The Heart of All Life

There’s a PhD scholarship going in crime fiction. I’m not going to be on it – I discussed my supporting statement with the academic lead and he said there was nothing in the essay about how I would challenge the conventions I’ve identified in the genre. Which is fair enough. I have no idea. I thought the essay might of interest to regular readers though, so have reproduced it below – MD

I forget the great thinker who said that there is more of life in the crime fiction genre than in the whole of philosophy. But it remains true. Crime is about transgression, and as Martin Amis said, transgression is at the heart of all life: out of dreams, desire, ambition, hate and love, everyone at some stage wants to step over the lines, and the possibilities for storytelling are endless. Crime fiction is the true radical genre. A single Raymond Chandler novel has more subversive potential than the entire canon of deconstructionist gamesmanship.

Here is the paradox. Why then has the British crime novel become a byword for conventionality and pedestrianism? Half a century on, the novels of Agatha Christie still form the template of the English murder. Up at the Harrogate crime festival last year (held in a towering hotel where the old girl was found after doing her disappearing act in the 1920s) I was struck by how many of the featured authors followed a predictable structure. The murder of an attractive young woman, rendered in portentous italics in the novel’s prologue, investigated by a slightly unconventional detective, who guides us through the hoops of double bluff, MacGuffin and red herring into a successful dénouement. This is comfort fiction, that speaks of Wiltshire cottages, open fires, stacks of library copies, acceptable thrills and happy resolutions. But, as Christopher Booker said of Christie’s novels, these resolutions always dissolve into a kind of emptiness, like the feeling you get after spending a hour completing a crossword. There is more than this out there.

The one new element in contemporary crime is the addition of a particularly masculine and driven male protagonist, who drinks too much, has chaotic relationships with younger women, gets in trouble with the bosses, doesn’t play it by the book but, goddamnit, gets results. The troubled cop with his love of the night and the open road is an obvious steal from Raymond Chandler, who captivated the world with his taciturn private eye, streetpounding through a dark and sensual world. Today’s genre writers pay the expected homage, but they fail to reach Chandler’s prose style (I watched a panel at Harrogate and was stunned by the novelists’ disregard for good language) much less appreciate the man’s complexities. Tom Williams’s excellent biography, Something Mysterious in the Light, portrays Chandler as a gentle and thoughtful man, a romantic intellectual in a popular art. He began as a poet, was educated at an English public school and developed friendships with literary Londoners of the 1930s. From his essay, ‘The Simple Art of Murder’:

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.

Another line from that piece sums up the state of crime fiction today: ‘The average detective story is probably no worse than the average novel. It doesn’t get published. The average – or only slightly above average – detective story does.’

The closest analogue to Chandler today is probably the Floridian writer Carl Hiaasen. Hiaasen was an investigative reporter on the Miami Herald before being drawn into fiction in the 1980s. In journalistic yet lyrical prose Hiaasen spiels out long rambling novels set in his home state, featuring a few good guys up against a range of con-artists, exploiters, scammers, thieves, supremacists and corrupt officials of all professions. Hiaasen’s compulsive storytelling and baroque incident takes place against the natural Everglades beauty eaten, piece by piece, by property development and urban growth. When asked by the New Statesman if he considered himself a crime writer, Hiaasen replied that:

All novels are about crime. You’d be hard pressed to find any novel that does not have an element of crime. I don’t see myself as a crime novelist, but there are crimes in my books. That’s the nature of storytelling, if you want to reflect the real world.

Like Chandler, Hiaasen is essentially a muscular liberal with a moral code that informs every word in every line. The Hiaasen code is personified in his most memorable character, Clinton ‘Skink’ Tyree, an ex- state governor driven almost insane by despoliation and graft, who now lives a hermit’s life in deep wilderness, reading Baudelaire and Tennyson, eating crocodile from the national park, and possum from the roads. From Hiaasen’s latest, Star Island:

He’d fled the governor’s mansion with his values intact but his idealism extinguished, his patience smashed to dust. Politics had scrambled his soul much worse than the war, and he left behind in Tallahassee not only his name but the discredited strategy of forbearance and compromise. The cherished wild places of his childhood had vanished under cinder blocks and asphalt, and so, too, had the rest of the state been transformed – hijacked by greedy suckworms disguised as upright citizens. From swampy lairs Skink would strike back whenever an opportunity arose.

Hiaasen’s focus on current affairs, and his many hilarious moments, leads most critics to describe him as a satirist. In fact, what Hiaasen writes is romance in the tradition of Mark Twain, even Thomas Wolfe.

Increasingly radicalism in crime fiction comes from television rather than the novel. The superiority of HBO series to contemporary fiction has been quietly acknowledged. The Wire in synopsis reads like a dull sociological essay, but it had more depth, humanity and emotion than a decade of Booker shortlists. A TV production can have more scope for risk than a  publisher focused on the book group, the supermarket sale and the bottom line. Beginning a US science fiction series, Salman Rushdie said that: ‘In television, the 60-minute series, The Wire and Mad Men and so on, the writer is the primary creative artist.’

One thing The Wire’s David Simon got right was to have at least half his story told from the point of view of the criminals. We then see that they are not one dimensional monsters or pallid victims, but people similar to ourselves who have been shaped by their life experience and by their own choices. It’s when the criminals are in charge that stories become addictive. As far back as the late nineties, HBO was screening Oz, a show set in a maximum security prison that followed a disparate range of convicts as they fought, schemed, pursued vendettas, and dreamed of escape. Creator Tom Fontana, when he pitched the idea, was told by HBO execs that ‘Your characters don’t have to be likeable. They just have to be compelling.’ That advice should hang in frames at every writer’s workstation.

Right now the intelligent audience is held by Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, about a bumbling middle aged eccentric who, after a terminal cancer diagnosis, makes a spectacular entry into the drug world with his high-powered blue meth. The premise is farfetched – an executive told creator Vince Gilligan that his pitch constituted ‘the single worst idea for a television show that I have heard in my whole life’ – but, in execution, it’s compelling and sometimes terrifying. Protagonist Walter White justifies every step into the darkness with the lie that he is simply trying to protect his family. But, as he delves deeper into the New Mexico crime scene, and rejects opportunity after opportunity to get out, we realise that darker motivations are at work. Walter White was once a top scientist, whose research contributed to Nobel prizewinning projects, but who has ended up teaching bored stoners in a local high school. From his point of view, the civilised world hasn’t recognised his talents and all that’s left is to fulfil them outside the system. He is like the narrator of Walt Whitman’s ‘The Learn’d Astronomer’, quoted in the series:

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

And there is a lesson for us there too. Crime writers don’t have to plod through the Harrogate procedural syllogisms. We can walk out of the panel discussion and gaze in perfect silence at the stars. The stories are out there, sprawled across the sky in radical profusions: they are all around us, waiting to be picked up.


(Image: tumblr)


One Response to “The Heart of All Life”

  1. Paul Murdoch Says:

    Nice one.

    This was spot on.
    “A single Raymond Chandler novel has more subversive potential than the entire canon of deconstructionist gamesmanship.”

    But I think you’d find a devotee of deconstruction would let you know that subversion belongs to more determinate and structuralist realm….they’re aiming for transgressive. Fuckin dickheads.

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