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Find more More Names for the Rose
Be wary of the phrase “transcending the genre.” It’s often used by critics of mystery fiction as a way of upping the ante in their praise of a book, as if the only way a mystery could be truly good is to not really be a mystery. What of Raymond Chandler, who not only didn’t transcend the genre but reveled in it? This insidious phrase is also used by insecure mystery fans trying to justify their admiration for a book they fear will be looked down upon by their more highbrow friends: “Well, it’s not actually a mystery because it transcends its genre.”
And, yet, the phrase does have its legitimate uses. Certain writers do set out consciously to embellish the traditional crime novel—play against formula, abandon formula altogether, expand the ordinary boundaries of the genre in terms of content or style. Such an approach by no means guarantees that a book deserves red-carpet treatment: it only signals a different kind of crime novel, one that is playing with different stakes and appealing to a different audience.
A reader or a readers’ advisor can spot these literary thrillers easily. They tend to come in two types. One is set in the past and expends great energy on re-creating a historical moment in vivid detail and with sweeping verisimilitude. Unlike more straightforward historical mysteries (Lindsay Davis, et al.), the literary/historical thriller is only loosely tied to the crime that drives the surface action; the focus of the novel is likely to be internal rather than external, with the crime serving as a catalyst to thought, rather than thought providing a solution to the crime. The surprising commercial success of Umberto’s Eco’s Name of the Rose (1983), certainly the contemporary prototype of the literary thriller, historical division, legitimized genre-bending—even for those timid publishers who tend to fear any product that can’t be pigeonholed.
The second variety of literary thriller is the contemporary novel that hits the crime-filled mean streets hard but, again, abandons formula in favor of a more wide-sweeping approach to social issues and interpersonal dynamics. In a sense, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is the prototype of this strain of literary thriller, but modern examples abound by writers such as Stephen Dobyns and Richard Price.
The list below brings together some of the most memorable literary thrillers of recent years. Whether type one or two, they are all children of Eco in the sense that they appeal primarily to readers who like their mysteries on the highbrow side. That doesn’t mean they’ve transcended the genre, mind you—no more than pie à la mode transcends pie.
Bayley, John. The Red Hat. May 1998. St. Martin’s, $21.95 (0-312-18658-4).
Iris Murdoch’s husband, a distinguished critic and scholar, goes slumming with a crime novel? Yes and no. A disappearance drives the action, which involves three London friends falling into what may be a kind of secret-agent adventure, but if the heart of the matter is intrigue, it is of the internal variety, as the trio sorts through confusions of sexuality and identity prompted by their viewing of a Vermeer portrait. As Donna Seaman says in her full review of the novel on p.1376, “a sophisticated riddle of a book.”
Carey, Peter. Jack Maggs. 1998. Knopf, $24 (0-679-44008-9).
The central figure in Carey’s loving tribute to Dickensian London is Jack Maggs (yes, like Magwitch), a criminal who returns to London from Australia to seek a man he believes to be his son. Soon he becomes embroiled in the affairs of numerous gentlefolk, including writer Tobias Oates, a fictional version of Dickens. All of the vividly drawn characters are in pursuit of something—wealth, fame, love—and all of their obsessions come clattering together in a gripping finale that, in the classic Dickens manner, melds broad-stroked tragedy and melodrama with a finely nuanced rendering of inner turmoil.
Carr, Caleb. The Alienist. 1994. Random, $22 (0-679-41779-6); Bantam, paper, $7.50 (0-553-57299-7).
Carr’s first novel was a surprise best-seller when it was published in 1994, but savvy trendspotters should have recognized all the ingredients that sometimes launch a literary thriller into the limelight: a mainstream crime-fiction plot (cops and shrinks track psycho killer) overlayed with some vivid history (late-nineteenth-century New York), and a famous hero (Teddy Roosevelt as the city’s police chief). No formulaic historical mystery, Carr’s novel also boasts enough style, ambiguity, and cross-generic appeal to draw those high-minded types who profess to be bored with genre fiction.
Dobyns, Stephen. The Church of Dead Girls. 1997. Holt/ Metropolitan, $23 (0-8050-5103-1); paper, June 1998, $17 (0-8050-5104-X).
Dobyns is an award-winning poet and the author of the wonderful Saratoga mystery series; occasionally, he combines both his poetic and popular sides in literary thrillers that plumb depths far below the surface of the crimes they describe. This dark, cerebral thriller explores how the trusting, close-knit atmosphere of a small town gives way to rampant paranoia and suspicion after, one by one, three young girls vanish. Dobyns is not nearly as interested in the pathology of his serial killer (the Silence of the Lambs approach) as he is in the pathology that exists within us all. An unusually thoughtful psychological thriller.
