1. The popular appeal of murder.
For American readers, mystery is the most popular literary genre. For proof we can look at the New York Times; on June 12, 2011, ten of the top fifteen bestselling novels were mysteries.
Half a dozen distinct sub-genres exist under the “mystery” banner: the police procedural; the hard-boiled detective story; the cozy, armchair mystery; the serial killer thriller; the existential mystery; and the crime story. Each has its adherents, its embarrassments. Each type holds a different type of allure. The variety within the genre holds the key to the genre’s durability, popularity and appeal.
I read two very different mystery writers recently, James Crumley and Henning Mankell. Each writes in a specific subgenre of the mystery novel. Crumley works in the hard-boiled mode. Mankell works in the procedural. Juxtaposing the two authors—their novels and the genres they work in—results in interesting observations about the nature of each subgenre’s appeal.
2. Men who drink.
James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss operates as a direct descendent of the original hard-boiled detective novels, replete with a detective, high body count and convoluted plot. The detective in this case is a drunken romantic named C. W. Sughrue.
Sughrue stands with a large batch of rough and tumble detectives, a descendant of Hammett’s the Continental Op and Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. He’s tough, gruff, and violent, but lives by a strict moral code. He’s loyal. He’s intelligent. He’s resourceful. He’s trained, armed, and weary. He hides his emotional bonds with cynicism, alcohol, and irony. He drinks too much and lives too hard. It’s a detective novel where the detective is a lone wolf. He carries around psychic wounds from a tour in the Vietnam War. He is (secretly) amazed by the world’s depravity.
Crumley utilizes many of the staples of the hard-boiled novel: fast dialogue, random violence, tough talk, dangerous women and a constant threat of death. Unlike Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, however, Sughrue doesn’t live in a city; he drives up and down the west coast. He barely has a home, dwelling in an unfinished cabin in the woods. His search drags him into prostitute rings, amateur pornography, and into the cross hairs of murderous gangsters. He grows more and more horrified at what he finds.
Crumley deviates from the hard-boiled detective story in interesting ways. Written in the first person, The Last Good Kiss reads like an earthier Philip Marlowe. He’s preoccupied with drink, sex, the past—imagine Jim Harrison writing via Ross McDonald and you have a good idea of what it’s like—but he does not like his life. Half the book focuses on friendship, food, sexual liaisons. The plot almost feels like a hindrance. Sughrue doesn’t want to get involved; he prefers to drink, fish, eat, and sleep. This reluctance to get involved with the basic storyline works well. I kept thinking of Jim Harrison’s Warlock, and strangely, The Big Lebowski. The character feels alive.
James Crumley, author of The Last Good Kiss.
Crumley has two detective characters, C. W. Sughrue and Milo Milodragovitch. Both operate in a druggy, self-destructive mode. They each have their own novels, but they know each other. Both try to be decent, but in attempting to do good end up causing a whole heap of trouble. The Sughrue novels are a touch better, and The Last Good Kiss is his best. (The others are worth reading.) Crumley—like Hammet, Chandler, Ellroy and many of the other hard-boiled writers—can flat-out write.
Here’s an example of how good Crumley the writer can be, taken from early on in the novel. “So I settled back into the bucket seat of my fancy El Camino pickup for a long siege of moving on, following Traherne from bar to bar, down whatever roads suited his fancy . . . following him as he drifted on. . . . Then in Reno I lost the trail, had to circle the city in ever-widening loops, talking to bartenders and service-station attendants until I found a pump jockey in Truckee who remembered the big man in his caddy convertible asking about the mud baths in Calistoga. The mud was still warm when I got there, but his trail was as cold as the eyes of the old folks dying around the hot baths.”
Crumley uses both detectives as a cipher; he’s a key to understanding the interlocking problems facing 1970s America. America as a society so focused on winners that the losers are left to drown. Complacency has allowed villains to sprout. Greed has distorted our fundamental values. There is no community, and without community, we’re left with drink, isolation, loneliness and violence. The ruthless pursuit of self-advancement has resulted in monstrous narcissism. The lack of a coherent social safety net has left marginalized peoples behind. Crime pays. Morality is a hindrance. You can get away with your sins.
