Tag Archives: crime fiction

Interlude 3: The academic novel.

9 May

(And the crime novel. And my life in academia. In 55 lovely points.)

  1. The academic novel is one of the great, under-appreciated subgenres in American literature.
  2. Academic novels tend to feel insulated from the real world. And yet besieged by heightened real-world problems. Of identity, sexuality. Of how to live a good life without harming others. Plus the white-knuckle terror of ideas.
  3. Bernard Malamud’s The Good Life, John Williams’s Stoner, and Saul Bellow’s Herzog form a sort of trilogy on the subject. White Noise is the epilogue.
  4. Jonathan Lethem’s As She Climbed Across the Table should be added to this list. A post-script, maybe.
  5. John Williams gets my vote for the most under-appreciated great writer. He only wrote four novels, and three of them are pure dynamite.
  6. Edward Anderson, of Thieves Like Us, is gets my second vote.
  7. Thieves Like Us is one of the great crime-caper novels, with two very good film versions. (Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night and Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us.)
  8. Academic novels often use the atmosphere of noir. There’s something about universities and tenure and the classroom that lends itself to the mood of crime fiction.
  9. Existentialism?
  10. Noir fiction is not detective fiction. The difference is in the details.
  11. Noir is French existentialism plus American gangsters plus sex.
  12. Detective fiction is crime plus honor plus lawlessness plus fearlessness plus heroism. And usually sex.
  13. Noir is death, dread, damaging sex. The hero rarely makes it out alive.
  14. Detective fiction is hard talk and individual genius. The hero rarely dies.
  15. I like both.
  16. Crime fiction has so many good writers that it’s difficult for new writers to make it their own; they risk parody or imitation. There’s little left. The Long Goodbye and The Maltese Falcon have not been improved on.
  17. Having said that, No Country for Old Men is a fabulous crime novel.
  18. The Last Good Kiss is, too. James Crumley. He rules.
  19. It must be said: Ross McDonald is underrated. Not sure why he seems to be receding, while Hammett and Chandler are secure.
  20. But I have a hard time reading new hard-boiled fiction.
  21. The hardboiled school of writing is often more sentimental, more romantic, more false than just about any other type of writing. The detectives are often creaky old men drinking their way through clues.
  22. “Creaky old men drinking their way through clues.” This could be an analysis of much of detective fiction of the 20th century.
  23. Case in point—my favorite line in Dashiel Hammett’s Red Harvest: “At forty I could get along on gin as a substitute for sleep, but not comfortably.”
  24. I recently finished Nic Pizzolato’s (writer and producer of True Detective) Galveston. It won awards. It sold boatloads. It’s good but not great. See point 21 above.
  25. Southern noir is the weirdest of subgenres. The kudzu, the heat, the spread out towns and cities, the drinking, the scars of slavery—it somehow works. Few shadows. Small towns. Oodles of violence.
  26. I’m struggling with the final touch-up of my latest novella. I can’t quite ratchet things into place. Everything feels right—the characters and the mood and the sentences—but something feels off. Absent. Missing. Letting my subconscious mull.
  27. Ennui: writing a random blog post while thinking about deficiencies in your own work. By the by, here’s the first sentence: “It’s almost midnight and I’m just inside my apartment with enough juice in my veins to power a steam ship across the Atlantic.”
  28. Bruce Duffy’s The World As I Found It is an academic novel.
  29. So is J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.
  30. Umberto Eco’s Foucoult’s Pendulum is an academic novel, too. Sort of.
  31. If I could go back in time, I would try to attend the best university in the world. Or study semiotics with David Foster Wallace.
  32. Lucian Carr and William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg began as academics. They were drawn to transgression, drugs, petty crime, seduced in some sense by Herbert Huncke. Carr eventually murdered David Krammerer. Knifed him and dumped the body into the Hudson.
  33. Keroauc drank himself to death. Sounds like a character out of any number of crime novels.
  34. (I knew another grad student who focused on Keroauc. Only, he didn’t like Keroauc at all. Not at all.)
  35. William Burroughs shot his wife in the head.
  36. De Tocqueville said, almost two hundred years ago, that unlike Europe, America has few suicides but tons of murders.
  37. What is it, in our cultural DNA that loves murder so much?
  38. It’s a reoccurring theme: art equals intelligence plus disgust plus hard work plus crime. And usually sex.
  39. A good description of Roberto Bolano’s work.
  40. I’m getting off point here. Or maybe I’m not. 2666 is both an academic novel and a crime novel.
  41. There’s something quixotic about the life of the scholar. Something brave and wonderful and near-useless.
  42. I once met a ph.d. student focusing on English ballads of the 16th century. This was the entirety of his work. I asked him if he just loved English ballads. “Not really,” he said.
  43. I asked another grad student what her dissertation was about. “Comic book zines,” she said. What about them? I asked. “You know,” she said, “jargon jargon jargon.”
  44. John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy is an academic novel. (And a key meta-fictional text.)
  45. I wanted to go to graduate school for ancient history. But you have to be able to read German and French and Latin. I didn’t even apply.
  46. Like every other writer, I tried to get a spot in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. I spent a month reworking three short stories, which I had already worked on for months. At the last minute, I switched one of these with a new story, which was hardly a first draft. I don’t know why I did this; some impulse to self-sabotage. This was years ago.
  47. I didn’t get in.
  48. I applied to my wife’s program, American Studies. I wanted to study gangsters, true crime, film noir and 1930s crime fiction. I titled my application essay, “The killers are us.” I thought I was a shoo-in.
  49. I didn’t get into this, either. (And thank my lucky stars for that.)
  50. Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys is an academic novel. The movie is fantastic.
  51. I think the magic of the academic novel is the collision of high-minded ideals with randy youth.
  52. There’s something smug about graduate students. Only tempered with a streak of self-pity, and an undercurrent of self-disgust.
  53. A.S. Byatt’s Possession is an academic novel. The movie is . . . not fantastic.
  54. For librarians, it’s the air of perpetual moral high ground. We stand for diversity, democracy, pluralism. We stand against censorship, small-mindedness.
  55. Unless we work for a law firm. Or a corporation.
  56. I eventually earned a Masters in library science, (barely) circumventing many of the tribulations facing humanities grad students.
  57. I’m a library scientist. I can’t think of any good academic novels about that.




