Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Three books on crime fiction, reviewed

Maurizio Ascari, A Counter-History of Crime Fiction: Supernatural, Gothic, Sensational, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007
Alastair Rolls and Deborah Walker, London. French and American Noir: Dark Crossings, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009
Andrew Nestingen and Paula Arvas, eds, Scandinavian Crime Fiction, Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 2011
These three books have emerged as the most interesting from recent reading and re-reading during the process of producing a new book which studies closely what are in my view the twenty-one most popular and influential piece of crime fiction: a key to the mystery door. They reach from William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794) to Vikram Ghosh’s Sacred Games (2006). Though my pitch in the book is to examine for the first time crime fiction in the close textual detail that is routine in the whole range of canonical and cultural-capital fiction, I also wanted in it to provide a passing guide to the best criticism, and so have been reading up on what has been said, especially in recent years.
In my introduction I remark that after the long phase of connoisseurship and bibliophilia, which basically ended by about 1980, crime fiction commentary has tended to be survey-based, being histories of the genre, its sub-genres, an author’s work, a new mood across the fiction. In that generalising mode some good material has been produced, like Stephen Soitos' book on the American black crime novel, Priscilla Walton and Manina Jones on the feminist thriller, or several recent essay-collections on the new formation, post-colonial crime fiction – the best seems that edited by Marieke Krajenbrink and Kate Quinn. But my interest in the new book was to anti-generalise, to turn to the texts and show that in many of them there are levels of complexity and suggestion quite as rich as in classical fiction, and so I am suggesting that a better, sharper, history can be written by trusting the texts (as D. H. Lawrence recommended, that thriller-writer manqué). But I also could not help noticing while scanning the materials that there are some new books which, while essentially in survey mode, nevertheless, by being accurately and searchingly historical they cut into the assumptions and the simplicities of the earlier and still dominant quasi-historical understanding of crime fiction. These three books under consideration here are the best examples of this neo-history in action, and they all not only raise and contradict the common views of the meaning and role of crime fiction, but also cast specific light on particularly interesting instances of the single texts on which I was concentrating.
There are quite a lot of assumptions about the history of crime fiction, which are as misleading and misled as most broad historical assertions. One is that old bugbear, the assumption that E. A. Poe started it off. Not only Americans think that. It is quite common in Europe: like all clichés, it is easier than thinking. All the proper historians go back to about William Godwin, though the fancy-footed Europeans (which here includes some English) liked to travel back via Voltaire etc to the bible and the classics, but we should pay no attention to that show-off self-validation. More annoying and more constraining, is the assumption that it is all Anglo-American. In this coalition of the Anglophones, with some mutual contempt, they accept the only two real forms. One is the clue-puzzle `golden age’ of England. But golden for whom ? Why forget that the Yanks had very high clue-puzzle achievers in  S. S. Van Dine, Rex Stout and Ellery Queen:  i.e. it is a choice not a national curse. Then there is the so-called `tough guy’ and even more so-called `hard-boiled’ private-eye thriller which Americans continue to feel is honest realism, as if only the early Hammett wrote them, with never appearing the nervy male chauvinism of Chandler, the brutal everything  chauvinism of Spillane and the varied individualist sensitivity from Ross Macdonald through to James L Burke. And here the Brits overlook their own quasi-Americans, Hadley Chase and Cheyney. But both parties feel that’s it, not liking much either the international elegance or the criminographical veridicality of the psychothriller with Americans like Margaret Millar and Patricia Highsmith and Brits like Anthony Berkeley and Ruth Rendell.
What the Anglo-Americans all urgently forget is the long and detailed development in French – even Doyle recognised it by giving Holmes a French grandmother. This also obscures the propinquity of the French and American traditions in the nineteenth century. Not just Poe and Paris: Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris and Gaboriau’s M. Lecoq novels were much better known and more widely imitated in American than in Britain –  and George Lippard’s Philadelphia-based Quaker City and The Mysteries of New York by E. Z. C. Judson (aka `Ned Buntline’ of Buffalo Bill fame) are major French-inspired implants where London only had the fine but much forgotten Mysteries of London by George Reynolds.
