Nathaniel

Mysteries and Detective Stories

136 posts in this topic

3QuarksDaily reminds me that I really need to pick up Inherent Vice:

Why a private eye book? Well, the mystery genre is a rubric, an outline, a template, a skeleton, and as such is always a serviceable platform to riff on, to improvise with. (Consider “The Long Goodbye” by Raymond Chandler, for instance. Boy, did he wander off the reservation.) As with any genre, it has its conventions, its touchstones that are comfortable and immediately acceptable for its readers. (This past summer Harry Potter and his nemesis Voldemort did a Reichenbach Falls jump together in the series finale.) And then there is the love of the genre itself. Pynchon does love the genre. No smirky, snarky dilettante descending from an ivory literary tower.

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I have read Inherent Vice. I guess it is worth your time if you read 100 crime novels a year and this is one of the many. But it is not worth your time if it comes at the expense of reading new novels from Roger Smith, Don Winslow, Walter Molsey, Jim Sallis, Dave Zelsterman, etc.

Pynchon's detective fiction jokes were done better by Sesame Street and (even more damning) the Capitol Steps.

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It has come to my attention that two Ellery Queen novels will be hitting the world of ebooks this week:

The Roman Hat Mystery

The first Queen novel, Roman Hat introduces the Philo Vancish Ellery Queen as a pince-nez wearing fop; characterization is minimal (in true Van Dine mode), but the plot is pretty satisfying.

If you're interested in getting into Queen, though, I would recommend trying out Calamity Town. It was published in 1942, and the shadow of war hangs pretty heavily over it. The novel was the first of what Francis Nevins characterizes as Queen's "third period"--a run of books where well-built plots were pretty successfully merged with rounded, believable characters. I just re-read it in preparation for a seminar paper, and it's intense; more tragedy than mystery, in some ways, with a hardheaded look at small-town America in the years immediately preceding WWII.

EDIT: Since I'm linking Queen e-books, I might as well throw these here:

Halfway House

The Door Between

The Devil to Pay

Of these, I've only read Halfway House--it's pretty good (it's either the last of "first period" Queen or the first of the "second period"--it's very like the first few "Nation-Noun" mysteries, but takes a turn toward better characterization. The string of deductions at the end is pretty terrific, though).

Edited by NBooth

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

And now James herself has a piece up on the book:

For me, one of the joys of writing Death Comes to Pemberley was revisiting once again the world of Longbourn and Pemberley and finding, as I always do, fresh insights and delights. It also gave me an opportunity to address a problem of plotting that I found in the original novel, but I was concerned to write a true detective story with clues to the truth of what happened available to the reader and, I hope, an ending that is both believable and satisfying.

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Over in the comments section at Filmwell, ELRambo posted a link to a recent article in Books and Culture on "God and the Detectives."

The genre will contain only so much seriousness, will support only so much heaviness, before it collapses. If you want to write a genuinely rich, genuinely profound investigation of innocence and guilt, you need to build a different novelistic frame.

Still, the mystery story as a literary form is sturdier than some of its critics admit (notably Edmund Wilson in his famous 1945 attack in The New Yorker, "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?"). Genre fiction will support some weight, and the trick in all its permutations—in spy thrillers, in Westerns, in science fiction, even in pulp romance—is to discover exactly how much. Religion can live in mysteries to a reasonable degree, if the analogy of the supernatural is allowed to superimpose itself on the natural world. God can visit the detectives, if the author has the sense to permit it.

All it takes is a little grace.

FWIW, in my reply to her comment, I had this to say:

I think Bottum's on to something, especially here:

"A detective story is religious if it superadds an awareness of redemption to the fallen world assumed by all mysteries. If it sees the chance of God's grace down in a universe of sin."

My own contention would be that the act of detection is itself, somehow, redemptive; it's "making sense" in a dual way: both in creating sense (artistic redemption) and in discerning it (prophetic redemption). Hopefully, I'll be able to delve into this a little further in future.