National Book Award Winners, part 2: 1979’s The Green Ripper.

11 Aug

(In which I read all of the previous National Book Award Winners, so you don’t have to.)

Fans of genre fiction often gripe about the lack of awards given to their people. You hear this with science fiction—although as a genre sci fi novels have for decades flirted with respectability, usually in the form of the dystopian novel—fantasy, romance, horror and crime fiction. Most genre writers, until recently, flew below any literary radar[1].

The National Book Award organization shook things up in 1980. They decided to award the top honor to a mystery novel. (At the time, this included procedurals, detective stories, and crime fiction.) They picked John MacDonald’s The Green Ripper, the eighteenth novel in a series of novels about Travis McGee, a salvage consultant who repeatedly finds himself in violent and extreme situations. When I saw the cover I thought it was some type of joke. It isn’t. The book is a very fine crime novel with a punishing moral center.

The cover is misleading; this is a potboiler with a melancholy center.

The cover is misleading; this is a potboiler with a melancholy center.

The Green Ripper starts with loss and ends in carnage. McGee isn’t a detective or a cop. He’s an ex-military badass looking for happiness but continually finding dissolution and death. The novel begins with the death of McGee’s girlfriend. He mourns. He drinks. He suffers. Then he investigates. His travels lead him to a Weathermen-type terrorist organization. He infiltrates. He tries to ascertain who gives the orders. Then all hell breaks loose.

The novel is simple, logical, but untidy. Mistakes happen. Some decent people die. Most of the destruction is pointless. Little is resolved. A deep melancholy permeates its pages.

MacDonald belongs to a small group of professional writers with prodigious outputs and a (fairly) consistent level of quality. (Joseph Wambaugh, Stephen King, Anne Rice, George Simenon, Arthur Conan Doyle, and John Updike, I suppose.) He has a staggering 80 plus books to his name.