But inside and validated by that Anglo-American simplification is an equally limited, and limiting, set of ideas about what crime fiction was. This is partly the fault of us historians. As we dug back carefully and tried to be faithful to the perceived nature of the genre in the twentieth century, we were loyal to the autarchy of a detective and a solution. We were indeed able to show the detective went way back, to Godwin in fact, and to the early disciplinary figures, doctors and lawyers, but though there were changes to be observed  --  notably that in the nineteenth-century murder was not of much interest (e.g. not in the early Holmes stories) and there were also plain police detectives and even a few women police detectives – the historical model still stuck with forms of the detective story as the real structure
The three books being discussed here challenge in various ways many aspects of that detective-based approach, both imperial and imperious,  to crime fiction. Ascari is the most far-reaching, seeing a whole other world of thematics and motivations both appealed to and realised in elements of crime fiction, including within the detective-focused structure itself. Rolls and Walker see a quite undervalued twentieth century Franco-American relationship in the noir phenomenon, so both broadening the usual national and linguistic compass but also, even more interesting, making quite searching suggestions about the dynamic behind noir French crime fiction and world war 2, which has resonances with Ascari’s thematic otherworld. Nestingen and Arvas and their authors speak specifically about the recent non-Anglophone phenomenon that has gripped the publishing world, Scandinavian crime fiction. Again, they not only speak up for an under-recognised tradition and so question the Anglophone hegemony, present and past, but also offer materials towards an understanding of the national and temporal meanings of crime fiction beyond mere puzzle-story that wind back through time, and through the themes of the other two books, to make us rethink criminography and its contexts, especially those dealing with nationality and war.
Ascari has form on crime fiction. Well-established at Bologna, he has been involved in conference, essay-collections and very substantial Euro-funded research projects for some time. He might be seen in an Italian tradition, with Umberto Eco and Stefano Tani. They have all made some waves in criminographical criticism, but also all produce more than just in-genre self-locational gestures. Like both of those important figures Ascari has a broad subject range – it is the narrow-based crime-fiction-only people who are likely to make the narrowest and most specially pleading of analyses, in my view (speaking as a compulsive digressor). Ascari has as full a knowledge of French, language and literature, as English/American, and he also works substantially in the Renaissance. Breadth of knowledge is good, but having a real alterotemporal grasp of how structures can be different is better. Quite a lot of modern-only critics think the novel, the omniscient author, the individualist narrator and the even more individualist characters are all god-given structures – and so the detective must be everything.
Ascari makes his position clear from the first noun of his title – this is a Counter-history. As he sets out in his introduction, we need to remember that realism is a convention, and that the disciplinary/scientist detective is only one option for the authority of a story – or a world. This, he asserts, is not another detective-focused history, but  rather seeks `to map those hybrid zones where its conventions mingle with those of sensation-fiction and the ghost story, or else are conflated with the discourses of pseudo-sciences’ (xi-xii).
His first chapter is meta-critical, surveying ways in which commentators have emphasised the rational, but then in his second section of it, `Blurring the Boundaries’, he notes that the historians have in fact taken crime fiction back before the dominatingly disciplinary detectives, and have also shown a wide social range of texts, including much in the popular and melodrama modes. This is the terrain he will build on, and while he finds room in the past in this way he finds a stronger authority more recently in his final introductory section `A glance at the present’, where writers like Eco and Pynchon are deployed as they critique powerfully the assumptions of certainty on which the classic detective story is based.
After establishing his position both delicately and sharply, Ascari moves into the two substantial sections of his book. The first, working in some detail in the early period, explores the interface of what becomes crime fiction with narratives privileging both the supernatural and the Gothic. First he establishes the ways, especially providential ones, in which early pre-detective criminals are exposed; then explores the Godwinesque world of the Burkean sublime both in its conservative and its radical applications. The next two chapters deal first with revenging ghosts and revealing dreams, with Collins playing a substantial role, and then with occult aspects, including mesmerism, that reach from Collins into more of Doyle than many would realise.
Having set out the counter-history of the supra-rational in this way, Ascari then  explores the extent to which that counter-rational counter-history also has force in the domains of what are usually regarded as the rational preserves of the disciplinary detectives. The first chapter explores the French tradition, from Poe on, and noting Collins’ own connections there (the story of the Woman in White is originally from French true crime). Then three chapters move effectively through the powerful English sensational literature, and on into two late-century formations – the nightmare features of massified London, and also what Ascari calls `the Rhetoric of Atavism and Degeneration’.