--which is to say, I think the detective story is innately religious, but not in the sense that Bottum seems to mean of being innately Christian. He's right when he says it isn't; to suggest as much would be to go a bridge too far.

Edited by NBooth

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... 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.

Grabbed a copy at the library today -- there were three copies sitting on the "New Releases" shelf. I don't usually think much of laudatory dust-jacket quotes, but this book has some quotes from genre heavyweights that have me thinking The Cut might be something special.

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"All Things Considered" has a good piece up on "The Enduring Popularity of Sherlock Holmes". Interviewees include Les Klinger and Laurie King, who says:

"He's a man who has given himself body and soul to the conquest of evil and that's something that speaks to us across the ages."

--a description that, incidentally, isn't that far removed from Chandler's knight or Ellery Queen's play on the detective-as-prophet.

Edited by NBooth

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... 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.

Grabbed a copy at the library today -- there were three copies sitting on the "New Releases" shelf. I don't usually think much of laudatory dust-jacket quotes, but this book has some quotes from genre heavyweights that have me thinking The Cut might be something special.

The Cut was OK, but I've also gone ahead and picked up Pelecanos' What It Was as a $0.99 ebook. Turns out I'm far from alone.

The novel, released on Jan. 23, enters USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list at No. 36, the highest debut for Pelecanos, who has written 18 novels.

FWIW.

EDIT: I see J. Henry Waugh wasn't a fan of What It Was.

Oooo! Also #13 on the NY Times combined print/ebook fiction list!

Thing is, I have to read this on my laptop, using my newly downloaded Kindle reader (required to purchase the novel from Amazon). I've yet to read more than a chapter or two of a few books on my laptop. I just don't like reading books that way. Maybe the Kindle app will make for a more enjoyable experience.

Edited by Christian

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Hi, Christian.

Wasn't a fan, is waaaaay too strong. I am absolutely a Pelecanos fan. The pre-ordered book hit my Kindle at 12:05 at 24 hours later I'd devoured it.

But if I were introducing the non-initiated to Mr. George, there are an easy seven books of his I would pick before Red Fury. My favorite of the batch is The Sweet Forever.

Edit to add that I am enough of a fan that I would only dare criticize Pelecanos because he's achieved enough success that my quibbles are meaningless. I want him to be successful and I push everyone I know who is interested in this sort of thing to read and buy his books.

Edited by J. Henry Waugh

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Fair enough. The post I linked to said you wouldn't recommend it for Pelecanos newbies, not that you weren't a fan.

I've never read The Sweet Forever or, sadly, King Suckerman.

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FWIW, here's Patrick Anderson's review of What It Was in today's Post.

In recent decades, as American crime fiction has reached new heights, a few novels have been outstanding, including Dennis Lehane’s “Mystic River,” Laura Lippman’s “What the Dead Know” and Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series. The five Strange novels belong on that list. They’re about crime, but, finally, they’re a profound meditation on good and evil in this city, mostly in parts of it that many of us pass through often but never really see.

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Note to self:

Add Lord Dunsany's "Two Bottles of Relish" to favorite mystery stories.

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Note to self:

Add Lord Dunsany's "Two Bottles of Relish" to favorite mystery stories.

It's been years since I read that one, but as I recall it has one of the best closing-lines of any mystery anywhere.

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Note to self:

Add Lord Dunsany's "Two Bottles of Relish" to favorite mystery stories.

It's been years since I read that one, but as I recall it has one of the best closing-lines of any mystery anywhere.

It's true! The curtain line is a classic. The story itself straddles both horror and mystery. It's a horrible mystery, a mysterious horror.

Edited by Nathaniel

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It's true! The curtain line is a classic. The story itself straddles both horror and mystery. It's a horrible mystery, a mysterious horror.

Lovecraft was an admirer of Dunsany, maybe to a fault. Many of his earliest writings had him copying Dunsany's style to a 't.'

