Friday, 6 January 2012

Crime novels, thrillers use cliché to heighten drama

Is her name Honey Chandler? Well,
she'd better watch out!
A few days ago I posted my thoughts about crime novels and thrillers because I had decided to do a bit of reading within the genres. It’s been fun but I want to bring up a concern I have with these books because it’s something that I’ve noticed in pretty much all of them, even in Karin Fossum’s Black Seconds (2007). I make this clear because Fossum has a special sort of rep in the industry, as do a lot of Scandinavian writers of crime novels. It’s deserved, I think, at least in her case (I haven’t read any of the others who have been singled out for praise) but even Fossum gets a mention in this post – which is a sort of critique – because to leave her out would not be entirely honest.

Before I start I want to talk a bit about the people who read crime novels and thrillers by comparing them to people who read so-called ‘literary’ fiction. I’ve posted comments on Twitter about my recent readings and have got back a fair few comments along the lines of “Yeah, Fossum’s great. Just read her latest.” It’s welcome and refreshing. People who read literary fiction tend to be more critical, so you’d get something more like “Yes, Banville is good but I prefer Tsiolkas.” You can’t seem to win, whereas with readers of genre novels it’s just positive all the way. I don’t know which is better, but as an habitual reader of literary fiction this detail must serve as a sort of apology to genre readers who may take exception to what I have to say.

In the same vein, I object to negative epithets being aimed at genre fiction. I do not believe that it’s “trash” or “rubbish”, as I’ve heard people say. Writing a good novel of any type requires discipline, practice and imaginative powers beyond what I myself would be able to command. As I mention in the post linked to above, the novel itself copped a lot of flack in the early days, back in the 18th century when it was starting to become popular. All sort of outrageous things were flung at the novel, that it was disordering the impressionable minds of young women, that it was this, that it was that. It’s garbage, just like it’s garbage to say that “genre is crap”. It’s not. But it’s not for everyone.

So in that spirit, perhaps what I have now to say can be taken in the guise of constructive criticism aimed at perhaps somewhere down the line improving the way genre fiction functions. My earlier post said something about why genre fiction is worthwhile reading. Note also that the following review contains spoilers and I’ve highlighted the names of the books so they’re easy to spot.

To start with I recall genre-writer John Birmingham reversing the tables and having a red-hot go at literary fiction, labelling it dull and unconcerned with anything outside the lounge room. And I think that’s true to a degree. There have been exceptions, of course, such as Tolstoy, who wrote War and Peace (1869). Another Russian writer, Andre Bely, wrote about an assassination in St Petersberg (1913). But the realm of high drama that crime novels and thrillers occupy has been neglected by writers of ‘serious’ novels.

Now I want to get serious and talk about the way that genre novels deploy cliché to maximise drama. I think they do it because the action crowds out all other considerations. There is no room made to fashion out a more nuanced set of characters.

It has been said that all writing is aimed at destroying cliché, but I think that genre novels use it to tell the reader what to value. Character development is something that novels are good at. Good novels give you a clear picture about the protagonist and about ancillary characters that come to interact with him or her. Genre novels, on the other hand, often resort to cliché so that the reader knows that the person being talked about is to be hated, or valued. If the person is to be valued you know that, probably at some point down the line, that person is going to get into trouble that they’ll have to be saved from. Characters that are signalled for hatred will probably shame themselves or turn against the protagonist.

Matthew Reilly, an Australian author, hardly bothers in Area 7 (2001) even though he talks in the afterword to the novel about remarks he has received on this issue. His answer to those critics is, “I want to write about action and thrills and adventure, and if developing characters slows down the action, then developing characters gets the chop!” Which it clearly does. Luckily there’s enough action to occupy the reader’s complete attention. The hero gets the girl in the end but it’s thin gruel compared to what readers of literary fiction are accustomed to.

A less extreme example is Allan Folsom’s The Hadrian Memorandum (2009). It’s a great story that takes the reader from Equatorial Guinea (in Africa) to Paris, then Berlin, and then finally to Portugal. The final scenes take place back at the home of Nicholas Marten, the hero. Complex and dark, the story centres around the pursuit of Marten and Anne Tidrow, a woman Marten meets in Equatorial Guinea where she works for an oil exploration company. They are pursued by a powerful and relentless character named Conor White. White is an employee of a security company that has been engaged by the oil company to protect its interests in Africa. Marten and Tidrow team up in a manner of speaking, in Berlin, because Tidrow wants to make sure that the secrets Marten possesses are not revealed to the civilian authorities. As the story progresses a relationship develops between Tidrow and Marten.

