Thursday, October 25, 2018

Who Cares Whodunnit? (Part One)





It is a great pleasure to welcome back Tim Hallinan - a past Murder is Everywhere blogger, a great writer, and an insightful and prolific Facebook commentator. He needs no introduction to long-time readers of our blog, but for those who are new here, a brief introduction is necessary.



It was through The Queen of Patpong, the fourth of the Poke Rafferty series, that I started following Tim. I was immediately struck by how well he had woven social commentary into an entertaining story using an interesting protagonist, Poke Rafferty, and his not-to-be-forgotten family. The eighth in the series, Fool's River, came out in November 2017.



Totally different, but equally appealing, is the Junior Bender series. As Tim writes on his website:
"Junior Bender is a Los Angeles burglar deluxe-a thief's thief. But he also has a sideline: he works as a private eye. For crooks. When someone commits a crime against a crook, odds area that the crook isn't going to the cops. He or she is going to Junior Bender."
The seventh Junior Bender book, Nighttown, will be released next month.



And then there's the Simeon Grist series, which Tim had relegated to limbo many years ago. Until Simeon, the protagonist, realises he is in limbo, that he is a fictitious character written by someone else. The series came alive again with Pulped.

Today Tim gives us the first in a two-part blog on a topic that gets under the skin of every mystery writer.

Please welcome back Tim Hallinan.
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I’m here today to air a grievance. And to do it at some length. In fact, in two parts.
I write whodunnits. I work hard at it. I do the best I can every single day and usually wind up tossing half of my work. I am perpetually faced with something I have no idea in the world how to write, and I write it anyway. Once in a while, I think, I do it reasonably well.
But, like everyone who writes crime fiction, I know that there are those who look down upon me. As far as these folks are concerned, I’m a “genre” writer. I practice my craft in a downscale literary ZIP code where people park on the lawn and the houses lean a little and the children usually have stuff on their upper lip. Anddespite the fact that I wash my car and park it over at the Walmartmy stories, even the best of them, according to certain people, are not . . . actually . . . books.

The crime fiction ZIP code. You can’t see our beat-up cars because the banks foreclosed on our lawns.

Some of the people who write, edit, publish, and criticize so-called “literary fiction” regard themselves as members of a different species than people like me. We’re not quite real writers. They see themselves atop the high, white marble towers of literature in which they and their readers live, raising knowing eyebrows at each other and tossing off quips while we genre mutts drag ourselves around in the mud on our elbows, grunting at each other and squabbling over chicken bones and the occasional shiny bead.
If you’re a reader of crime fiction, you’ve probably encountered this attitude, too. There are people in my life (and probably in yours) who, when they ask what you’re reading and learn that it’s a “whodunnit,” pause for a second, make a sort of Downton Abbey vowel like, “Euhhh,” and then ask, “Is it interesting?” As though (a) it would be a waste of time to come up with a better question for someone on your reading level, and (b) it can’t possibly actually be interesting. In any serious way, that is. For a serious person.

A seriously stupid question

These people try to build literary fences around us, as though our books might somehow cohabit with their books and accidentally make them, you know, interesting. Nonfiction and literary fiction receive serious and relatively frequent newsprint, but genre fiction is reviewed in a modest little column that appears on odd-numbered Thursdays in months without an “R” in their name.
They restrict our books to their own little ghettos in bookstores, too – the aisles of which I’m happy to say, often have more customers in them than some other aisles I could name. Because that’s the dirty little secret. A medium-selling mystery outsells a medium-selling lit-fic novel, and genre fiction has a really uncomfortable way of taking out longterm leases on the top rungs of the bestseller lists. But you, know, that’s because ordinary people buy them.
Defiantly ordinary reader

Those of us who write thrillers and whodunnits can get a little . . . defensive about being classified as literary invertebrates. For one thing, we write an awfully broad and complex spectrum of books to be crammed into a one or two-word description. We write, for example, the kind of classic puzzles, dependent on clues and timetables, that marked the so-called “Golden Age.”
We write hard-boiled private eyes. We write cooking mysteries like Murder In the YeastorChili Con Carnage. Or craft mysteries like The Dropped Stitch of DeathOr elaborate, amazingly literate mysteries set in the Louisiana bayous, like those of James Lee Burke. Or character-steeped police procedurals like Henning Mankell’s. Or flawed half-villains and their sometimes treacherous friends, like Patricia Highsmith’s characters. We write night-black noir, like Jim Thompson and Ken Bruen. We cover much of the known world, like the writers on this very blog.

The House of Crime

It this genre were a single house, it would need rooms for Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe, Mike Hammer, Harry Bosch, Nero Wolfe, Miss Marple, Father Brown, Kinsey Millhone, Commissario Brunetti, Arkady Renko, Sam Spade, Easy Rawlins, Jack Reacher, Lew Archer, Lydia Chin, Flavia de Luce, Precious Ramotswe, V.I Warshawski, Inspector Maigret, Lord Peter Wimsey, Dave Robicheau, Rabbi David Small, Brother Cadfael, Father Brown, and literally thousands of others. The house would need a lot of bedrooms, and it’s hard to imagine the conversation at the dinner table, because these people don’t really have much in common. (In the interest of maintaining some threadbare semblance of neutrality I've omitted the varied and fully rounded characters created by the writers on this forum.)
I’ve barely scraped the surface, and I could go on all day. If this is a “genre” it’s so broad and varied that the people who chose the word need to go back and come up with another.
And if you doubt that the word is pejorative, a few years ago J.A. Jance, a writer who has sold more than twenty million books, called the college from which she graduated and volunteered to put in a month working (for free) in their writing program. She was told, and this is a quote, “Oh, no, we don’t do anything with GENRE fiction; we only do LITERARY fiction.”
Why the negative judgment? What is it about so-called genre books, including whodunnits, that gets the literary highbrows’ knickers so twisted?
Untwisted knickers

