Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Some thoughts on crime fiction: 1

I've just finished reading the latest Patricia Cornwell. Its title is The Scarpetta Factor, which considering that the previous one was just called Scarpetta suggests to me that Cornwell has utterly lost any interest she may once have had in decently clothing her obsessions.

Cornwell has always been obsessed with Scarpetta, for reasons not far to seek -- compare the physical descriptions of the character with the jacket photos of the author and draw your own conclusions -- but in the early books she was at least as interested in the baddies as she was in the goodies. It's been a long time, at least five or six novels, since Scarpetta's paranoid narcissism became the clear raison d'être of the books and the books became repetitive chants about Scarpetta and her circle and the awful people who keep trying to upset and hurt them, chants in which we the readers are still expected to be enchanted by Scarpetta's repulsive niece Lucy and the only believable character is the flawed Pete Marino and often not him either, with occasional brief, bored mentions of the bad guys.

Why then, you ask, did I pick up a copy from the stack in K-Mart that I happened to be walking past, and, having done so, read it through to the end, which is more than I have been able to manage with the new Ian Rankin? And reader, well may you ask. I don't know the answer either. But it's told me something useful that I'd not consciously realised before about what makes good crime fiction.

What makes good crime fiction is the constant interaction between the criminal and the decoder -- whether private detective, police detective, forensic pathologist or whatever -- and the way those forces are balanced, not only in the abstract moral narrative but within the telling of the tale. Cornwell has lost interest, if she ever had any real interest, in the criminal and the crime; her criminals are crudely grotesque and overblown, like the hairy French freak who turns up again in this new book, and she is far more interested in her little Scarpetta circle and the way they interact with each other, with particular reference -- wholly unironic -- to money, status, brand names and big toys. I don't think there can be another successful novelist on the planet who makes such frequent and earnest use of brand names as a mode of characterisation -- which in turn makes you wonder about the product placement aspect.

Balanced interaction and interchange of point of view is what makes crime fiction worth reading: fiction in which Good v Evil is a struggle that is (a) evenly matched, (b) real and (c) morally complicated within that dichotomy. It's (c) that makes for really exceptional crime fiction, as with the flawed-detective model (Peter Temple has produced an absolute blinder in this respect with Truth), with the sympathy-for-the-criminal's-seriously-horrible-background (Val McDermid is the mistress of this variant) or, most of all, as with Thomas Harris's truly exceptional first two Hannibal Lecter books, Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, where the narrative turns with delicate precision on the moral and psychological complications and manipulations of readerly sympathy and empathy for two major characters: Will Graham of Red Dragon, with his troubled and near-uncanny feel for the mind and heart of the bad guy, and, of course, Hannibal Lecter himself.

Crime fiction, like comedy (as in Shakespeare, not as in standup), is essentially a conservative genre, one in which the narrative trajectory is to do with the restoration of social order but, within that, privileges the individual psyche and individual freedoms. Most literary private detective heroes are by nature libertarians, and most tales of crime are about the way the individual psyche became deranged in the first place, though many (again like Peter Temple) are also acutely conscious of the social forces that set up the conditions for such derangements. It's not a simple thing. Really exceptional crime writers understand all of that, and factor all of it in.

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

So it was the sort of horrible experience you couldn't put down, as you tried to analyze what was wrong with it? Lucy S.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Yes, that's the weak point in all this, innit. I'm still trying to figure it out. Sucked in by a very rare flaw in Scarpetta, I think: early on, she can't cope with her new BlackBerry, partly because she needs to have her glasses on to see the keypad, so she disables the password and then someone pinches it, which could lead to horrible leaks. I think I wanted to follow the smartfone mini-plot. Which (SPOILER) merely fizzles out, after hundreds of pages of fretting.

librarygirl said...

I parted company with Cornwell after the idiotic and unbelievable resurrection of Benton Wesley. I thought the earlier ones were terrific though.

frog said...

I have to agree with librarygirl. I have grown so tired of Scarpetta that my entire collection has been donated as a precursor to house moving.

naomi said...

Never read any of the Cornwell, but I do think your analysis of the appeal of crime fiction is spot on.

Wonder if the decoder/individualist aspects of it explain why crime fiction is so beloved by xtrmly srs academics?

Peter said...

We couldn't put down our latest Rankin, FWIW.
Have you read the Stieg Larsson trilogy? Wow! And then check up on what happened to his partner after his death - Sweden may not be the paradise that some of us envisage.

WV "wailliz" ??

Steve said...

I stuck with Cornwell up to and including Black Notice. Misguided loyalty I suppose. The books following were redundant on several levels, not least because writing in the present tense defeats the whole purpose of the genre and strikes me as a feeble, transparent attempt to be "literary". Also, Scarpetta's extended family got more annoying and self-absorbed by the page.

fxh said...