It is a strong set of arguments, both in outlining the supra-rational domain and the hybridising effect that such material has in the rational world. In a lengthy summing-up Ascari points out how important were Christian devotees like Chesterton, Knox and Sayers in the formalisation of crime fiction as a potent genre, somehow appropriating the rational for their world of meta-rational values, and he also makes some telling points about the continuing hybridity of the ghostly inside the merely ghastly. For example he sees the doctor/narrator/murderer of Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd as a rational hero turned upside-down, and he might have seen the same in the calm but poisoning familial solicitor of Sayers’ Strong Poison. Perhaps generously, Ascari ends up by linking his incisive approach with that of modern historicism, and in my view over-generously with the forces of Cultural Studies. In my experience CS is very rarely this learned or this focused. But it is however quite true that the broad-based intellectual democratism of the post-sixties academy (which sparked Cultural Studies) is the underlying rationale (and über-rationale) for this exceptionally well-read and profoundly re-orienting book about how we can come to understand both the origins and the functions of crime fiction. In the modern period, where we oscillate between the internal sadomasochisms of forensic serial killer-thrillers and the international external brutalities of the post 9/11 terrorist epic, this assertion that fear and superstition were always central to crime fiction might well be salutary to those who merely think their reading is both golden and tough.
France and America have long had close relations, if only to derail the English juggernaut, from empire, class hostility, soccer hooliganism to the worship of cricket. Crime fiction saw the connection from early days – `Cooperisme’ was a real force in post-Napoleonic France and Dumas’s big-city excitement was entitled Les Mohicans de Paris: Poe’s being taken up by the power of Baudelaire was a major symptom of an existing condition. The idea that America was a location of fascination, excitement and threat long continued in France. In Simenon’s first major novel, The Yellow Dog (1932), the Breton notables have sent a local sailor off with drugs to America, but then betrayed him to the US cops for the reward. He ends in Sing Sing, but an American helps him return and confront them and Maigret  finally consigns him back to fishing and his waitress amie (le Commissaire strokes her cheek). This Gallo-Atlantic frisson strengthens in war, and Rolls and Walker chart in scholarly detail and with bold analysis the political erotics of the way in which the post-world-war I American thriller, through both novel and film noir, found a place in French interests, both translated and imitated, and played a major role in French literature, and especially film.
The American connection is alive in the breakthrough noir novel J’irai cracher  sur vos tombes (1946: `I’m going to spit on your graves’), written by Boris Vian, but claimed by him to be a translation from a black American named Vernon Sullivan. The authors make nothing of the fact that this came in a way true when, with the Gallimard Série Noire up and running, in late 1955 Chester Himes, a real black American in Paris, was commissioned to write his first crime fiction and so began the potent Harlem series starring Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. The commissioner was Marcel Duhamel, who had himself started the series with translations of  para-American tough-guy stories by Englishmen, two by Peter Cheyney and one by James Hadley Chase. The Chase was America-set and hyper- sensational, and these were not Cheyney’s fully nationalised version with Irish Slim Callaghan in charge. Here he still has American setting and pretty tough Lemmy Caution, who gained mythic status in France: in Godard’s Alphaville the name was memorably pronounced as Cochon.
Rolls and Walker sophisticate the French origins of noir story by noting the impact of Leo Malet, whose first Nestor Burma story locates the private eye in Paris –in hybrid reference to Sue of 1842 he called it a new Mystères de Paris. Nestor is wry, cynically insightful rather than tough, a voice of true human inter-relations. But the key thing is the date: he was first published in 1943. What you work on as a writer under occupation must be a tense decision. I recall being impressed to find the only good French translation of the great Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was published in 1945 by the academic Ēmile Pons  – he nailed the book’s sub-textual meaning in the dedication to his brother, dead in the first world war.
Malet’s choice of an American-style hero, named for a classical old wise man and a French overseas territory, is surely a form of  literary resistance, and the most interesting part of Rolls and Walker’s book is the strength with which they relate Vian, and the whole Série Noire phenomenon, to the situation of a country reeling after occupation. But one not like Germany, required to make public its citizens’ war-guilt, and yet in literary terms not all willing to stagger defensively back into the older modes – though that was effectively what Simenon, another Gallimard stalwart, was doing. They call their first chapter on Vian and his followers `Liberation Noir’, as the French both respect and resist the American brand of literary freedom. It is a rich account: Cheyney’s Poison Ivy becomes La Môme vert-de-gris: grey-green was the colour of the very stylish SS uniform; the central môme, or `dame’ is here cleverly read as a sort of occupation-hybridised Marianne.
After this the book verges towards that style French scholars favour mixing materialism and elevated theory, debating for example the role and meaning of strangulation in the novels. Sartre gets a guernsey and of course so does Barthes, but something more interesting returns in the chapter on the representation of the feminine – the femme is fatâle, but the contextual attitudes that make her be that way are themselves fatally misguided. Then follows a scholarly and intelligent chapter on how French film picked up new American modes, particularly through the leftist emphasis of artists like Jules Dassin and his post-McCarthy transfer to France, with his influence via the great film Rififi on the great names of nouvelle vague -- still operating on directors like Bob Swaim, discussed here through his Nestor Burma film of 1977.
