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The Mystery Is The Medium
by Robin Skelton

It`s time to bring crime writing out of the genre ghetto and into the fictional mainstream ONCE A CERTAIN kind of book is generally regarded by critical opinion as a "genre;" a ghetto is created. We cease to discuss, for example, John Donne (a metaphysical) in the same essay as Lord Byron (a romantic) though in point of fact the juxtaposition could be interesting. A good many ghettos have been created for writers, especially in our century when the academic industry has devoted much time and many unreadable tomes to the invention of categories (Postmoderns, Structuralists, Imagists, Surrealists, et al.). Crime fiction, which I take quite simply to mean fiction that has crime as its central concern and the source of the story`s narrative energies, has suffered a good deal from this process. As early as 1924, R. Austin Freeman distinguished between the crime story and the detective story, seeing the latter as providing "primarily an intellectual attraction;" and in the years between the two world wars the limits of the "detective story" were defined and redefined with alarming frequency. Yet even as the detective story with its "intellectual" element of puzzle, its creation and manipulation of stereotypes, its limitations of emotion - S. S. Van Dine banned any teal love interest or thorough delineation of character - continued on its way, other developments occurred, and, in due course, in the `40s and later we found ourselves facing novels of detection which had escaped from the ghetto. We found ourselves with Georges Simenon, whose novels are explorations of individual psychology; we were given shrewd and bitter analyses of social disorders by Dashiell Hammett and, later, Ross Macdonald. Social satire became a part of the crime-writer`s world, and many police procedurals dealt even-handedly with the way of life in urban jungles. Indeed, it could be maintained that the crime novel began, in the post-war period, to probe just as deeply into human life in our time as any other work of fiction. This process had, of course, begun much earlier, in the `30s, but it was not until the war was over that crime novels really took on the whole spectrum of human behaviour. The stereotypes began to disappear, and the Great Detective became obsolete. Instead, we had such splendidly flawed protagonists as Simon Brett`s hard-drinking, impoverished, and rarely employed actor, Charles Paris, who gives us a wry portrait of the world of radio, television, and small-town theatre that both informs and delights. Tony Hillerman provided and provides us with a Navaho investigator and a far from superficial exploration of Navaho culture. Regionalism became part of the novel. No longer are we restricted to New York State, English country houses in the home counties, and corrupt California. Eric Robinson presents a realistic picture of Yorkshire, and Eric Wright`s Toronto is as vividly accurate as L. R. Wright`s Sechelt, while H. R. F Keating`s Bombay is splendidly convincing. If it were only this wide range of the contemporary crime novel that made it valuable, we would still perhaps be able to keep it in the ghetto. There is, however, something else that, once considered essential to fiction, is nowadays frequently disregarded: narrative drive. In the 19th century novels were read (often aloud around the fire of an evening) for the story. One wanted to know what happened next. One became emotionally involved in the characters and empathized with them; one shared their enthusiasms and agonies; one cheered, laughed, and wept. While many 20th-century novels and short stories involve one in this fashion, it is noticeable that the emphasis upon character, place, and social and psychological problems has caused a lessening in narrative drive. Indeed a good many works of contemporary fiction are portraits of people and places, of cultural milieus rather than tales. This has resulted in critics pointing to some detective stories as being "true" novels, because the emphasis has been taken away from the journey towards the discovery of the truth and placed upon the characters of the participants. The narrative structure of the crime novel at its simplest is easy to describe. We are first of all given a picture of normality (let us say the country house). This norm is disrupted by an unusual event (the body in the library), and thereafter the story presents us with the attempt either to return to the already given norm, or to another situation which has a similar orderliness. This is the pattern of the "classic" detective story; it is also the pattern of King Lear, of Pride and Prejudice, of Robinson Crusoe, and a vast quantity of other fiction and drama. This pattern appears to satisfy something within us. It is, in its way, a presentation of the rhythm of our ordinary existence, even of our lives. The norm of the nursery is disrupted by adolescence, and a new order is necessary; the even tenor of our ways is shattered by a love affair or a death or a wedding, and we must adjust ourselves to discover what new order is possible. It could even be said that the same pattern is discernible in the movement from an outbreak of war to the establishment of peace, or, at a less horrendous level, in the recovery of the taxpayer from the imposition of a new tax. I would maintain that the good detective story presents us with this pattern more obviously and more interestingly than much other fiction, partly because the most common disruption of the norm is one that challenges our sense of security most intensely - sudden death. If one were to rest one`s case for the viewing of crime fiction as significant literature merely upon this contention, however, one would not convince too many people, for the detective story that gives us this pattern without engaging our empathy may appeal because of its comforting formula, but will not engage our emotions. As I have already pointed out, S. S. Van Dine and others saw the detective novel as eschewing all serious emotion, at one time. The contemporary crime novel, however, while retaining the basic structure of norm-disruption-norm, has moved away from the stereotypical settings of the past, and devotes a good deal of attention to exploring quite exactly the nature of the norm that faces the characters; in so doing it explores social and cultural patterns, and does so the more efficiently because there is a clear reason for the exploration, a passionate, ethical concern. We are driven onward, not by an "intellectual" desire to solve a problem, but by a desire to uproot evil, to discover the cause of it, and, ultimately, to heal. Of course, in many novels the discovery of one culprit does not cure the world of corruption; the heroes of the "tough!