EDIT: I was really sleepy when I wrote this, so let me also note that the reason I mentioned this was because Lovecraft also tried one or two (I think) stabs at hardboiled mystery/horror hybrids. They were more unintentionally funny than mysterious (or scary, for that matter).

Edited by Jason Panella

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It's true! The curtain line is a classic. The story itself straddles both horror and mystery. It's a horrible mystery, a mysterious horror.

Lovecraft was an admirer of Dunsany, maybe to a fault. Many of his earliest writings had him copying Dunsany's style to a 't.'

EDIT: I was really sleepy when I wrote this, so let me also note that the reason I mentioned this was because Lovecraft also tried one or two (I think) stabs at hardboiled mystery/horror hybrids. They were more unintentionally funny than mysterious (or scary, for that matter).

That's interesting, and it touches on a point that is, I think, too little remarked upon: the close affinity horror and detective fiction share. When I read Lovecraft, I associate him with Poe--and Poe, of course, invented the modern detective story. There's a strong Gothic tinge in the Sherlock Holmes stories (most obviously, of course, in The Hound of the Baskervilles, but also in shorts like "The Speckled Band" and "The Copper Beeches") and writers of the "Golden Age" like John Dickson Carr and even Ellery Queen were not averse to mixing horror-elements with their classically-constructed stories. And, of course, the hardboiled school does the same thing (I say this though my experience is limited)--the mouldering rich family in The Big Sleep might be an example, and David Peace's novels are nothing if not Gothic detective stories.

I have no idea why this should be so, but it's something that has been prodding at me for a while.

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I have no idea why this should be so, but it's something that has been prodding at me for a while.

Me, too. Carr's The Burning Court might make a good case study, for reasons I'm hesitant to say.

But, as I mentioned earlier in this thread, my favorite mystery stories are those that tease you with supernatural explanations before bringing you back to commonsense reality (but only after it has awakened the sense of the supernatural that is intrinsic to our humanity). My mind tends to drift when I read Agatha Christie, her masterly plot construction too detailed for my wandering attention, but I'm usually electrified by Father Brown. "The Oracle of the Dog" is a perfect illustration of what I'm talking about. ("It's the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense.")

Anyway, I think you're very close to cracking this one, Mr. Booth. The clues are all there.

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Anyway, I think you're very close to cracking this one, Mr. Booth. The clues are all there.

Absolutely. Even look at James Ellroy — his neo-noir novels shift over into horror quite frequently, though not of any supernatural kind. The L.A. Quartet in particular drips with gothic flourishes.

I've been slowwwwwwly putting ideas down for a slightly hardboiled, slightly Lovecraftian novel (all set in academia). I guess it makes sense that it all clicks together so well.

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The L.A. Quartet in particular drips with gothic flourishes.

Sure does. De Palma emphasized those elements pretty heavily in his film adaptation of THE BLACK DAHLIA.

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NBooth, I assume lists like that will not be good, but the Flavorwire list is just about perfect. That they include Pop. 1280 instead of other works as the book from Thompson shows due diligence. Slayground instead of The Hunter would have been gilding the lilly.

Outside the known names, Roger Smith, Ray Banks and Dave Zeltserman have been on my radar lately.

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Wow, that reads like my junior-high / high school reading-for-pleasure list. I don't know if 13 and 14 are the best ages to start reading these books, but I loved these books then and haven't stopped loving them since.

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Wow, that reads like my junior-high / high school reading-for-pleasure list. I don't know if 13 and 14 are the best ages to start reading these books, but I loved these books then and haven't stopped loving them since.

I was all about Doyle, Agatha Christie, JD Carr, and DL Sayers at that age. And Ellery Queen, natch [because I am constitutionally unable to mention detective fiction without plugging for Queen]. The hardboiled stuff never appealed to me, leaving me with a huge gap in my reading that I'm only just starting to fill.

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This is a good podcast with George Pelecanos. A nice primer on his career and influences.

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Thanks for posting. Mr. George is the best. I am way to proud to not note that the car chase in The Cut drove down my block and past my house!

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