The book ends with a short account of transcultural films, less searching than the strongly socio-political previous material, but the book as a whole makes a very important contribution to understanding crime fiction around the world: it shows how behind this apparently low-level culture-vulture boom in post-war France there is in fact a potent mix of national anxiety and international perceived value. The counter-rational themes that Ascari has exposed are here seen quivering in the national psyche, and the impact is such as to make you think carefully about post-war periods in general, such as Christie and the first world war death rate, Spillane and American 1945 triumphalism, perhaps even Blackwood’s Magazine back in the post-Napoleon aporia of authority.
If the non-rational dynamic of crime fiction and the Franco-American connections have been less than prominent until these recent revelations, it has to be acknowledged that the emergence of Nordic Noir has been a widely observed phenomenon, both in the book shops and the book pages. Building up in the 1990s with Henning Mankell, pushed on by Liza Marklund at the millennium, it peaked with the sales triumph of Stieg Larsson’s very sadly posthumous trilogy starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo across the world from 2005 – but has also continued with new major figures like Jo Nesbo.
Quite a few publishing outlets have responded, with some quality-varied Larsson memoirs, a rather bland Barry Forshaw  round-up, and the sharpest is the Nestingen and Arvas essay-collection – itself the best of the University of Wales Press European Crime Fiction series. Dull old scholars will perhaps be aware that there were some interestingly early Swedish contributions, as charted by Yvonne Leffler (in Italy in La Questione Romantica 2.2, October 2010): they  combined the Hoffman tradition with early English banal detection. Not much else criminographical happened for a long time around the Baltic, but a world breakthrough was the ten-book series started by Maj Sjowall and her partner Per Wahlöö with Roseanna in 1965 -- a police procedural with a distinctly leftist orientation and a world reception. Ed McBain thought they were plagiarising him (didn’t he notice the politics?); they were widely read across Europe, and were the impetus for the basically unsuccessful Pluto Press London venture into radical mysteries.
That was then: Wahlöö died early, but they completed their decalogue – interestingly Larsson planned ten novels as well, and he and his family were Sjowall/Wahlöö readers like most in 1970s Sweden. What this essay-collection shows is how things have moved on, or back, since those bright leftist days, and also how the Scandinavians have made a major thrust in the ultra-modern theatre of world crime fiction.
After a brief introductory account of the not very rich past, the collection offers two essays which define how crime fiction has registered the abrupt shift from the left-liberal post war hey-day that featured S and W’s thoughtful detectives Beck and Kollberg. Michael Tapper’s strong start shows how on television the whole series has been rejigged to heroise the Tory thug cop Gunnvald Larsson, a Swedish version of Dirty Harry.  Less spectacularly neo-liberal, but perhaps more insidious, is what  Kerstin Bergman shows as a depoliticising of the older procedural pattern in favour of  `well-adjusted, calm and sexy officers’ – though this is still the novel, the bland banality of television is infectious. A less fully conservative move,  Karen Klitgaard Povlsen argues, is the rural television mysteries where women investigators have more room to grow, though in somewhat limited contexts, including thematically. Even when larger issues do invade the rural material, as in Henning Mankell, there is, Shane McCorristine suggests, a pervading sense of isolative pessimism that can be read (though he doesn’t) as a self-satisfied psychically conservative effect, grounded in gratuitous locational stability.
Not all is lost from the radical years. Sara Kärrholm on `Swedish queens of crime’ shows how major writers like Liza Marklund and Camilla Läckberg remain faithful to the idea of `gendered agency’, while Ellen Rees deals with the sharper edged patterns of Anne Holt’s `transnational lesbian detective fiction’. But this collection shows as much interest in the more dubious radicalism of the postmodern move, with one essay by Magnus Persson praising Peter Hoeg’s elements of transgression in Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, but falling well short of the disruptively postmodern writers of final interest to Ascari, and there is something equally tentative about Sylvia Söderlind's essay on the essentially conservative  Håkan Nesser, claiming his interest in the ramifications of guilt undercuts his old world certainties about man and woman and family, as if a replay of Chestertonian magniloquence. There is also some shortfall in critique in Andrew Nestingen’s essay on the emergence of melodrama as a way of realising the post-rational millennial position of the Scandinavian policing and the state itself. It is an interesting idea, that might  have linked to Ascari’s concept of a popularly mediated counter-history, with counter-positions being shaped against rational confidence, but it is hamstrung by making so little reference to Larsson (Stieg, not Gunnvald), the major figure in both deploying melodrama and critique of the neo-liberal state.