` California school know full well that they have scotched the snake, not killed it, and these novels often end with a weary acceptance of the flawed nature of our society. During the story, however, the flaws have been thoroughly investigated, and we feel somewhat cleansed by the process. In some novels we experience a distinct catharsis as we do, or should, at a performance of Macbeth or a reading of Dostoyevsky. This may seem an extreme, even pretentious statement. It certainly does not apply to the average crime novel, but only to the work of such extraordinary writers as Cornell Woolrich, who inherited the disturbed and obsessive imagination of Poe, or Thomas H. Cook, whose portrayal, in Streets of Fire, of the community of Birmingham, Alabama at the time of Martin Luther King`s visit, may be the most vivid and courageous analysis of that situation ever presented in fiction. It is undoubtedly one of the most moving and disturbing crime novels of recent years. The average good crime novel does not reach these heights, but it does satisfy the reader`s desire for a story in which interesting people present a pattern of relationships that has been damaged by an untoward event, and in which these people are all caught up in a search for a significant truth. More and more, also, it satisfies the reader`s desire to learn more about his fellow men and women not only the Australian aborigines of Arthur Upheld, the East Indians of H. R. F Keating, and the splendid cultural mix of Michael Pearce in his portrayal of the Egypt of 1906, but also the underworld of our cities, the boardrooms of Wall Street and Bay Street, the world of theatre, art galleries, cattle ranches: the list is almost endless. The crime novel, indeed, gives us insights that the other novels rarely do. The crime novel is not, however, "literature;" or so we are told. I have often wondered what that term means, and have come to the conclusion that it means books that are explicated in university lectures, and that require explication because of their complexity or their historical origins. And yet, if one looks at the matter coldly, it could be argued that Raymond Chandler is just as fascinating and writes just as well as Thackeray; it could be argued that Simenon is just as skilled and disturbing a writer as Chekhov or de Maupassant. Such judgements are admittedly highly subjective. More objectively, one might point out that since its beginnings with Samuel Richardson`s Pamela, the novel in English has had as its main concern the telling of a story, of an adventure or series of adventures (Tom Jones, Moll Flanders), the pursuit of mysteries (Jane Eyre), and the uncovering of conspiracies (Bleak House, The Woman in White); and that a pervasive theme has been that of good versus evil, of crime and punishment, of investigation and discovery. The crime novel of today, indeed, is quite definitely in the mainstream of fiction. This does not mean that we should, in considering the history and development of fiction, relegate Borges, Robbe-Grillet, and Joyce, or other of the so-called "moderns," to a category labelled "aberrant:" It does, however, suggest that reviewers and critics should cease to place crime novels in a ghetto, or to regard them as mere "entertainments" (to use Graham Greene`s term for some of his narratives). It also means that if we are to get a grasp upon the history and development of fiction, we can no more safely, 5: ignore Cornell Woolrich than William Faulkner, no more discount the work of Ngaio Marsh than that of Evelyn Waugh. Nevertheless, if we take this position, we are in danger of moving from an elitist position to a populist one and assuming that what is popular is therefore significant. It may be significant for the study of culture, and present us with some puzzling phenomena-such as the popularity of Philip James Bailey`s Festus in the 19th century and the extraordinary success of many very badly written books. Let us not assume that because a crime novel is in the mainstream of fiction all crime novels deserve attention. Many are simply entertainments for a plane flight, which is an admirable quality, but they do not affect us or move our imaginations of give us new perspectives upon humanity. The same may be said of many non-crime novels also. Let us, however, while reading these books, respect them, not dismiss them with a coy "Oh, it`s only a crime story;" or admit shamefacedly "These days I only read detective novels." Let us recognize that there are great novels that involve crime and detection, and that even the classic detective story, with its numerous restrictions, may yet have the kind of masterly elegance that permits it to be considered art; not in spite of, but because of its restrictions, just as we applaud, let us say, the artistry of the chamber concert, as well as the orchestral symphony, and admire the cutting brevities of Saki equally with the loquacities of Virginia Woolf. The crime genre is so enormously all-embracing that the term "genre` is no longer applicable. Some novels are written in the classical restricted mode; some are psychological studies; some are travelogues and some are sociological explorations. Our perpetuation of the ghetto perception is a consequence of something we might well call literary racism, and it is time that we opened up the streets.

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