Eco, Umberto. The Island of the Day Before. Tr. by William Weaver. 1995. Harcourt, $25 (0-15-100201-0); Penguin, paper, $13.95 (0-14-025919-8).
One might argue that the same erudition that sold Name of the Rose as a sort of intellectual novelty may have held this successor back: too many readers remembered just how difficult Rose was to read and opted to wait for the Masterpiece Theatre version. Still, for those who truly relish Eco’s mix of philosophical rumination and intellectual intrigue, this wildly imaginative novel about the invention of longitude and its effect on the Renaissance world of international espionage is every bit as deserving of attention as its more famous predecessor.
Fonseca, Rubem. Vast Emotions and Imperfect Thoughts. Tr. by Clifford Landers. June 1998. Ecco; dist. by Norton, $24 (0-88001-583-7).
A Brazilian film director wanders into a surrealistic nightmare when a carnival dancer leaves a bag of gems in his apartment. Soon the dancer is dead, and trench-coated phantoms are after the director. From there, this ambitious mix of dream and reality spins off to Berlin and back to Rio while speculating on the short fiction of Isaac Babel and supplying fascinating details on Rio’s carnival. See p.1382 for a full review of this Haruki Murakami–like homage to pop culture.
Høeg, Peter. Smilla’s Sense of Snow. Tr. by Tiina Nunnally. 1993. Farrar, $22 (0-374-26644-1); Dell, paper, $6.50 (0-440-21853-5).
Høeg’s smash best-seller became The Name of the Rose for the ’90s: a demanding, philosophical novel, rich with theme and character, riding the narrative wave of a crime story—in this case, about a troubled, intensely intelligent Greenland woman trying to understand the death of a young boy. Høeg is among the most talented of contemporary writers, and Smilla is his masterpiece. Where some of his other novels have come close to losing their narrative moorings altogether, overcome by the force of the author’s intelligence, in Smilla the demands of the crime story keep the book grounded just enough to give readers something to hold onto. Does that mean Høeg has transcended the literary novel by writing a crime story?
Pears, Iain. An Instance of the Fingerpost. 1998. Putnam/Riverhead, $27 (1-57322-082-5).
See our Top 10 mysteries of the year (p.1360) for a description of this multidimensional tale of politics and passion, science and sex, religion and revenge. Set in Oxford in the 1660s, the novel revolves around the murder of a university don, but its view of English society at a time of intellectual turmoil takes the reader deep into much murkier waters. Yes, The Name of the Rose is the obvious antecedent, but Pears’ effort, while equally daunting at 704 pages, is finally much more readable, much less of a literary Rubik’s cube.
Price, Richard. Freedomland. May 1998. Broadway, $25 (0-7679-0024-3).
Like Stephen Dobyns, Price expands formula not with flashy, Eco-like intellectuality nor with the Dickensian scope of Iain Pears. Instead, he takes dead aim on the contemporary mean streets but always with an eye toward tackling the big themes. In this story of the political fireball that erupts when a young white woman claims her car was hijacked, with her infant son inside, by a black man, Price homes in on racial tensions and media distortion, reflecting on how they affect individual lives.
Stone, Robert. Damascus Gate. 1998. Houghton, $26 (0-395-66569-8).
Stone’s take on millennial apocalypse is a quintessential literary thriller. His story line concerns a plot by Christian fundamentalists and Jewish radicals to blow up the mosques on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, but the heart of the novel lies in its characters’ tormented inner lives. Philosophical debate, meditation on the nature of belief, and building suspense reach a crescendo in a stunning climax that satisfies on all levels. This is a novel of ideas, but it is also a novel of place, securely grounded in the stones of Jerusualem.
Unsworth, Barry. Morality Play. 1995. Doubleday, $22.50 (0-385-47953-0); Norton, paper, $11 (0-393-31560-6).
A 23-year-old monk in fourteenth-century England breaks his chastity vows, flees the wrath of his bishop, and winds up part of a troupe of traveling actors who perform morality plays in small towns. Soon the troupe is solving a murder and staging a true-life morality play. Unsworth gradually reveals shades of truth while speculating on the nature of art and reality. A beguiling mixture of Pirandello and Ellis Peters.
Zimler, Richard. The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon. Apr. 1998. Overlook; dist. by Viking, $24.95 (0-87951-834-0).
This powerful account of the Lisbon massacre in 1506, when hundreds of Portuguese Jews were killed and burned in the city’s square, combines horrifying history with reflections on the mystical practice of Kabbalah. Based on an ancient manuscript, the tale follows a young Portuguese Jew as he searches the burning city for his uncle’s killer. As with the other books on this list, the solution to the crime provokes more questions than answers: “We are all of us deep and wide enough to welcome a river of paradoxes and riddles into our souls,” the narrator reflects as he attempts to make sense of both his uncle’s death and the surrealistic nightmare that surrounds him.
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