Nathaniel

Mysteries and Detective Stories

136 posts in this topic

... Richard Price, James Sallis, Jim Thompson, James Ellroy, Don Winslow, Dan Chaon, George Pelecanos ...

With a few of the Pelecanos early detective novels being republished this year, I think I'll have to start over my reading of his work. I keep forgetting he was also part of the David Simon/Richard Price/Dennis Lehane writing team for The Wire. I'm reserving a bookshelf for collecting them all in my library.

The books Pelecanos writes these days are night and day from his early detective novels. I've even read him slagging them a bit.

And I completely disagree.

They have flaws, yes, but there is a punk rock energy running through them.

Pelecanos is an ambitious writer in the best sense of the term, and it is a blast to see this develop through the Stefanos series.

p.s. I re-read them 2-3 years a go, and it is crazy how much they represent a DC that no longer exists due to gentrification. You have to read the recent Pelecanos novels to keep up with modern life in DC!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Crow mentioned writer J. Mark Bertrand over here. I've just learned a lot more about him after reading his take on noir fiction, or what he dubs "writing about reprobation."

As a crime novelist, I know there’s more than one problem of evil. Setting aside the philosophical question, which has more to do with how to justify evil’s presence in the world, there’s the matter of how to live with evil, how to cope with its ever-present taint.

We can resolve to be good. But when it comes time to measure our actions against a moral yardstick, we’re forced to decide just how pure a deed must be in order to qualify. Nobody’s perfect, after all. If we’re honest, even our whitest whites can look a little gray.

To some, though, to admit even that much suggests despair, or at the very least cynicism. We all make mistakes but, we’re tempted to think, that doesn’t mean we’re all evil. Sure, there are evil people out there, and they do terrible things, but most of us are basically good--aren’t we? Just because things aren’t always black-and-white doesn’t mean we have to surrender to moral ambiguity, looking for ulterior motives behind every good deed.

Which means that when nice, churchgoing people find out the kind of books I write and start offering up creative ways to commit a murder, eyes glowing with delight, I shouldn’t read too much into it.

But I do. Because the tone of my work has been classified as “dark.” The word “gritty” was used so often to describe my first novel, Back on Murder, that I started to wonder if I had sand in my teeth. And there are philosophical––indeed, theological––reasons for this orientation of vision. It reflects my own take on reality, which for lack of a better term, I’ll describe as “noir.”

The article bio cites Bertrand's books:

J. Mark Bertrand is the author of two crime novels, Back on Murder and the forthcoming Pattern of Wounds, and the nonfiction title Rethinking Worldview: Learning to Think, Live, and Speak in This World. He's the writer behind Bible Design Blog, a site dedicated to "the physical form of the good book." Bertrand is also a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.

This encourages me, given my struggles, related elsewhere on the board, with this type of fiction. I'm interested enough in Bertrand's writings to even rethink my distance in the past few years from any book with the word "Worldview" in the title.

Also, it's interesting to see Bertrand's comments below the main article, in response to someone who thinks more balance might be called for in noir fiction:

Taken as a whole, noir fiction might be more balanced that you realize, especially if you allow the broadening of the definition I attempt in the article, seeing noir more as an influence than a formula to repeat (which these days can only end in pastiche). Having said that, in fiction "balance" isn't always the objective. We illuminate the whole of life not only through breadth of scope, but by focusing deeply on just one of its parts.

Edited by Christian

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Here's a couple of books on detective stories I managed to read recently:

Isn't Justice Always Unfair? by J.K. Van Dover and John F. Jebb. Broad survey of the Southern detective story from its creation (by quasi-Southerner Edgar Allen Poe) to its practitioners in the mid-nineties. The authors establish that a set of concerns—“Land, Race, Past, Law, and Technology,” (358) crop up again and again when Southerners set their hand to the genre, though they suspect that the similarity isn’t strong enough to be definitive (ibid). The best part of this book is the section on William Faulkner; after that, too many authors enter the scene and the writers are obliged to divide chapters among numerous countryside-based authors and New Orleans- and Miami-based detectives. Still, these chapters bring me more up to date on the genre than my Golden Age sensibilities would otherwise, and I certainly want to check out some of the authors they cover in these sections (Sharyn McCrumb and Margaret Maron seem promising. If the effect of this survey is somewhat diffuse, that can’t be helped; the field, even when narrowed to Southern authors, is a broad one (interestingly, no Golden Age authors operated out of the South—presumably because it was too rural).