Because the two are on the run they tend to spend a lot of time together, so their relationship has to work and has to be integrated with the bigger pursuit story. But what happens in these safe houses and hotel rooms is confusing. From scene to scene the relationship alters in ways that are not logical and even confusing. One day Tidrow is masterful and commanding and the next day she is meek and submissive. And Marten’s character is jerked about in the same way. A consistent picture does not emerge. The reason for this is that the bigger pursuit story occupies all of the author’s attention and the relationship between these two key characters ends up serving the demands of the pursuit story, and nothing else. The delineation of the main characters suffers as a result of this single-minded focus.

The sex suffers, too, in The Concrete Blonde (1994), one of the Harry Bosch novels by Michael Connelly. Romantic interest Sylvia Moore gets it on with Harry on occasion but the sparks don’t fly, even though they do it on the rug in front of the fire at least once. There’s hot kisses on necks and glasses of wine but it’s a bit limp. Sylvia becomes part of the bigger story – the hunt for the copycat serial killer – when Harry perceives a threat to her. Poor Sylvia threatens to call it quits with Harry as a result, not liking it when she starts to get involved in one of his cases. But you don’t really care what she does. When a teenage student of Sylvia’s is shot in a drive-by shooting Connelly again serves up the house drama, complete with hot tears, but only Sylvia gives a damn. We’re too busy worrying about the killer. In fact, so is Connelly. 

The author sets up a potential love interest in the form of lawyer Honey Chandler, but the heat Harry strikes up during conversations with poor doomed Honey never kindles into flame and in the end she is tortured and killed by the serial killer. Chandler is the lawyer for the plaintiff in a court case Harry is fighting and there are plenty of clues from Connelly that she is a good egg, and deserves our respect. It gets her death with a mean set of bite marks and numerous cigarette burns; it doesn’t pay to have Connelly like you too much unless you’re Harry Bosch.

Fossom was the exception to the rule. I’ve already mentioned her 2007 novel Black Seconds in this post. What Fossum does that delights readers is to reduce the story’s scale. The novel contains a single death, and it’s not a murder although everyone thinks it might be for most of the book. The main character is the cop, Inspector Sejer. There’s also his sidekick, Jakob Skarre. Sejer is intense but also very circumspect in his words and actions; this is not a hard-boiled world of corruption and vice. 

The novel’s prime focus is to find who killed a small girl, Ida Joner, who went out on her bicycle to shop in town one day and never returned. Ida’s mother, Helga, is devastated by her daughter’s absence and it’s Helga’s pain that insinuates itself into all parts of the narrative. Because her grief is well-realised and because it is so important to how we view the case there is no room for rough drama. It’s rough enough when Ida’s cousin Tomme keeps up his involvement with an unattractive local fellow named Willy. Willy helps Tomme when Tomme’s new car is damaged in a traffic accident. It gets a lot worse when Tomme and Willy go to Denmark by boat from Norway, where the story is set, to do some sort of unsavoury business deal.

Tomme turns out to have been responsible for Ida’s death – he hit her with his car while driving on the road – but his non-communicativeness almost gives him away. Here’s the flaw in Fossum’s creation. Tomme’s presence is so weird that it does give him away toward the end of the book. And on top of this structural weakness Fossum uses a clumsy device – a ticking sound that only Tomme can hear, and that we hear with him – which is somehow linked to his feeling of guilt. The sound kicks in when he is being asked questions. It’s reasonably effective but it’s a device as old as Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tel-Tale Heart (1843) and not a very subtle one. 

But at least Fossum eschews the rapid action, busy cast, and spicy drama that other crime novelists enjoy using, and this is the reason why she has caught the market’s attention. Like Jane Austen compared to the lesser novelists who preceded her and who were her contemporaries, Fossum turns down the dramatic volume control and focuses with greater precision on a smaller set of characters than do other novelists within the genre. She gives herself time and space to pay attention to the small details that make good novels so great to read. She eschews cliché and she’s able to do it because the plot does not occupy all the available space inside the novel. She doesn’t tell us who to like and who to hate, but gives us the license to make up our own minds. This is a boon for the reader.

Verisimilitude is something that novels pioneered – it’s Coleridge’s “suspension of disbelief” – and it’s not something to be sniffed at. It’s Austen’s “little piece of ivory” all over again and, with apologies to fans of the other writers I’ve mentioned, it works.

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