Category Archives: Detective Fiction

Where the Western Meets Crime Fiction

John Larison argues that despite the different tropes they use and the different worlds they occupy, crime and Western stories share many structural similarities:

Both are about the triumph of good over evil. Early in a novel of either genre, we will see our protagonist encounter an injustice, usually the victim of crime (who may or may not still be breathing). Both novels will end when the scales of justice have finally been righted; the perpetrators of evil have met their due punishment. In a crime novel, justice usually comes in the form of a court of law. In the western, justice tends to be delivered by a bullet through the heart.

That’s a good start, but there’s more substance, nuance, and grit in both genres. Crime fiction includes many sub-genres, including cozies (Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple tales) and classic whodunits (Ellery Queen). The reader can settle down with one of these books knowing that justice will inevitably prevail, just like in the Westerns. But then there are hardboiled and noir crime stories. While both feature violence in gritty, naturalistic settings, only hardboiled tales come close to the worldview of classic Western adventures.

In hardboiled crime tales, the protagonist shoots it out with the bad guys to protect the innocent and restore justice. Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer is an updated John Wayne battling the bad hombres of New York City. However, in noir tales, traditional justice is just as hard to find as an innocent victim. For example, Raymond Chandler paints a bleak view of human nature in his novels, with both the criminal underworld and the “respectable” upper class up to no good. In such a world, the protagonist has to settle for upholding his personal code of honor, justice for the innocent proving too elusive, if not illusory.

Some of the “crime-westerns” Larison cites in his article certainly don’t end with the good guy riding into the sunset after protecting the righteous and punishing the wicked. Just to name one example, Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country For Old Men” ends with the bad guy, a sociopathic hit man, virtually unscathed and free, leaving behind the corpses of almost all the sympathetic characters. The sheriff who failed to catch the killer or protect the innocent acknowledges his uselessness at the end, and dreads the evil that’s spreading across the land he once loved and knew. Not exactly “Shane.” But, as Larison says, still wildly entertaining.

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Raymond Chandler Didn’t Care About Plot

Raymond Chandler

I’ve always found Raymond Chandler’s writing to be inspirational, sublime, and maddening. I have no idea how many times I’ve read Farewell, My Lovely, and there’s still a lot about it I just don’t get. The work is an adventure tale, a work of art, and a puzzle. Chandler broke a lot of rules. But I, and countless other fans, keep coming back.

This retrospective on Chandler’s unique approach in Literary Hub echoes my feelings toward this gifted and driven artist:

Looking at Chandler’s work in retrospect, it seems fair to say that he wasn’t really a “mystery writer”—or not first and foremost. Plots didn’t interest him much. They were just pegs on which to hang characters and language. His plots were not particularly original but that never bothered him. “Very likely Agatha Christie and Rex Stout write better mysteries. But their words don’t get up and walk. Mine do.” And: “I don’t care whether the mystery is fairly obvious but I do care about the people, about this strange, corrupt world we live in and how any man who tries to be honest looks in the end either sentimental or just plain foolish.”

Story construction and the tying up of loose ends never bothered him. When director Howard Hawks was filming The Big Sleep, he cabled Chandler: “Who killed the chauffeur?” Chandler cabled back: “No idea.”

When he himself collaborated with the young Billy Wilder on what was Chandler’s first Hollywood film, Double Indemnity, Wilder observed that “Chandler was a dilettante. He did not like the structure of a screenplay… He was a mess but he could write a beautiful sentence. ‘There is nothing as empty as an empty swimming pool.’ That is a great line.” He would later give his moody one-time partner credit for being “one of the greatest creative minds I’ve ever encountered.”

I think Chandler’s face reflects the purposeful rebellion and probing intelligence one senses behind the writer’s challenging and endlessly intriguing fiction.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue

Edgar Alan Poe

Sean Fitzgerald offers a sympathetic evaluation of the great-great granddaddy of detective fiction, with revealing insights into Poe’s other work:

Edgar Allan Poe’s “great continuous convulsion” speaks very naturally and very intensely to the adolescent spirit: passion, love, hatred, murder, primal desires and fears, a desperate pursuit for meaning in a corrupt world. The tales of Edgar Allan Poe capture a universal adolescent essence, and few things deserve to be taken as seriously as adolescence. Adolescence is a search. Adulthood is dealing with the discovery.

What Fitzgerald says about Poe is also true of other works of speculative fiction. Though dismissed by some as frivolous, if not lowbrow, speculative fiction often brilliantly tackles difficult, universal issues in a way that is both entertaining and enlightening. Poe was a pioneer of the genre who blazed the trail for many others, including H.P Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Stephen King.

Sherlock Holmes and the Mind

Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes was a favorite of mine growing up. However, the story “A Study in Scarlet” rubbed me the wrong way. I shared Dr. Watson’s shock about Holmes’s lack of knowledge about the world around him. When an incredulous Watson discovered that Holmes wasn’t even aware of the Copernican model of the solar system, Holmes objected he couldn’t be bothered by such facts:

“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently: “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

Clearly, I decided, Arthur Conan Doyle failed to grasp that an educated, well-rounded individual (as Holmes surely was) had to master the big picture before he could understand the little one.

But this article in Scientific American suggests Arthur Conan Doyle was on to something about the quirky intricacies of the human mind:

Many of the etchings by artist M. C. Escher appeal because they depict scenes that defy logic. …

In 2003 a team of psychologists led by Catya von Károlyi of the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire made a discovery using such images. When the researchers asked people to pick out impossible figures from similarly drawn illustrations, they found that participants with dyslexia were among the fastest at this task.

Strong readers are necessarily skilled at focusing visual attention. But a trade-off is involved: when focusing on detail, the brain suppresses awareness of its surroundings. Poor readers may be unable to focus attention in this way. They would therefore be more globally aware, which could lead to advantages for performing tasks, such as discriminating impossible figures. (Emphasis mine)

Amazing, isn’t it, how literature captures so much truth about the human condition that we’re just now able to appreciate?