More interesting to members of this board, though, will be Robert S. Paul's Whatever Happened to Sherlock Holmes? Detective Fiction, Popular Theology, and Society. Here’s one that started well; the introduction lays the purported groundwork for Paul’s thesis, and I like it. He argues that popular fiction mirrors the theological (not in the sense of "dogma") presuppositions of the society. I like the themes he points to while arguing for the basically theological nature of detective fiction. Unfortunately, the book kind of errs after that: first by falling into rote recitation of authors and qualities, and then by too clearly revealing the author’s agenda. I might be inclined to agree with many of the concerns Paul raises about late-twentieth century Europe and America, but his arguments aren't really developed. If anything, they're flippantly dismissive of modern critiques of religion and a little too optimistic about the era before "social religion" began to fade. And it really bugs me that an interesting study transforms into polemic at the end, with Paul entering evangelist mode and calling for a return to religious piety (though not, perhaps, traditional religion—he leaves that option open but unpressing). A straightforward examination of themes and sociological import without lapsing into sermonizing would have been more effective. Because the rest of the book is so survey-oriented, he doesn’t have enough substance to support the weight of such a heavy assertion.

That said, there’s some good stuff here: his surface-level but interesting treatment of P.D. James, his chapter-length study of Agatha Christie, and the Introduction are the best aspects. However, much of his work is irritatingly surface, and never fulfills on the promise of its Introduction. It would be interesting to compare this book to Holy Clues by Kendricks, which I recall as dealing more effectively with similar themes. In each case, the general thrust is the same: that the detective, by paying close attention to "bits of matter" is doing more than solving a murder; he (or she) is affirming the basic rationality of the universe, and so finds himself/herself on the track of the greatest Mystery of all.

Edited by NBooth

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

NBooth wrote:

...after that, too many authors enter the scene and the writers are obliged to divide chapters among numerous countryside-based authors and New Orleans- and Miami-based detectives. Still, these chapters bring me more up to date on the genre than my Golden Age sensibilities would otherwise, and I certainly want to check out some of the authors they cover in these sections (Sharyn McCrumb and Margaret Maron seem promising.

A few posts ago, M.Leary (I think it was) mentioned James Lee Burke. He should certainly be mentioned as a creator of New Orleans-based detective Dave Robicheaux. Burke writes beautifully, and you can tell he cares about his characters, even the sleazy ones, and about southern Louisiana; the later books are increasingly informed by Dave's commitment to AA and the (Catholic) church, and trying to keep his life and work commitments balanced. The novels are sometimes hard to read, but they're never simplistic. My favorites may be Heaven's Prisoners (the second), In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead (partly because it has the best title), and Tin Roof Blowdown (hurricane Katrina--say no more).

Sharyn McCrumb's Appalachian mysteries are great (a.k.a. the "Ballad Novels"); she hasn't written a new one in a while, though. Margaret Maron is from the next county over from me. I enjoy her books mostly for the local color, because I recognize a lot of the places (even under pseudonyms) and the types of people. That said, the mysteries haven't struck me as particularly compelling. The early ones, when Deborah Knott is trying to rehabilitate her family reputation, are better, I think (Bootlegger's Daughter, etc.)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I'm currently reading Burke's Crusader's Cross and I'm very impressed. As you say, his writing is beautiful. I'm finding the book a pretty quick read, too--not quick because it's lightweight, but because the words move one along so well. I'll definitely be digging into more in this series.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

- Robert Parker's novels became more and more basic towards the end, and where they lacked in plot they gained in subtext. That said, the Jesse Stone adaptations by Tom Selleck are among the best bits of detective cinema in recent memory. Selleck has an odd knack for transposing the thoughtful quiet at the heart of Parker's fiction to the screen.