3. The corrupted world.
One of the assumptions of the hardboiled novel is an inherent contradiction: the world is flawed, ruined, corrupted and abandoned by God, but the detective is moral, upright (to a point) and loyal. As Raymond Chandler says in his famous essay, “He [the detective] must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world . . . if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things.”
The concept of integrity, essential to the genre, also explains its appeal. Readers get to project their moral system into the situation, while validating their own ideas of loyalty, honesty, and the like. It’s an interesting trick: the nastiness of the larger world in these detective novels amplifies the righteousness of the detective, even though both originate in the mind of the author.
The stories aren’t realistic. There is a touch of the cartoonish in detective novels. Violence is too commonplace. Fights of various degrees of danger break out every few pages. Strong men take punches and smile. Tough guys guzzle whiskey, gin, and beer without the requisite hangovers, alcohol poisonings, obesity. It portrays a lifestyle that is unsustainable and full of misery, offering a vicarious but unrealistic snapshot into the lives of cartoony thugs. This lack of realism is central to the genre’s appeal.
Bogart playing the honest, big-hearted detective Philip Marlowe in the movie adaptation of The Big Sleep.
The Last Good Kiss is an excellent example of the genre, and a great novel. The narrator’s internal journey mirrors his external wanderings through the backroads and back alleys of the American dream. The plot is twisty, but never strays from the relationships between the characters. Crumley knows the rules, toys with them, but ends up, like some twisted north country backroad, exactly where he’s supposed to be.
The appeal of the hardboiled novel is complex. On one level, it is a paean to the myth of masculinity. They often don’t investigate the consequences of violence. People die, que sera. Except for Mickey Spillane, the genre adheres to a strict moral code for the protagonist. The hardboiled novel is often about redemption, not for the reader or the minor characters but the detective, attaining forgiveness for the flaws of the human race by following the hard path of uncompromising rightness. Sensitive, wisecracking, intelligent, capable, vengeful and self-righteous, the detective is a stand-in for the ideal American male.
4. The Gloomy Detective.
The Man Who Smiled is a mystery, too, but it falls into the procedural category, where a crime is committed, and then the police attempt to decipher the various elements—exactly like the reader—and figure out who committed the crime. The main character is Kurt Wallander, a gloomy, self-directed, depressed, and always on the verge of early retirement cop. He loves the job, and yet, it sickens him. The constant immersion into the criminal mindset, combined with the endless cold and fog of Sweden, has induced aphasic adhodenia. He’s lost the ability to experience pleasure, he sees the worst in everyone, and he cannot talk about it. Unlike Sughrue, Wallander does not have a sense of humor. Neither do Mankell’s novels.
Mankell’s face says it all: humorless, aging and grim.
The popular appeal of these gloomy Scandinavian crime novels is difficult to understand. On the whole they are violent, humorless, and methodical. The atmosphere is antiseptic; the characters don’t seem to breathe, procreate or even go to the bathroom. These things are mentioned, but they aren’t part of the character’s daily lives. Reading them is an immersion into a asexual, joyless world. You keep hoping Barry Hannah or Jim Harrison will jump out from under the bed and holler while running around the room, spilling cheap whiskey. Or Cormac McCarthy appearing out of nowhere to spray the room with buckshot. Or Richard Price kicking in the door and riffing on the quality of the current drugs on the street.
It’s a plodding limp of a book. No oomph or ah or dash. No spice. No laughter. Just loneliness and fog.
5. The detecting mechanism.
Written in the third person, Mankell operates in the Agatha Christie (without the nostalgic drawing room stuffiness) mode: the detective talks and talks, rehashing the salient points of the case over and over. A sense of exhaustion—probably realistic to the job—sets in. The procedural offers a glimpse into a working world, as well as a challenge to solve the mystery before the main characters do. Unlike the hard-boiled detective story, the procedural offers predictability and order. Gone is the savage individual. Instead, you have systems, methods, deductions: talking and thinking. There’s danger, but it tends to haunt peripheral characters. The violence often happens between scenes. The procedural is antiseptic in terms of emotional and sexual involvement. It is, in this sense, a less offensive, less abrasive sub-genre. In the procedural, people talk, drink, sift through evidence, and die.
