Somehow, I’ve found myself in the middle of a crime wave. Reading detective novels, I mean. I’ve been trying to fill those embarrassing knowledge gaps in my reading history. In the last week I’ve read four novels and a story, quite a lot for me. I figured I’d praise and complain a bit, and I’d do it in chronological order:
“The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Edgar Allan Poe. They say Mr. Poe birthed the detective story out of thin air (or, as he more snoringly called it, the “tale of ratiocination”) with this ditty about amateur sleuth and French braniac, Auguste Dupin. It’s not true, by the way, that Poe created the genre, since this story is a mash of gothic horror and French true crime memoirs. Still, Poe managed to solidify a good chunk of the armchair detective conventions in just thirty-odd pages. Like most dorks I was into Poe as a pre-teen, but I never read this one before. Maybe because the first five pages are a cheerless philosophical essay about people with strong analytical abilities. The “start with a bang” aesthetic wasn’t around yet, apparently. The whole armchair detective genre can be a bit of a bore, considering all the fun stuff has already taken place by the time the story starts—all the action, all the emotion—then some detached curmudgeon comes around to parse the whole thing out with logic. Man, logic is for math class! All the good parts are told in summary, a strategy that rather lessens their punch. Ah, well, we still get vague but tantalizing descriptions of a mother/daughter pair of corpses all slashed to hell, beaten, thrown out windows and shoved upside down into a chimney. And the killer, oh-ho, the killer is a fucking maniac straight-razor-wielding Orangutan! Mr. Poe, my man, you’d be a badass if you weren’t so dry. The other reason I’ve never read it is because I’ve known the punchline since deep dark childhood. I can’t even remember how I found out. I figured you did, too, which is why I just spilled the beans. If not, oops. But all the fun stuff in the story can be whittled down to: “the killer is a fucking maniac straight-razor-wielding Orangutan.” I’m sorry, all the other baddies in detective fiction history just frankly pale in comparison to that.
*Red Harvest,* Dashiell Hammett. Here we get the dawn of the hardboiled detective with Hammett and his Continental Op. Still a curmudgeon, but he’s working class and not so much of a brainiac, and most certainly not French. Most people think of *The Maltese Falcon* when they think of Hammett, but *Red Harvest* deserves a fair shake too. What shocked me is this novel’s relentless originality, even now, even though it’s been referenced to death by other movies and books (the Coen brothers, Akira Kurosawa, Bruce Willis in *Last Man Standing*). It purports to be a detective story, and it begins with a murder that must be solved. Fair enough. Problem is, our anonymous hero the Continental Op solves the murder within the first thirty pages of the novel. He’s still got a hundred and twenty pages to go. There are a couple more murders and he solves those too, but along the way he gets seriously pissed at the cops and politicians in this little town of Personville and decides to play them against each other until everyone is stone dead. Seriously, there are like forty murders in this book, and most of them jump out of nowhere. Even a savvy reader can’t guess where the plot will whiplash next. This virtue is also a fault, because some plot turns are either too ridiculous to work or too sudden and baffling to have much impact on the reader. But mainly Hammett is trying to be funny, and it works. The first person narration is hilariously cynical, and somehow manages to convince the reader that the Continental Op is not the bloodthirsty sociopath that he is. In that way, he’s a two-for-one character: first major hardboiled detective AND first major crime-novel psycho.
*Devil in a Blue Dress,* Walter Mosley. I finished it this morning, and now I can finally come out of hiding. I no longer have to shamefully admit I’ve never read this Mosley classic starring softboiled “detective” Easy Rawlins. Don’t get me wrong, the story is as hardboiled as anything by Spillane or Chandler or Ross MacDonald, but Easy is a softie, and that’s part of his charm. He’s more prone to getting beaten than to doing any beating himself, though he claims to have ripped off people’s faces during World War Two. I don’t buy it. What’s cool is that Easy isn’t even a real PI; no training at all. He’s just drinking in a bar one afternoon, laid off from work, when some guy says, “hey, go find this girl; here’s some blood money.” Aside from that quirk, *Devil* sticks to almost all the major tropes of hardboiled detective novels before it, with the one exception that Easy is Black, so many more of his conflicts are racially motivated and give the book a sociological depth that lesser crime novels maybe don’t have. I think of genre as a kind of hanger you hang the new clothes on. The hanger gives the book some form, but the new clothes are what captures the reader’s interest. So, yes, Mosley gives us femme fatales and knife fights and shootouts and rich white bad guys who molest children and corrupt cops who conduct painful interrogations, but the moments where he truly shines are those moments when we see Easy in his own right, separate from his predecessors Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. New clothes. The best chapters in the novel, like the one where Easy visits an airline plant to try to get his job back, have nothing to do with the central mystery. The first half is better than the second because the second locks into basic detective conventions and plays them out in familiar ways.
*The Night Gardener,* George Pelecanos. I bought this one because of the buzz. Pelecanos probably doesn’t need buzz. I read his *Drama City* two summers ago, thought it was a quick, entertaining read. And last summer I saw the first season of *The Wire,* a TV show with which he is involved. *The Wire,* Season One, is perhaps the single greatest piece of television I’ve ever seen, its epic scope and depth of character and theme even better than many good crime books I’ve read. The buzz suggests that *Gardner* would rival *The Wire* in this respect. I just think *The Wire* is bigger, deeper, more complex and ultimately more satisfying. The emphasis in both the TV show and the novel is on realism, the days-in-the-lives of city cops. Pelecanos builds character slowly through dialogue and action—not through introspection, narrative voice, or evocative detail. His dialogue is kick ass, but his narrative prose is bare bones minimalism. Sometimes I felt like I was reading a teleplay for a show when I’d rather be watching the show, getting all the missing nuance from the actors and the set designers. The book is more like a series of Raymond Carver short stories than a crime novel. Fine by me, but you’d expect a tad more tension from a tale about cops on the trail of a serial killer. I know, I know—Pelecanos is making a point about those kinds of novels. He’s entertaining us through strategic disappointment. I dig, but it’s a big risk to take. The new clothes fall right off the hanger, you know?
*Songs of Innocence,* Richard Aleas. Newest of this lot, and damned if it isn’t the best. That’s right: better than Poe and Hammett. All right, unfair comparison. Those guys were burdened with creating conventions that we shrug off now, while Aleas (an alias) gets to trample all over those conventions like a line dancer wearing golf shoes. New York City: ex-detective has to go back onto the beat when his girlfriend winds up dead, and pretty soon he’s pegged for a criminal himself. Pretty conventional stuff so far, but it moves along briskly and insanely enough to keep you interested. The trick is that the conventions keep unraveling more and more as the story progresses, until you hit an ending tangled up in a beautiful web of ironies and surprise. Sure, the culprit’s not too tough to spot, but the culprit is also not exactly the culprit, and the culprit’s reasons…well, the end is going to kick your ass. When Chris Well asked me in an interview what kinds of books I like, I said, “the ones that deliberately screw with you.” This is that kind of book. Hell, the first-person narrator, John Blake, isn’t even particularly hardboiled. He’s into poetry, wears glasses. His quietness, at least compared to a guy like Mike Hammer, is part of what makes the denouement all that much more of a punch in the face. I picked up this book because I read some glowing reviews and because I’ve been intrigued by this Hard Case Crime line of paperback originals. It comments on “solving a crime” in a manner quite similar to Pelecanos in *The Night Gardner,* but it keeps the new clothes on the hanger till the last page, then it shreds the shit out of them. Who would’ve thought it’d be such a treat. And by treat I mean nightmare.
Author of Pyres
October 16, 2007
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