See, we watched two of these a few months ago, and while I didn't hate them, they seemed little better than an average TV crime drama. They weren't bad cinema, just average. I can understand their straightforward appeal, but nothing cries out to me to keep watching these films.

I just learned yesterday that another Jesse Stone movie airs tonight on CBS. I think we might watch this one from 9-11 p.m. I recently brought a Jesse Stone DVD home and was told that we'd already seen it. We've seen three of the movies; I think five have been made. I'll keep trying to catch up, although it seems I've fallen asleep during stretches of these movies and can't remember them afterward. But the last one we watched was the best yet! Really, I kind of like these movies. Just not enough to stay awake through them.

Edited by Christian

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Richard Price

Andrew Vachss

Jim Thompson

James Ellroy

George Pelecanos

Ian Rankin

Benjamin Black (aka John Banville)

Tana French (Dublin Murder Squad series)

Daniel Woodrell's Bayou Trilogy

Stuart Neville

Henning Mankell

Elmore "Dutch" Leonard

Dennis Lehane (when he's not bullshitting like with that latest novel0

--And though he's only written one book, the amazing Galveston, Nic Pizzolato

Richard Stark's (a.k. Donald Westlake) Hunter Novels

Edited by Thom Jurek

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

... Richard Price, James Sallis, Jim Thompson, James Ellroy, Don Winslow, Dan Chaon, George Pelecanos ...

With a few of the Pelecanos early detective novels being republished this year, I think I'll have to start over my reading of his work. I keep forgetting he was also part of the David Simon/Richard Price/Dennis Lehane writing team for The Wire. I'm reserving a bookshelf for collecting them all in my library.

I just learned his latest novel, starting a "hot new series," releases later this summer:

The Cut is George Pelecanos’s chance expertly to introduce Spero Lucas, an irresistible 29-year-old Marine turned private investigator, at the start of a hot new series. It arrives in August.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Ellery Queen is Alive and Well and Living in Japan

The term shinhonkaku-ha, the New Orthodox School, was first attributed by Shimada to the novels of Yukito Ayatsuji, who first debuted in 1987 with The Decagon Mansion Murders (Jukkakan no Satsujin). The novel, featuring an Agatha Christie-like plot with a group of young students on an island who get killed off, one by one, was an ode to the Golden Age classics. Ayatsuji continued with his Mansion (Yakata) series, all of which would feature odd architecture and the ambience of the buildings as a main attraction. By then, the New Orthodox School had become the name of the whole literary movement that took its cues from the Golden Age detective novels. Writers of this school would incorporate classic elements like the master detective, the puzzle, the mansion with the locked-room murder into their stories, but most importantly, the stories were primarily set in contemporary times and contemporary settings. These writers proved that the puzzling mystery could also work, perfectly even, in modern times.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The (Really) Long Goodbye

A handful of popular crime series feature protagonists who age in real time, and now, several decades on, the sleuths have matured well past their prime. These geriatric crime-busters are altering the crime-fiction landscape—grappling with creaky joints, hearing loss, poor eyesight, declining mental powers and the existential dread of retirement.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The (Really) Long Goodbye

A handful of popular crime series feature protagonists who age in real time, and now, several decades on, the sleuths have matured well past their prime. These geriatric crime-busters are altering the crime-fiction landscape—grappling with creaky joints, hearing loss, poor eyesight, declining mental powers and the existential dread of retirement.

I was lucky enough to have an email exchange with Michael Connelly several years back and asked if he ever thought of filling in the gaps from earlier Bosch years. (I am a sucker for books set at a specific time in the recent past). Connelly answered that he knew he would have plenty of time for that when Bosch was much, much older, but for now he wanted to get is much in as possible while Bosch could conceivably be an active police. Makes perfect sense.

I think the best book in the Matthew Scudder series is When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, and it follows the format of Scudder remembering an event in the past. Block did it again in his most recent Scudder story and it works great.

If more authors try this with their aging protagonists, I wouldn't mind one bit. (Though there aren't too many other active detectives that I follow that much anymore. Stefanos and Lew Griffin are long gone. Kenzie and Genaro came back last year after forever away. I need to dip my toes into water of the Bernie Gunther series).