I like a few of the others here gave up on Cornwell long ago. Cliff Hardy is predictable but still worth reading. I would have stuck with Cornwell if she and Scarpetta had aged well like Hardy /Corris. In fact I'd like to see Corris do a Carter Brown. In a way he does - I know what a new Hardy will do - I'll finish it in a few hours but its still good.

I agree with much of the rest of what you say - for me its character driven with a good hang together plot a bonus - its about human failure and hope - individuals flawed on the goodies and baddies side - the goodies mostly just trying that bit harder to consider others and a wider society - the baddies caring for none but themselves.

James Lee Burke, Temple, Disher, Rankin.....

I don't remember a good crime book without a murder perhaps there is one - there must always be the ultimate irreversible transgression

Presently I am secretly buying the whole set of re-released Martin Beck series by Sjowall and Wahloo and re-reading them as i go for then third time.

I'll probably not re-read any Cornwell

Legal Eagle said...

Yeah, I gave up on the Scarpetta novels about 10 years ago, I think. I really hated the main characters by then, and as you've said, PC, the crimes got really grotesque and overblown.

I like the Dalziel and Pascoe books - very morally complex and often interesting sidelines involved.

Definitely an large attraction to crime books is the pleasure of sorting things out. By the end, everything is in its proper place, and all the pieces have been put together. So often real life isn't like that, but it gives us a pleasure to do it in fiction.

Helen said...

I haven't read much Cornwell but I too was greatly put off by all the yuppie consumerist blather. As I remember it was more about food and other consumables than electronic toys, but can't remember the title.

The Jack the Ripper book was quite a good read in a I-need-brain-bleach kind of way.

Barbara Vine is my crime writer of choice (not so much who dun it as why they dun it), sometimes her alter ego Ruth Rendell.

Fyodor said...

Very interesting post, Mme. Pav.

I liked that last paragraph in particular, and the contrast of social order and the individual.

Of course, crime requires an individualism. As FXH noted, murder is the ultimate transgression, or crossing over, into the outlawed. You probably know this, but the Russian word for "crime", as in Crime & Punishment, prestupleniye, literally means "overstepping", i.e. trangression, or stepping beyond.

However, as you point out, so often the detective (private or police), rather than embodying the conservative social order, is highly individualistic and/or self-destructively antagonistic* to the social order. Why is this?

Is it because it allows for more powerful dramatic contrast between detective and criminal, or is it because the author (and audience) consciously or subconsciously need to see individualism successfully co-opted into the social order for the social order to be perceived to be maintained?

I've often wondered about the latter when pondering the (negative) reaction of many people to the ending of Hannibal. Arguably there's a similar response to the deliberate ambiguity in Blade Runner over Deckard's humanity. Is he really an individual, or just a programmed slave? Why does it matter so much?

* I say self-destructive because the social order always wins, doesn't it?

WV = "pacedupe". No kidding.

Tatyana Larina said...

This is a wonderful post!

I initially thought I'd be too distracted by the slide show on the side, trying to have a good look at all the lovely still life images, particularly as I don't read crime fiction, but no, this was the best thing I read today. The last paragraph is particularly absorbing.

Thanks.

Looking forward to part 2.

Francis Xavier Holden said...

fyodor - sometimes I think there is no such thing as an individual as say a Randroid would have it.

The person is the mind - the mind is language - language is imported from society.

Individuating as the Freudian/Jungian/Lacanians have it is the eternal struggle to be apart and joined and separate but defined by the collective other.

Its not possible, unless insane to be, only one or the other. Even then its possible the inability to live with the duality /ambiguity - co-exist that is insanity.

anyway - hows the family - read any good crime books lately?

Fyodor said...

"fyodor - sometimes I think there is no such thing as an individual as say a Randroid would have it."

How would a "Randroid" have it?

Not sure what you're on about with the ianism.

"anyway - hows the family - read any good crime books lately?"

Me or the family?

Pavlov's Cat said...

I stopped reading Ruth Rendell / Barbara Vine for a couple of years after I chaired her session at an Adelaide Writers' Week. I also got rid of all the RR books I had because I knew I would never read them again. (Makes huge effort not to elaborate.)

Fyodor, on individualism and taboo. I don't agree that murder is the ultimate: I have a theory (no doubt not original; someone must have said it before, probably the incomparable and sadly dead Lévi-Strauss) that the ultimate taboos are cannibalism and incest, and for the same reason: because they blur the boundaries of individuality, in an unacceptable way, which is sort of even worse (in psychological and anthropological terms, I mean) than the obliteration of it in murder.

