Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Clive James on international crime fiction, part II

He’s a sharp and funny guy but prone to overly sweeping statements.

Here’s an example of the former, from his New Yorker article Blood On The Borders: Crime fiction from all over:

Here’s one of the latter:
“ . . . there are only so many storylines and patterns of conflict. The only workable solution has been to shift the reader’s involvement from the center to the periphery: to the location. In most of the crime novels coming out now, it’s a matter not of what happens but of where. Essentially, they are guidebooks.”
Simenon, with the organization and instincts of a Colombian drug runner, got the whole world hooked on Maigret. Not only did Maigret sell by the million in every tongue and in all media; literary critics praised his author’s stripped-down style. … the Maigret novels acquired such prestige that Simenon’s action novels without Maigret in them started counting as proper novels, the absence of the star turn being thought of as a sign of artistic purity.
Well, no. I’ll cite Swedish crime writers again, since that’s who I’m reading these days. Håkan Nesser and Kjell Eriksson shift point-of-view characters frequently. In Eriksson’s case especially, the numerous shifts create multiple sympathies on the reader’s part, for cops, killers, victims and bystanders alike. I think of the technique as an objective correlative of Swedes’ proverbial social concerns: everybody has his reasons. It’s something distinctively Swedish, a reason other than setting or guidebook-style exotica to read Swedish crime writing.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007
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Anonymous LauraRoot said...

yes that comment about "guidebooks" raised my hackles too. Interest in setting isn't just for the purpose of armchair tourism - Clive James seems to have overlooked the noir tradition of depicting a society via how it deals with crime and justice. My counter-example would be the Xialong series (Death of a Red Heroine etc), which by way of characters' backstory/accommodation problems teaches you a hell of a lot about modern China.

May 01, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

The "guidebooks" comment was as close as James gets to an out-and-out sneer. I agree with your comments about Qiu Xiaolong's series, especially the first book. The perpetrators' fate in that book says much about life in a party-run state.

With respect to setting, isn't the promise of traveling vicariously to exciting places one of the proverbial joys of reading?

James may also be conveying a message with his comments that Michael Dibdin spends too much time browsing the Italian scenery before he gets to the point in his Aurelio Zen books. The message is: "I, Clive James, have seen the world and do not need the detail."

May 01, 2007  
Anonymous Michael Walters said...

I was disappointed that James didn't explore the 'guidebooks' issue further. In part, he's right - publishers like an 'exotic' setting because it gives them a hook to sell the book. But it doesn't explain why the books are written in the first place. It's partly because crime provides a vehicle for exploring the extremes of another society and culture. But it's also because a different society and culture can provide a new and illuminating perspective on crime and on life in general. To take my own very humble example, I wanted to write about Mongolia, not just as an atmospheric setting (though it's certainly that), but because it allows me to write about crime in a distinctive context. In doing so, I find myself stumbling up against a range of issues - tradition and modernity, history and national identity, the politics of the 'new' Russia and China - that wouldn't arise (or not in the same way) in a book set in the West.

May 01, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Perhaps he didn't examine the "guidebooks" issue further because he knew it would not stand up to examination. Perhaps James confuses tourism (a love for cheap and exotic thrills) with travel (exploration of the unfamiliar).

James is on stronger ground when he drops the generalizations and subjects a given book or author to the "guidebook" test. I'm not sure I agree with his criticism of Michael Dibdin on that score, but it least provides evidence that James spent a few minutes thinking about his subject.

May 01, 2007  
Blogger Dave Knadler said...

I never got the "guidebook" feeling more strongly than in Robert Wilson's "A Small Death in Lisbon." I thought it undermined what should have been a pretty strong yarn.

July 02, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Dave, i saw your harsh verdict on that book. Too much detail, too much exotica, too much local color, not enought story?

In any case, James' statement about guidebooks is far too broad and constitutes evidence of an ugly streak of dilettantism in his observations.

July 02, 2007  

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