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The (Really) Long Goodbye

A handful of popular crime series feature protagonists who age in real time, and now, several decades on, the sleuths have matured well past their prime. These geriatric crime-busters are altering the crime-fiction landscape—grappling with creaky joints, hearing loss, poor eyesight, declining mental powers and the existential dread of retirement.

Fascinating article. Thanks for linking this!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Rex Stout had a novel (heh) way of handling this issue: His detectives never aged. They went all the way from the 1930s to the 1970s without getting any older. It can seem bizarre at times, but you get used to it after awhile. And as Stout put it, "Those stories have ignored time for thirty-nine years. Any reader who can't or won't do the same should skip them."

(Speaking of Stout and his books, a tangent: Tim Hutton's show Leverage just did an episode where the characters dressed up as famous detectives for a murder mystery weekend. I was SO hoping to see Tim dress up as his old character Archie Goodwin, but they had him go as Ellery Queen instead. A nice tribute to his dad, but I missed Archie! :) )

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Rex Stout had a novel (heh) way of handling this issue: His detectives never aged. They went all the way from the 1930s to the 1970s without getting any older. It can seem bizarre at times, but you get used to it after awhile. And as Stout put it, "Those stories have ignored time for thirty-nine years. Any reader who can't or won't do the same should skip them."

IIRC, a lot of the Golden Age detectives were basically static, right?; Ellery Queen never ages more than a couple of years (of course, Ellery Queen is both pseudonymous "author" and hero-detective, so later Ellery could be considered a creation of early Ellery. Or something); Poirot really doesn't age until Curtain (and then ages dramatically); AFAIK, Gideon Fell doesn't age at all. Of course, I doubt the authors of any of these were as open about it as Stout. I/r/t these eternal heroes, one is tempted to quote Chesterton on this part--that the adventures of these ageless heroes are modern iterations of Robin Hood (come to think of it, the Saint's another hero who never really aged).

(Speaking of Stout and his books, a tangent: Tim Hutton's show Leverage just did an episode where the characters dressed up as famous detectives for a murder mystery weekend. I was SO hoping to see Tim dress up as his old character Archie Goodwin, but they had him go as Ellery Queen instead. A nice tribute to his dad, but I missed Archie! :) )

I'm not a regular viewer of Leverage, but you can bet I made a point of downloading that episode; I've just finished a watch-through of the Ellery Queen television show, and am mourning its lack of a second season. (FWIW, I was struck while watching The Ghost Writer by how much Timothy Hutton looks like his father, so I'm especially interested in watching the episode once my schedule clears).

Edited by NBooth

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

You'll enjoy this, then! From the Leverage Facebook page, side-by-side photos of the two Huttons dressed as Ellery. :)

That's terrific. I'm looking forward to checking out the episode on Saturday (Amazon Unbox is a marvelous thing).

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Lawrence Block does a blind reading of several thriller/mystery novels. Along the way, he shares his thoughts on the different authors:

On Agatha Christie:

I admire Christie tremendously, and I’ve read most of her work and have read more than once the Jane Marple books, which the Carolyn character in [The Murder of Roger Ackroyd]is somewhat reminiscent of. (I would’ve looked far brighter if I had pointed that out a moment ago.) But I think that Christie was extraordinary in several respects.

There were a couple of books she wrote that became the first and last word on the subject. For example, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Once she’d done that, no one could ever do it again, and no one had done it before. And the same thing with And Then There Were None, or Ten Little Indians, what everyone calls it. These were extraordinary accomplishments. I’ve also heard it said—I don’t know if this is true or not—but that on at least two occasions, Christie published a book which immediately caused one or more writers to throw out a book in progress because she had gotten there first and it was something you could only do once. So she was quite brilliant that way.

But it also seems to me that—although the books are cozies and not to be taken as realistic in the same way that say, oh, realistic crime novels are—the books on one level are very serious. Christie was very much writing about evil and the nature of it, and the human capacity for it. So that she was, I think, a very tough-minded writer for all that she’s writing what we’re calling cozies.

[One of those authors who threw out a novel after Christie published one was, IIRC, "Ellery Queen." But I can't recall which title it was--it was published some years later].