The restrictions this collection ultimately places on itself are outlined most clearly by the other three essays which do in theory at least move on to discuss the political dynamics of the genre today. One is Katrin Jakobsdóttir’s account of Icelandic crime fiction, where she argues that the writers have worked to discredit the role of the national in the – well, national – ideology. They look to the place of Icelanders among global forces, of people movements and ultimately, though this is not stressed – of international capitalism and its intrusive and often criminal agents. That was where Larsson started from in the exposés of his journalist hero, just like his own. Paula Arvas’s essay looks at the other theme of importance to Larsson, the incursion of Russians, usually criminal and essentially treacherous, into the Swedish state (and shooting and burying the dragon-tattoo-bearing heroine). This, though less stressed, is a recurrent theme in Mankell too, and what we are seeing here is what Karsten Wind Meyhoff calls in the last of these three parapolitical essays `rewriting history’, the politicisation of the genre by a `relocation in the past’, back as far as the war. He looks at it in the police procedurals, stressing the changes since the radical days of  Sjowall and Wahlöö, but this theme is observable through much of this crime writing – and here meshing, if for these authors invisibly, with the work of Rolls and Walker.
Scandinavia projected itself in the post-war period as having had a basically respectable war – occupied in Denmark and Norway, neutral in Sweden, away from it all in Iceland, and in Finland fighting for honourable freedom against Russia and eluding the worst impact of being allied to Germany, even with its army on site.. But apart from Iceland there was a down-side. While the left-liberal state had no wish or need to be too anxious about the past, when the right came to power, retrospective voices were raised about what had actually happened. Larsson’s father was jailed for being a communist -- in neutral Sweden. The Germans were pretty pressing on what they saw as their natural Finnish ally against  Russia; Denmark and Norway suffered a reduced version of the kind of Occupation angst that has traumatised France for over half a century.
These issues come through as past crimes resonating in the present. In Larsson’s first novel they are parallel to, even interwoven with, anti-Semitism, murderous private justice, and incest, and crimes that the Swedish state has chosen to obscure as part of its new – and perhaps also old --compact with international capitalism. Interestingly, it was Germany where Larsson’s work first gained international lift-off: maybe readers there were keen for other countries to embrace self-examination as they long and painfully had.
But if this matches the French evaluative outwardness, the recognition of global forces can also be deployed in defensive, even personally conservative ways. Characters in the new rural Swedish mystery can just admire their setting like the recessivist element of the Greens party – and that internalism can operate through fantasy too. The wonderchild Solander uses her global electronic skills and even her womanly dress-and-disguise cunning, to steal a huge fortune from the arch villain, before tipping off his enemies and so bringing about his -- sort of justified – death. A fable of meeeee, rich and triumphant.
That idea of a negative internal move in all this apparently boldly questioning fiction brings with it another sneaking suspicion about the rise of Scandinavian crime fiction. It is read across Britain, the USA, Australia. White bourgeois readers love it. And why not: it is foreign, and it is about foreign threats, but it is all resolved through terms familiar to the white bourgeois object-dominated world. Though Blomkvist sort of fancies Solander, his real girls are a bossy journalist and a gym-fanatic cop. He may sort out the evil people, notably the foreign ones, but he is also pretty acceptable to white Western liberalism. And Solander is pretty much like the daughters, and even sons, that many of the readers might, however regretfully, have.
The Scandinavian miracle may indeed be just an Anglo-American avatar. The real foreign stuff is the third-world and postcolonial fiction, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Patrick Chamoiseau and right up-to-date, Vikram Chandra. Just as the French internalised for their own mental security the American liberators of not the French national but the American self, the white Anglophones are reading how the Swedes escaped from socialism and became like us, and with our anxieties, and with new responses to them, including the faux-foreign.
Ascari would no doubt say, though with that self-deprecating smile, I told you so. Inside the rationality and the procedurality of Nordic Noir is a set of fears: the modern liberal sense of a lost world; but also the white bourgeois reader’s sense of wanting to avoid the really incomprehensible and psychically destructive actual modern foreign world. Modern Swedish crime fiction, like French noir, is the rational compensation for the sub-rational traumas of modern people, and nations. The genres are themselves on our case. The literary sublime is deployed to sublimate the psychotic sublime. As it was in Godwin, where we all started.

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