam opus, Tree of Smoke (2007), with Nobody Move (2009), a slim crime novel first serialized in the pages of Playboy. It’s a pinballing tale of revenge-minded lowlifes clawing for cash: compulsive gambler Jimmy Luntz owes money; Gambol, Juarez, and the Tall Man want to collect; and alcoholic hottie Anita Desilvera wants to steal the money she’s been framed for embezzling. Enjoyable but lightweight, it feels as though Johnson was revving his engine to blow the carbon out—we’re guessing another big novel will be next.
Just One More Thing
For the record, we don’t make a qualitative distinction between crime fiction and literature at Booklist—good writing is good writing, genre be damned. We’ll put the writing of Dennis Lehane, Richard Price, and Michael Connelly up against your New York City Jonathans any day. And speaking of which, you might think that Jonathan Franzen—perhaps the Jonathaniest of them all—the Great American Novelist who feuded with Oprah and landed on the cover of Time, has no time for mere crime fiction. Or does he? His debut novel, The Twenty-Seventh City (1988), features an Indian police chief who uses her position in the city of St. Louis to launch a revolutionary attack on the U.S. We called its plot “incoherent” but still: a paranoid tale of a midwestern city under assault by Third World revolutionaries? Sounds like a thriller to us.
A Death in Summer, by Benjamin Black (aka John Banville). 2011.
Death in the Fifth Position, by Edgar Box (aka Gore Vidal). 1952.
Duffy, by Dan Kavanagh (aka Julian Barnes). 1980.
Gun, with Occasional Music, by Jonathan Lethem. 1994.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, by Haruki Murakami. 1991.
Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon. 2009.
Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem. 1999.
Nobody Move, by Denis Johnson. 2009.
The Twenty-Seventh City, by Jonathan Franzen. 1988.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon. 2007.
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