Saturday, January 30, 2010

By any other name . . . .

By Michael Wiley

Two plots, one “literary” and one “genre”:

(1) A powerful man has been poisoned, murdered without witnesses while sleeping. The man’s son, a brilliant but unstable loner, sets out to catch the killer. But he faces every obstacle imaginable. The government is protecting the killer. His own girlfriend seems to have betrayed him in favor of the killer’s gang. Most of his friends have betrayed him too. His mother, instead of crying over the death of her husband, is sleeping with a new lover . . . who turns out to be the killer. But along with a sidekick (not so much a Joe Pike to his Elvis Cole as a Watson to his Sherlock), the son investigates the murder, and using a combination of wit (tricking the bad guys into revealing their guilt, Columbo-style) and brute force (killing those who stand in his way), he exposes the killer and brings him to justice.

(2) An old man – once a powerful general but now a shell of his former self – inhabits a realm that now seems too large and lavish for him. Like many other great men, he has lived according to his own moral code, one that often has been at odds with social norms but nonetheless has had an integrity and nobility of its own. But now his daughters are betraying him and the values he has stood for. They too have lived according to their own moral codes but theirs have lacked an honorable guiding principle. Into the life of this family comes a heroic figure who corrects the daughters’ wrongs, saves them from various evils, and restores a semblance of order to the old general’s world.

The first plot, of course, is from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the second from Chandler’s The Big Sleep. But the first story is also a variation on any of dozens of “genre” murder mysteries, and the second could be mistaken for a bad summary of King Lear. One can imagine visiting a favorite independent bookstore in Elizabethan England and searching through the shelves for a good bloody thriller by Shakespeare. At least I can imagine it. After all, a lot of “literary” writers started off on the pulp fiction shelves. Look at Joseph Conrad’s early book covers, and you know that readers a hundred years ago were stuffing their copies of his novels into their beach bags alongside their suntan lotion and iPods.

I’m not saying that all mystery writers are the same as great Renaissance or Modern “literary” authors or that all great Renaissance and Modern “literary” authors are mystery writers. I’m just saying that a good story – whether a revenge tragedy or a tale of seafaring or a PI novel – by any other name would smell as sweet. And I’m saying a well-written PI novel has better claims to present and enduring attention than poorly written literary fiction.

If any critics think otherwise, I know a couple hundred mystery writers who would be happy to “beard” them as Hamlet might, or (to borrow a poetic line from Sophie’s blog entry) to pull their ears off their heads.


Shane Gericke said...

Great stuff! And I love those book covers. The older art is just SO evocative of a romantic era in mystery/thrillers that doesn't exist much any more.

Michael Wiley said...

I'm big into the old covers too.

Faulkner wrote books that hit hard with popular audiences and had crossover ("genre") appeal. Hemingway did. Melville definitely did: he rode the wave of popular interest in adventure stories and exotic islands long before he started writing about whales.

Sophie Littlefield said...

Those covers are *awesome*!! Uh....not so much the bimbo on her knees thing, I am SOOO over the bimbo on her knees thing. But just the unapologetic pulpness of them. I'd be thrilled to have a pulp cover. Oh wait...I do kinda have a pulp cover. Mine will NEVER, f@#$ing never have Stella on her knees though....

Meredith Cole said...

I'm so pleased to be sharing Saturdays with such a literary guy, Michael! Love the plot summaries.

A very smart person once said that every book is either a romance or a mystery. And I say every great book has a little bit of both--whether it's considered a "genre" book or not.

Dorte H said...

Hear, hear!

I recognized the Hamlet plot immediately, however, but that may be because I am teaching Hamlet in one of my classes right now. (Upper secondary level, 19-year-old students). They took it well two years ago when I taught them crime fiction so they are just about ready to enjoy the best crime writer of them all now :D

Michael Wiley said...

I'm with you about the knees thing, Sophie. I do love the pulpiness, though. Some of the other Conrad covers are equally good . . . or bad . . . or both.

Great to be sharing Saturdays with you, Meredith. My day job is teaching lit., so that explains the "literary" me. But I hope that I'm equally "genre-y."

I haven't taught a class in crime fiction yet, Dorte, but I've considered teaching one. I agree -- Shakespeare's a great crime writer: he was doing criminal psychology 400 years ago and no one has done it better since then.