Friday, November 02, 2007

(Non)crime classics

Back in September, I posted some comments about elements of Hamlet and Macbeth that would be right at home in crime fiction. And why not? Revenge, guilt, violence, murder. It amazes me that no one in Kansas or Pennsylvania has agitated to get moral degeneracy like that out of our good American schools.

But the parallels with classic literature don’t stop there. Goneril and Regan flatter their father in order to gain his inheritance in King Lear, then plot to get the old man out of the way, just as any number of ambitions gangsters have made their way to the top. And, just so you don’t think Shakespeare is the only crime writer out there, try the Icelandic sagas, unparalleled for matter-of-fact violence, legal maneuvering, and deadpan gems like this, from Njal’s Saga:


Hallgerd was outside. "There is blood on your axe," she said. "What have you done?"

“I have now arranged that you can be married a second time," replied Thjostolf.
And now, readers, let's hear from you. What classics of world literature belong on a crime lover’s bookshelf?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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16 Comments:

Blogger Linkmeister said...

Oh, gosh. Oedipus Rex. Man murders stranger on road, marries woman, investigates murder, discovers parentage and killer's identity, blinds self in despair.

November 03, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Oh hell, yes. That's dark and seamy enough to have been written by Jim Thompson.

November 03, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

"Revenge, guilt, violence, murder."

Sounds like the Bible to me and I can't see those Kansans and Quaker state guys wanting to ban that!

Crime and Punishment Dostoevsky, and some of Charles Dickens.

November 03, 2007  
Blogger Dave K. said...

Ahem. I should point out that in my short time in Kansas, I've met far more liberal-leaning folk than conservative. But I take your point. Perhaps if more people read the classics, there would be greater motivation to ban them.

You certainly have an eye for great lines. That one from Njal's Saga is a gem.

November 03, 2007  
Blogger Declan Burke said...

Kafka's The Trial. Conrad's Lord Jim. Beckett's Molloy. John Banville's The Book of Evidence (actually, roughly half of John Banville's canon of work). John Fowles' The Magus. The Lord of the Flies. Mmmm ... this could go on quite a while. Nice post, sir!

November 03, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Uriah, yes, the Bible is a great source of crime and, at least in the Book of Daniel, of detection. An episode from that book turns up in a crime-fiction anthology I have lying around somewhere. And your namesake, Uriah the Hittite, is the victim of a most teacherous murder, another act that is noir right down the line.

November 03, 2007  
Anonymous LauraR said...

La Bete Humaine by Zola.

November 03, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Dave, did you meet those folks in Liberal, Kan.? I defer to you, since you've lived in Kansas and Pennsylvania, but I picked those two states because they were the sites of the two most notorious attempts in recent years in the U.S. to teach the Bible as science. And your comment could inspire a savvy publisher to market the classics to people who want to ban them.

I don't know if the author of Njal's Saga intended any humorous effect, but the laconic narrative style is a superb way to hold the reader's interest. It held mine enough that I'm reading the saga for the second time.

Thanks for the kind words, Mr. Burke. That's quite a list. Perhaps one could add Conrad's The Secret Agent to the list as well, as a kind of crime novel/thriller. Keep up that sort of thing, and people are liable to start regarding crime fiction as respectable.

November 03, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I have never read Zola. I had heard of La Bête Humaine (and Jean Renoir's movie version of it), but I never knew what it was about.

A brief description I just read called the novel a psychological thriller, and it appears to be about the unfolding ramifications of a crime and of potential crimes. That qualifies it for this list, so thanks, Laura.

November 03, 2007  
Blogger Brian said...

For the life of me I can't find the link, it may not even exist anymore. But Charlie Huston wrote something about his Joe Pitt book Already Dead right around the time that it came out for Amazon (I think).

Luckily I saved it :) as I think it fits here brilliantly.

"Why vampires and noir? Because “Dracula” is noir, damnit!

Check it out.

Good girls go bad, good guys bite the dust, twisted henchmen lurk in the shadows, and it’s all wrapped around the central mystery of who and what Dracula is. Dracula is a dark and atmospheric tale about a morally ambiguous world, in which all the characters have conflicting agendas, at the center of which is a mysterious and dangerous antihero. And make no mistake, Dracula is the main man here, the bad boy we hate to love, the grim knight-errant doomed by his own weaknesses.

Oh yeah, baby, that’s noir.

Mind you, I didn’t think about this when I started Already Dead. Me, I was just looking to write about a badass. A badass vampire sounded cool. A badass vampire wiseass who talks like Philip Marlowe sounded cooler. At some point, I stopped pretending that I was doing anything but dragging Stoker and Chandler out of their coffins, shooting at their feet, and screaming Dance for me, you muthas, dance! .

Call it grave robbery.

Call it desecration of the tombs of my betters.

All writers do it. Waking the dead is how we get by.

November 03, 2007  
Blogger Julia Buckley said...

The Stranger by Camus has the most horrifying motive for murder: no reason at all.

And of course in The Tempest a man tries to murder his brother and his toddler niece and never really has to pay a penalty.

Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov has become a prototype for millions of other fictional murderers.

In Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, a man murders his wife's lover slowly by using the man's own guilt as a weapon.

November 03, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

That post makes the dead dance, for which thanks. Makes me want to read more.

Funny you should bring gothic and horror into this because the first instance I remember noticing of a liteary classic using a technique I recognized from "genre" involved horror. It was a scene from Beowulf in which a bunch of characters inside a hall are scared witless not by what the monster Grendel does but by fear of what he will do. Anticipation rather than action creates suspense, tension and fear. One might argue on that basis that Beowulf is the first ever English horror story.

November 03, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for the comment, Julia. The Stranger is a pertinent choice because it is so close in tone to many French crime novels and movies, upon which it was probably a great influence. Jean-Patrick Manchette's novels come to mind, as one example. But perhaps the influence moved in the other direction, too. I know little about Camus' life. I wonder if he read crime stories.

And don't forget the betrayals in The Tempest and the attempted rape, also. All that, and a happy ending, too. That last item, of course, makes yours the most surprising of all these excellent suggestions.

November 03, 2007  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

most Dostoevsky; Shakespeare's Tragedies; Camus 'The Stranger'; probably most Zola (Lang's Human Desire' is a marvellous low-key re-working of Renoir's 'La Bete Humaine'); Conrad's 'Lord Jim' (I haven't read 'The Secret Agent' yet)
I actually bought a French original of Zola's 'La Bete Humaine' in error, but I've decided to try to make sense of it with my best 30+ year old Leaving Cert French)

June 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hitchcock even filmed "The Secret Agent," though not, of course, in his movie "The Secret Agent." Hitchcock's movie was "Sabotage," released the same year, oddly enough, which may be further evidence of the master's sense of humor.

I've never felt confident or comfortable enough to read fiction in French. Essays yes, fiction no.

June 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, but I have a theory that the philosophes were accessible and easy to read because they were making arguments for a large, public audience. Zola often tried to do the same, so he might me a good choice for a non-native-French reader.

June 05, 2010  

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