On Rex Stout:

The thing with the Nero Wolfe books is not that the stories are wonderful. There’s nothing much to them, mostly. The deduction is often arbitrary and not too much worth paying attention to, really, and for all that we’re given to understand that Wolfe has this astonishing brain, it’s not entirely in evidence during the story, and none of this would happen except that Saul Panzer or somebody can miraculously go and turn up with information that is not revealed to us.
Edited by NBooth

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Whoa, it just dawned on me that the interviewer is the Ethan Iverson from the Bad Plus. This is just too cool. Thanks for posting this!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I just learned his latest novel, starting a "hot new series," releases later this summer:

The Cut is George Pelecanos’s chance expertly to introduce Spero Lucas, an irresistible 29-year-old Marine turned private investigator, at the start of a hot new series. It arrives in August.

An online friend who doesn't care for Pelecanos asked what he should read to give Pelecanos another try. One of the responses (from Bilge Ebiri) included a link to this interview promoting The Cut, which restates what I've written earlier about Pelecanos' work, based on the author's own comments:

Q. Your stuff almost always seems to work at issues of redemption—the son finding his path back in The Way Home, Spero sort of working to transform some darker aspects of his war duty in The Cut. Do you see/feel a particular proclivity for redemption, or is that a misread? (I know it’s generally a part of all good plot-driven stories, sure, but the way your characters work toward redemption seems fundamentally different, deeper, than what I see in, say, Connelly’s stuff)

A. Yes, it’s part of my personal worldview. I shake my head when people call my work “dark.” My books, especially as they’ve gone along, have always ended with a great degree of hope. The characters have to crawl on some bad roads to get there, but hey. I’m saying, I believe that it’s a long life, and we have the capacity to change. ... I’ve been in trouble myself. Among the many knucklehead moves I’ve made, I shot someone when I was a teenager, and if people had given up on me, I wouldn’t have come through to the other side. So the redemption thing in my books is more than a plot device. It’s me.

FWIW, I recommended the friend try Pelecanos' Drama City.

Edited by Christian

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Soul Circus is currently $1.99 in Kindle format.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I am ashamed to say that I had not read any Pelecanos before this thread. I am not sure whether to thank Christian or not for his insistence. Now I am convinced that St. Louis needs a Pelecanos.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I am ashamed to say that I had not read any Pelecanos before this thread. I am not sure whether to thank Christian or not for his insistence. Now I am convinced that St. Louis needs a Pelecanos.

Which book(s) did you read?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The Stefanos novels, Big Blowdown, Right as Rain, now reading Soul Circus. In between bouts of Secret Garden with my daughter.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The Stefanos novels, Big Blowdown, Right as Rain, now reading Soul Circus. In between bouts of Secret Garden with my daughter.

You've blown past me. I've never read the Stefanos novels or Big Blowdown, but have read the Derek Strange books and several novels of his that aren't part of a series.

Strangely, the first book of his that I read about and that made me want to read his stuff, King Suckerman, is one I've never gotten around to reading.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

P.D. James announces her new novel: Pride and Prejudice and murder.

"The year," runs the press release, "is 1803, and Darcy and Elizabeth have been married for six years. There are now two handsome and healthy sons in the Pemberley nursery, Elizabeth's beloved sister Jane and her husband, Bingley, live within seventeen miles, the ordered and secure life of Pemberley seems unassailable, and Elizabeth's happiness in her marriage is complete. But their peace is threatened and old sins and misunderstandings are rekindled on the eve of the annual autumn ball. The Darcys and their guests are preparing to retire for the night when a chaise appears, rocking down the path from Pemberley's wild woodland, and as it pulls up, Lydia Wickham, an uninvited guest, tumbles out, screaming that her husband has been murdered."

Not that no-one's thought of mixing Jane Austen and murder before....

FWIW, this move doesn't surprise me. James is in the Sayers school of detective fiction, which values the format as a way to explore social relationships--and which, therefore, feels a natural kinship with Jane Austen (both James and Sayers have sung her praise, iirc). So I can definitely see why James would want to do this.

Edited by NBooth

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!


Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.


Sign In Now