Friday, August 24, 2018

Deeper and Deeper

Paul here:

This week I’m thrilled to have Dennis Palumbo guest blog here. Dennis is a screenwriter (My Favorite Year, Welcome Back Kotter, and more), psychotherapist and the author of the Daniel Rinaldi series. His mystery fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Strand and elsewhere, and is collected in From Crime to Crime (Tallfellow Press).

Dr. Daniel Rinaldi is a psychologist and trauma expert, who consults with the Pittsburgh Police Department and specializes in treating the victims of violent crime. And that’s something he knows about personally: Rinaldi’s wife was murdered in a mugging and he was shot. He struggles with survivor’s guilt. Now he’s on a mission to help others deal with their traumas, while at the same time getting involved in cases and helping to solve the crimes.

Head Wounds is the fifth Rinaldi story, preceded by Mirror Image, Fever Dream, Night Terrors, Phantom Limb. For more info, visit .

Take it away, Dennis.


This week’s question: What difference do you notice between the prose in crime novels that were written twenty years ago and current ones? Do you think the writing has gotten better? Are the subjects different?

by Dennis Palumbo

The question is a tricky one, because no one regards the prose of such authors as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell or Ross Macdonald more highly than I do. These brilliant stylists could craft starkly beautiful sentences while still retaining both the suspense and the mystery that their novels promise.

That said, there’s little question in my mind that, in general, today’s crime fiction has broadened in its subject matter and deepened in its exploration of those areas. As good as the above-mentioned authors were, both their own prejudices and the social or moral constraints of their respective eras prevented them from addressing (except in the most covert way) issues of sexual orientation, racism and child abuse.

Twenty years ago, most readers expected little more than action, suspense and a cluster of red herrings in their mystery stories. It was also fairly customary to treat characters who strayed outside conventional norms (in terms of gender, race, moral dictates, substance use, etc.) in somewhat stereotypic fashion. They were still presented, even if occasionally with sympathy, as the “other.”

Moreover, the point of most crime fiction of decades past, even at the hands of such famous masters of the form, was to solve the mystery and reveal the killer. The whodunit still reigned supreme.

But times change, and so has crime fiction. From Richard Price to Gillian Flynn to Megan Abbott, the themes---and even the very goals---of these novels have expanded. Today’s crime fiction addresses and explores a much wider and more inclusive variety of characters and situations, from sexual identity to immigration to child abuse. These issues are now frequently tackled head on, and with a more empathetic and knowledgeable approach. Such “outlier” issues---and characters---are no longer the exception to the norm; they are the norm.

As a therapist, I can’t help but think that some of these narrative shifts in tone, theme and characterization are due to a more mature understanding on the readers’ part of the complexity of the human condition. Moreover, as psychological terms and disorders are more commonly (though often erroneously) talked about, readers expect today’s authors to have a more frank, thoughtful view of life today.

(I could make the argument, for example, that Gone Girl is as much a sly, snarky commentary of the state of contemporary marriage as it is a crime novel. It was as if Phillip Roth or John Cheever had turned their talents to psychological suspense.)

In my own novels, featuring psychologist and trauma expert Daniel Rinaldi, the narrative itself is usually informed by the emotional issues (often birthed by the trauma of violence, abuse, etc.) of the characters. As a consultant to the Pittsburgh Police, and in his role treating victims of violent crime, my protagonist’s clinical acumen can help shed some light on what might be going on. (Except those times when he’s wrong.)

The point is, I believe my readers expect that the psychological underpinnings of character, motive and general plot conform to what most of us understand as how real humans behave in the real world. 

Maybe, twenty or thirty years ago, most readers didn’t expect a crime novel to take such a deep dive into character, nor expect the narrative context to reflect so accurately the current state of affairs, either personally or politically. But nowadays, crafting a mystery (even a cozy) without at least a glancing nod at the realities of contemporary life seems antiquated, almost deliberately opaque.

I’m reminded of a comment made about the work of P.G. Wodehouse: as wonderful as he was, he wrote as though neither Freud nor Marx had ever existed.

I think the same sentiment holds true for today’s authors. We live in a rapidly-changing, media-drenched world whose mores and behavioral expectations are in turmoil; a time of global pandemics, terrorism, economic inequality, gender fluidity, sexual predation, and other social and political concerns. For crime fiction to stay relevant, I believe it has to, at least tangentially, acknowledge these issues.

Which, I’m happy to report, it appears to be doing. The best of today’s mystery fiction authors, from Dennis Lehane to Tana French, Scott Turow to Denise Mina, George Pelicanos to Louise Penny, deliver prose that is both beautifully crafted and cannily relevant to the times.

Of course, there will always be readers who enjoy the simple pleasures of earlier mystery fiction, whether the comfortable world of Agatha Christie or that of tough-guy Mickey Spillane.

But, if today’s best-seller lists are anything to go by, crime fiction is continuing to evolve and change, as is the society it inevitably mirrors.

Besides, as the author John Fowles soberly reminds us, “All pasts are like poems; you can derive a thousand things, but you can’t live in them.”


Thanks, Dennis. And be sure to check out Dennis’s books and find out more about him, and them, at his website (above).


And now for the usual BSP:

Broken Windows releases on September 10th and is available for pre-order now at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Down & Out Books.

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Jacqueline Seewald said...


I agree that today's crime/mystery fiction offers more depth in character development. The popularity of the unreliable narrator is a case in point.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Very insightful. Thanks for stopping by, Dennis.

Lyda McPherson said...

I enjoyed today's post. Jacqueline Seewald, until reading your descriptive label of the unreliable narrator I don't think I noticed the trend. Now I'll be looking for it. Dennis, I'm looking forward to your latest.

Terry said...

This is a wonderful post. Thank you, Paul for inviting Dennis. And thank you, Dennis for your insightful comments on the subject.

Cathy Ace said...

Tanks for stopping by Dennis - super piece!

James W. Ziskin said...

Wonderful post, Dennis. Insightful and spot on.


Susan C Shea said...

Isn't it great that our genre fiction is embracing more of the world? Thanks for the post, Dennis, and good luck with the books.

Dennis Palumbo said...

My thanks to everyone---Jacqueline, Dietrich, Lyda,Terry, Cathy, James and Susan---for the kind words about my essay. I really appreciate your response. And, of course, my thanks to Paul for inviting me to contribute to this terrific blog.


Lisa Ciarfella said...

Terrific reading here. Thanks much for this Dennis and Paul!

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Dennis, for stopping by. And everyone for your comments.

Dennis Palumbo said...

Thanks so much, Lisa! Hope you'll consider checking out my Daniel Rinaldi mysteries, all from Poisoned Pen Press.