I think, speaking of cannibalism, that you're right about the ending of Hannibal, which I really like, and read as a feminist-anarchist statement. Starling buggers off with Lecter and they spend the rest of their lives having a fabulous time sexing on and going to the opera and so on -- a sort of Cathy and Heathcliff except still alive -- in a joint rejection of the social order in general and, in particular, its guardian the FBI, whose patriarchal forces (both the individually concrete and the collectively abstract) have betrayed and destroyed Starling and which is of course implacably opposed to Lecter, whom I see as a feminised figure in the sense that Heathcliff is feminised. How's that for getting myself into trouble before breakfast.

FXH -- I had an essay in the Black Inc Best Australian series a few years back about the sublimation of individuality in the practice of choral singing, which I did for five years and adored. I called it "Brothers' Keepers" as a hint of what it was really about, but of course it was seen by at least one person as mere bourgeois frippery about high cult-cha. Jeez the current crop of identity-politics-trained literati are bad readers.

Fyodor said...

"Fyodor, on individualism and taboo. I don't agree that murder is the ultimate: I have a theory (no doubt not original; someone must have said it before, probably the incomparable and sadly dead Lévi-Strauss) that the ultimate taboos are cannibalism and incest, and for the same reason: because they blur the boundaries of individuality, in an unacceptable way, which is sort of even worse (in psychological and anthropological terms, I mean) than the obliteration of it in murder."

Myeah, I kinda see your point, but I draw a distinction between taboo behaviour and criminal status. Cannibalism of someone you haven't actually killed isn't perceived as badly as the Full Monty, and nor is incest viewed as criminally extreme.

"I think, speaking of cannibalism, that you're right about the ending of Hannibal, which I really like, and read as a feminist-anarchist statement. Starling buggers off with Lecter and they spend the rest of their lives having a fabulous time sexing on and going to the opera and so on -- a sort of Cathy and Heathcliff except still alive -- in a joint rejection of the social order in general and, in particular, its guardian the FBI, whose patriarchal forces (both the individually concrete and the collectively abstract) have betrayed and destroyed Starling and which is of course implacably opposed to Lecter, whom I see as a feminised figure in the sense that Heathcliff is feminised. How's that for getting myself into trouble before breakfast."

You see, I agree with your take on Starling-Lecter, but I don't know how many people I've spoken to on the subject that are certain that either Starling wouldn't have done that or, more importantly, shouldn't have done that.

I'm interested in your view on Lecter as "feminised" - how so?

Pavlov's Cat said...

When I say 'feminised' as a comparison with Heathcliff, I don't mean 'emasculated' (obvs -- I mean, look at Heathcliff), rather in the sense of the Other, or 'outside the patriarchal social order' if you like -- socially marginalised. There's a school of feminist lit crit that reads Heathcliff as 'feminised' in the sense that he has no money, no power, no father and no Britishness -- he is, from the descriptions of him as a child, obviously racially 'othered' -- either Irish or a gypsy, or possibly even an Irish gypsy. Let's face it, the Irish have been the British's beyotches for a very very long time.

*runs away*

*comes back*

And so is Lecter. Racially foreign, beyond the comprehension of shrinks and profilers, beyond family, beyond the law. (Not to mention being gifted in music and languages and a good cook.) And yet -- exactly like Heathcliff -- he 'makes a girl's fur crackle' as one female character says in Hannibal. So it's not about Teh Sex, more about centres and margins, laws and lawlessness.

Fyodor said...

"When I say 'feminised' as a comparison with Heathcliff, I don't mean 'emasculated' (obvs -- I mean, look at Heathcliff), rather in the sense of the Other, or 'outside the patriarchal social order' if you like -- socially marginalised."

and

"Racially foreign, beyond the comprehension of shrinks and profilers, beyond family, beyond the law. (Not to mention being gifted in music and languages and a good cook.) And yet -- exactly like Heathcliff -- he 'makes a girl's fur crackle' as one female character says in Hannibal. So it's not about Teh Sex, more about centres and margins, laws and lawlessness."

Yep. Agree with that. Marginalisation's pretty key, I think. Do you think the fur-crackling is despite the Otherness, or because of it?

Francis Xavier Holden said...

I was going to say something like what fyodor said before about having to have a death, but not necessarily a murder, for cannibalism.

I suppose you can nibble on bits of people while they are alive but that’s just called "being in love" isn't it?

I think it’s the murder, not the death, which is the irreversible transgression. Incest, mutilation, assault of all kinds, are transgressions but all able to be healed to a greater or lesser extent. Death is irreversible.

I suppose vampirism is the closest – cannibalism of a kind - taking away the essential life force blood plus free will and paradoxically taking away death or the ability to die.


Oh and Pav - The Black Irish as the ultimate Other - maybe that explains why I've had difficluty keeping friends.

Anonymous said...

The incest taboo is actually about the accumulation of property by a single family within the community. Marrying out = property dispersed.

Read that some years ago. No idea where. I think it was. Nope, can't remember. Possibly in Science News.