MacDonald is a fine writer of action, an underrated virtue. Action is hard to do; poetic descriptions of nature are much easier. He’s also insightful, incisive and spare, with aphorisms galore. Here’s a sample passage:

“We are all at the mercy of the scriptwriters, directors and actors who work in cinema and television. Man is a herd creature, social and imitative. We learn the outward manifestations of inner stress, patterning reaction to what we have learned. And because the visible ways we react are so often borrowed, we wonder about the truth of what is happening underneath. Do I really feel pain, grief, shock, loss?”

MacDonald earned tons of accolades from writers all over the map. He kept churning out novels of every stripe. He was one of those restless souls, banging out stories on his typewriter, never satisfied, never content, driven by unseen demons to keep writing, writing, writing. I don’t know if I’ll read another of his novels, but this one was pretty damn good.


The Green Ripper is solid, professionally written and intriguing. It isn’t a great novel, however, and not a great mystery novel either.

I can think of a dozen or so mystery/crime novels that deserve top awards. The Long Goodbye is a great American novel. So are James Ellroy’s American Tabloid and James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss. David Goodis’s Shoot the Piano Player is superb. Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon are both amazing. James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice is perfect. Edward Anderson’s Thieves Like Us is fantastic. Ross MacDonald is good, Dwight MacDonald is good, George Higgins is good (The Friends of Eddie Coyle is incredible!), Patricia Highsmith is good. Fat City, A Rage in Harlem, The Killer Inside Me, I could go on and on. And Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling, sort of a crime novel, is one of the great novels of my life so far.

None of these won national book awards. None of them won much of anything. The writers, almost to a person, made their living submitting to b-grade magazines and publishers. Ellroy was a drug addict, Chandler was a lush, Crumley was a drug addict, and so on. They were a tormented bunch. They had what many of the literary establishment don’t have, which is real-world, and world-weary, credibility.

The trend for the last fifteen years or so has been literary writers trying to sneak into the hard-boiled club (or other genre fiction). They try and (almost) always fail[2]. Even a writer as talented, fascinating and strange as Denis Johnson was foiled by the genre; Nobody Move is flimsy, warmed over treacle, way beneath his talents. It seems easy, but it isn’t. Noir isn’t just guns and dames and heists and double-crosses. It’s atmosphere and attitude, neither of which can be faked.


The National Book Award people picked a strange year to highlight mysteries, because 1979 was as strong as year as any for fiction. Cormac McCarthy released his magnificent Suttree[3]. Angela Carter put out the odd and creepy The Bloody Chamber. William Kennedy published the critically heralded (if disjointed and dated) Ironweed, Anais Nin released Little Birds; Charles Portis published one of my all-time favorite novels, The Dog of the South; and Tom Wolfe released The Right Stuff (which probably would have won the award if it hadn’t been a mystery year).

[1] Which isn’t a bad thing. Part of the appeal of genre fiction is its ability to be nasty, trashy, transgressive, unpredictable, and fun.

[2] No Country for Old Men is unapologetically a crime novel and very, very good.

[3] Strangely, a descendant of The Man with the Golden Arm, the first National Book Award Winner. No one points this out.

Couple of fantastic lines from Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar.

28 Jun

Reading Ross Macdonald. A very fine writer and superb crime writer. Strangely under-recognized. Here’s a great little paragraph:

“He put on a black rubber raincoat. Lion and I followed him down a narrow aisle between two lines of wrecked cars. With their crumpled grilles and hoods, shattered windshields, torn fenders, collapsed roofs, disemboweled seats, and blown-out tires, they made me think of some ultimate freeway disaster. Somebody with an eye for detail should make a study of automobile graveyards, I thought, the way they study the ruins and potsherds of vanished civilizations. It could provide a clue as to why our civilization is vanishing.”

Here’s another:

“There were shadows huddling with shadows behind the bar. I raised my glass to them in a gesture I didn’t quite understand, except that there was relief in darkness and silence in whisky.”