My first theory is that it’s just another manifestation of the eternal human fact that everybody needs someone to look down on. Obviously, this thought isn’t original with me, but I defy anyone to make the case that this isn’t a universal and instinctive desire. It’s why the few all-first-class airlines, like MGM Grand, all went broke. The problem wasn’t that there weren’t enough people who could afford the tickets. The problem was that there was no tourist class for the people in the front of the plane to feel superior to. What’s the joy of stretching out in first class with your foie grasif there aren’t a bunch of grunts in back, folded up like paper clips, eating K-rations and envying you? What’s the fun of boarding the plane first, if no one is boarding second?
So here’s my second theory.
The term whodunnit.
I’ll get to that in Part Two, which will appear on Saturday in Jeff Siger's spot..

24 comments:

  1. Thanks, Tim. Lot's of thought-provoking points here.
    I just reread Theodore Sturgeon's Some of Your Blood. It's really impossible to put it into any genre neatly, and who cares? It's a wonderful character study of an unusual psychopath. Sturgeon wrote a lot of different things and his science fiction was outstanding. Once one of the sort of people you refer to told him bluntly: 'I think 90% of science fiction is crap.' Sturgeon nodded. 'Of course,' he responded. '90% of everything is crap.'

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    1. Ah, the good old "Sturgeon's Law." I've always thought it's one of the more true aphorisms.

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    2. Oh, goodness, I thought I was the only person left who knew who Theodore Sturgeon is. Great example of "genre" writing that everyone should read, if they're smart enough.

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    3. And Sturgeon is right -- a certain percentage of any genre is crap. I think 90 is a little high, or else his standards are higher than mine -- if I enjoy the experience of reading a book, I can't knock the book, even if I know in my heart it's basically marzipan. A writer seeks to interest us, divert us, uplift us, educate us, and any book that accomplishes two of those four things is not crap, at least not by me.

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  2. Tim, Welcome back. It is lovely to have you back with us. You raise a topic that raises my hackles.

    My dear departed, brilliant friend, Dr. Barbara Fast Leavy taught a literature course in crime fiction, which she defined as "works of literature in which a crime is committed and an investigation ensues." By this definition, Hamlet is crime fiction.

    And all of your novels qualify. Every one. I defy anyone to come of with a plausible definition of "literature" and then show how any of your novels falls short. Impossible!

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    1. This above is from Annamaria, she cannot sign in to comment. And whose friend was Barbara Fass Leavy.

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    2. Annamaria, I'm with her, and "Hamlet" features prominently in Part Two, as do "Oedipus Rex" and "Beowulf," among others. I'm deeply flattered by your affection for my books, and I return it with change to spare.

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  3. Hi

    My agent, Jane Gregory, who knows a thing or two about crime fiction, says that almost every story in the face of the planet will have a crime in it somewhere. Some folks just don't want to admit it.

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    1. Hi, Caro -- I'm with your agent. She sounds perceptive and enlightened. Maybe I should talk to her.

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  4. Still a great column, Tim, and always thought provoking. You provoker, you. Are you planning a book tour for Nighttown?

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    1. I am, but it's all in California, so I'm sorry to say that we won't be crossing paths. There will be a special blog here, though, around pub date.

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  5. Hi Tim, wonderful to see your return to these pages. For me, there is good writing and bad writing, and everything else is just a flavour. And your writing is outstanding in any company.

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    1. Thanks, Zoe, and I miss running into you. Absolutely, it's about quality. The literistas behave as though writing a crime novel (so to speak) were a matter of filling in blanks in a predetermined outline, and probably through multiple choice. But then, they have to put up with the fact that we outsell them.

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  6. In my very first, ever, reading at a bookstore, a man asked this question: "Do you write mysteries because you think you aren't good enough to write mainstream fiction? The crowd (yes, there was a crowd) gasped. Oh, did I ever have a handy reply. I said, "You know, I think that there is a mystery at the heart of every good novel." He had the grace to come up afterwards and say, "Good answer."

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    1. To a bad question. What the hell was he doing at that particular signing? Did he buy the book? I hope he's having trouble with his teeth.

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  7. Well said, Tim. I've had some of my finest gotcha moments as a public target of literary fascistas. They project such insecurity it's almost unfair to hoist them by their own Dostoyevskys.

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    1. They picked the wrong guy. What with all your courtroom experience and Barbara, they probably never knew what hit them.

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    2. Yep, Barbara-the-hammer was the clincher.

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  8. Sex, money, revenge, and violent or tragic death--those are the lynchpins of any novel by Faulkner or Henry James, for a start. Anyone who says that you, James Lee Burke, Sara Paretsky, et. al. aren't dealing with serious issues and don't write sentences that kick ass is just flat out lying.

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    1. Absolutely. They like to pretend it's all metaphysics and pale sepia memories, but good writing always has teeth, too.

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  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  11. بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم نحن فى شركة الكمال تقوم بافضل انواع التنظيف العام وتنظيف الفلل بافضل

    انواع العالميه التى تحافظ على السيراميك
    شركة تنظيف منازل بحائل
    شركة تنظيف بالطائف
    شركة تنظيف بجازان
    شركة تنظيف بحائل
    شركة تنظيف مجالس وكنب بحائل
    ونحن فى خدماتكم اربعه وعشرون ساعه وكل هذا بافضل الاسعار واقل التكلفة

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