December 2003

Sarah Weinman

mystery strumpet

An Introduction

First, Iíd like to thank Jessa for taking me on as Bookslutís new Mystery Strumpet. Briefly, my mission in this column is to continue bringing the best of the crime fiction world to ears that may otherwise not be exposed to it. Melinda Hill highlighted some truly wonderful authors, and Iíll be doing so as well in the months to come. But Iíll also look at the genre as a whole -- what makes it tick, why certain books sell more than others, and essentially, try to convey how much I love mysteries.

For whatever reason, crime fiction is looked upon by those who inhabit more rarified literary circles with some degree of disdain. The books are too common, some sniff. They donít have deep meaning, or play with language, or offer incisive commentary about the world, past and present. Normally, I can dismiss much of these so-called criticisms because those who make them canít back their claims up with examples or simply donít read much within the genre. But a few weeks ago, I attended an interview of Scottish author Louise Welsh that was held as part of the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. Welsh is the author of The Cutting Room, winner of the Crime Writers Associationís John Creasey Memorial Dagger for Best Debut novel, and has been accoladed by all sorts of periodicals in the UK, US and around the world. For good reason, too, as itís a book thatís deeply atmospheric, prose thatís taut and poignant and filled with darkness, seediness, and most of all, empathy. Itís hard to believe that this is Welshís first book, itís that assured.

The interview was conducted by Emily Pohl-Weary, a Toronto-area SF/F writer who had recently reviewed Welshís novel for Now Weekly, and jumped on the rave bandwagon. Weary did a credible job asking the usual questions of Welsh: where the characters came from, issues of setting and writing in a totally different voice (gay male) than her own. But a throwaway comment she made about how ďthe problem with mystery novels is that so much of it deals with black and white, how good is so different from evil and there arenít very many shades of gray,Ē really set off my radar. As I sat in the dimly lit, sparsely populated room, I felt my shoulders tense and tried to sigh out the stress. Here we go again, I thought, someone totally missing the point of the genre.

True, I suppose that the underlying skeleton of works in the genre is that a protagonist comes across a crime of sorts -- usually a murder -- and, in an attempt to solve it, encounters a series of suspicious people, one of whom committed the crime. Far too often the protagonist is Good and the murderer is Evil and never the twain shall meet. But if thatís all crime fiction had to offer, Iíd be hard pressed to believe it would endure as long and remain as popular with the masses as it has. So what makes crime fiction so appealing?

First and foremost, character. This may surprise people who think that mysteries are plot-driven. To a point, they must be, but without a character to root for, identify with, or at least find compelling in some manner, the story simply becomes a cardboard construct. Raymond Chandler did not become so revered by contemporary crime writers because he came up with expert plots. If it werenít for Philip Marloweís particular take on things, his sense of justice and outrage, the books would likely languish in the same oblivion that swallowed up many of Chandlerís contemporaries. The same goes for protagonists slightly less heroic. Donald Westlake wouldnít be among the genreís greats only for his inventive tales, although he excels at those (particularly one of my favorite novels, Dancing Aztecs, regrettably out-of-print now.) Rather, itís the dogged determination of Dortmunder as he tries to salvage yet another blown heist or deal with increasingly insane situations, or Parker, the star of the nourish Richard Stark books, a man who dances on the high wire between good and evil but sticks so closely to his own code that youíre compelled to read further.

Of course, that doesnít mean that plot should be sacrificed completely in the name of an interesting protagonist. The story has to move, and the best crime novels set the pace and sustain itówhether itís blisteringly fast or leisurely and slow. Jeffery Deaverís thrillers may sometimes border on the excessively manipulative, but thereís no doubt that heís found a winning way to keep readers glued to the pages, anxiously turning the pages as one climax is superceded by another shocking twist. And Caleb Carrís duet of novels set in 1890s New York are a perfect example of books that painstakingly set the table for a complex plot, and deliver a beautifully served meal by the end.

Setting, or some sense of place, is important as well. The mean streets of Los Angeles are just as much a character as Philip Marlowe, Harry Bosch, or Elvis Cole are in the works of Chandler, Michael Connelly and Robert Crais. Matthew Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr may not necessarily be as beloved to their fans if Lawrence Block hadnít given them New York City to inhabit. The chilly psychological thrillers best exemplified by Ruth Rendell, PD James and Minette Walters might only be lukewarm if they werenít so uniquely British, just like the wide-open spaces of the American West contribute to the noir atmosphere in the best work of Jim Thompson and James Crumley.

Yet the one thing thatís really led to major growth in crime fiction in recent years is the ability to take the genre elements and mix them up with a strong sense of social commentary. The best novels have made serious points about socioeconomic status, race, injustice and offered statements on a particular time and place. All ďtranscending the genreĒ means is that the writer has something extra to say, something to use a murder or crime as a platform to express bigger ideas. Thatís why people like George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, Richard Price and more recently, Laura Lippman are amongst the top flight of authorsóthey cast their eye towards greater truths, using crime as a springboard to tell stories that cut right to the heart of important issues. Itís been said that the social novel has declined amongst the literary crowd, but itís more than thriving in mystery circles.

So character, plot, setting, social commentary -- but arenít those in any kind of novel? Exactly my point. Within the trappings of genre conventions are a multitude of possibilities, a myriad of voices, a vast spectrum of ideas. Itís not what story is told, but how to tell it, or who is telling. In short, the skyís nearly the limit for whatís available to enjoy within the wide boundaries of crime fiction.