The appeal of this subgenre, I think, rests on the predictability of the process. Through interviews, footwork, research and raw thinking, a consensus can be reached and criminals brought to justice. It is the law, justice and society that are validated, purified and venerated. The process matters. Gone is the lone wolf, the tough-talking hedonist. Life may be random, but it can be parsed, dissected, examined, studied and eventually understood. People have agency in the unfolding of their own lives. If we hire good enough police, then no crime will go unsolved.
Like Sughrue, Wallander is emblematic of a whole generation. He’s a peek into the collective male psyche of mid-90s Sweden. He’s perpetually exhausted, on the edge of bewilderment. The glamour of the socialist society has worn off. Globalism has brought in new immigrant groups, new problems. People are slipping through the cracks. Women are entering the police force in larger numbers. What does it mean to be Swedish? What is the cost of efficiency, affluence, and decades of neutrality and peace?
6. Those bleak Scandinavians
I keep wondering about why these Scandinavian mysteries hold any appeal at all to American readers. The places sound strange. The writing is fine but no better than a dozen American crime writers and worse than a bunch. The plots are fine, too, but not particularly clever. The only thing I can surmise is that the novels are exotic—they’re from another country—while at the same time familiar, as they hew so closely to the genre’s expectations.
Mankell can write pretty well, using an unadorned, economical style. He’s no Hammett or Ellroy, though, with the sentences pared down to a spiky poetry style. The dialogue is expositional. He’s more workmanlike. Competent, but you aren’t going to write home about him after a first date. Here’s a good example of his writing style: “The afternoon had turned into evening, and rain threatened. . . . life is made up of a series of rites of passage of whose existence we are unaware until we find ourselves in the midst of them.”
There are now five or six of these Scandinavian mystery authors out there humping up and down the bestseller lists, and I can’t figure out why. They all write in the vein of the Mankell procedural.
Bad, not good, and terrible.
One of these is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, an inelegant piece of gimcrack that is pretty terrible. The writing is quite bad, the plot as impossible to follow as any mystery I’ve ever read. The villains are sadistic Nazis—nothing new there—and the bulk of the book follows the main character eating sandwiches, drinking coffee, and checking his email. (I’m not kidding; the writing is also just that banal.) He sexes it up with every other woman he meets, but the bedroom scenes are joyless. There’s tits but no titillation. There’s rape, incest, disgusting murders—but it doesn’t unfold for the reader. You learn about these things without the tingle, the worry. The prose is about equal to the writing in the Da Vinci Code.
Their collective popularity bothers me because we have so many better crime writers stateside. I haven’t mentioned the British women—Ruth Rendell and P.D. James and Dorothy Sayers, to name a handful—or the plethora of our own great crime writers. Why seek out mediocrity elsewhere when you have excellence at home?
7. Rocks and crags and hard-packed soil.
America is a big country, and much of our best fiction explores this fact. Our crime writers tend to operate in cities, for that’s where the people are. Cities hold noise, money, shadows, corruption and prestige. The Last Good Kiss uses our infatuation with our own bigness to explore notions of violence, success, and ambition. Crumley sets his detective on a straight line from his forebears; they are, on the whole, larger than life characters. They swear, fight, drink and stand apart from the gross corruption of the world. He uses the tropes of the hard-boiled detective, updates them to 1970s America, and then twists them for his purposes. In this way, The Last Good Kiss is a self-conscious novel.
Sweden is a smaller country, more efficient, less fractious, more homogenous. Henning Mankell sets his procedurals in a very specific milieu. Like Crumley, Mankell’s borrowed from a number of his predecessors. The procedural is a safer genre, quieter, easier to manage, but tough to set apart. Mankell’s novels are okay—they don’t creak or strain or sag like Larssen’s books—but they are just okay.