Thursday, April 03, 2008

A critical question for readers

A week and a half ago, I quoted Joe Gores' praise of Michael Gilbert's dapper but deadly fictional spies, Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens. Gores' thumbs-up appears in a useful collection called 100 Great Detectives, edited by Maxim Jakubowski and winner of an Anthony Award for best critical work in 1992.

Another entry in the book, Peter Robinson's, shines an illuminating light on Georges Simenon's Maigret, demonstrating in the process that criticism need not be diffuse, obscurantist, frivolous or incomprehensible. Robinson writes:

"H.R.F. Keating has noted that the Maigret stories represent the first examples of the detective as writer. Part of this clearly stems from Maigret's desire to understand human motivation and his need to soak up the atmosphere of a place and immerse himself in a complex mesh of relationships until the solution to the crime becomes clear. Simenon's plots are often flimsy or far-fetched, and Maigret's actual detective work can be minimal at times. What makes the books so absorbing is his empathy with the characters he encounters ... " (Highlighting is mine.)
What can I say except that the man is right and that his comments say much about why we read crime fiction.

As it happens, crime-fiction reviewers come in for some criticism on Crime Scraps this week, where a comment laments the shakiness of the Telegraph's recent list of 50 crime writers to read before you die. The commenter complains that:

"With the odd exception — Marcel Berlins, e.g. — reviewers are stringers or staff with a passing interest and without knowledge either wide or deep of the genre, nor of what, in literary terms, constitutes fine writing. And they [don't] particularly care — after all, it's just crime fiction. Today we have no Julian Symons, no Harry Keating, no Jacques Barzun, and that is a very unhappy thing."
That's another bouquet for H.R.F. Keating. Now, how about you, readers? Who's your favorite crime-fiction critic? What remarks about crime fiction have made you stroke your chin thoughtfully and muse, "Hmm, that's right."?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Blogger Roger K. Miller said...

It used to be Julian Symons, when I used to read crime/mystery/spy fiction almost exclusively. I read it less exclusively now, because life intervenes, but the pull back is always strong.
I am at,
by the way.

April 03, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

I see no reason not to sit down with a good book of criticism once in a while. Have people like Symons and Keating assembled their criticism and essays about crime fiction in collections?

April 03, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

And what did you enjoy about Symons' criticism of crime fiction?

I do know, of course, that Symons and Keating wrote and write crime fiction in addition to writing about it. And the comments from 100 Great Detectives that I cited with approval came from Joe Gores and Peter Robinson, two more authors.

Not all authors make good critics, of course. Some of the selections in 100 Great Detectives are silly. And one does not have to write crime fiction to write perceptively about it, I suppose, since the comment on Crime Scraps praised Jacques Barzun, who never wrote crime fiction, as far as I know.

April 03, 2008  
Blogger Roger K. Miller said...

I see, from your comment about Pwuptertwins in my blog, that you must have read the same New Yorker article that I did. Was it very wrong of me not to reference it?
Symons? Oh, I dunno. I think it is simply that the plain info he provided, aside from any judgments on book quality, guided me to more and more authors I didn't know about and discovered I wanted to read. Symons' most acclaimed book of that sort, as you probably know, was "Bloody Murder," or some such title. I used to have it myself, but I have simply unloaded a lot of books.

April 03, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

No, I have not read that New Yorker article. I am just one of many who must have rolled their eyes at the choreographed outburts at Obama rallies (which implies no criticism of the candidate). One night in a bar, after paying my six-dollar tab with a twenty-dollar bill, I started chanting to the bartender that "I want change! I want change!" So yes, by all means cite the New Yorker article, so I can read it.

I may have seen the Symons collection at a used-book store recently. Maybe I'll head over there now. Keating is actually the guy whose criticism I really want to read. I've read some of his stories and novels, but it was his comment about Maigret and the detective as writer that caught my eye. It's a simple comment about an oft-noted quality of Simenon's writing, but startling in its insight, I think. I know it will come back to me often as I read.

April 03, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read the Times so read Marcel Berlins and Peter Millar, both of whom write good reviews usually, though their tastes are not always mine by any means.
I've found since discovering blogging that my most useful and readable reviews are on blogs -- and you know who they are, Peter! You, Crime Scraps, Euro Crime, Mysteries in Paradise, It's a Crime, etc. It is a veritable cornucopia, always something in the RSS every day, if not reviews then intelligent discussion about reading crime fiction. I'm in clover!

April 03, 2008  
Blogger Philip said...

Peter, I'm honoured you should think my comment on Crime Scraps worthy of quotation. A few points. Julian Symons is certainly no longer writing -- he died in 1994. Bloody Murder is indeed the title of his classic book of crime fiction criticism. By the by, you will find in Symons entry on Fantastic Fiction, a generally sound and useful site, that the compiler therof thinks that someone named Joan Kahn-Harper is a series detective created by Symons. This reminded me that Ms Kahn was one of the first editors to start laying claim to authors' books as her very own: "A Joan Kahn Harper Novel of Suspense." The confusion is understandable. It's a shame that no collections of Symons' review articles were published. The two books by Keating may want to seek out are Murder Must Appetize and Crime and Mystery: The 100 Best Books. Jacques Barzun, who is now 100 years of age, never wrote crime fiction, but he did review it. After looking at his astonishing A Catalogue of Crime, written with Wendell Hertig Taylor, what seemed mystifying was how Barzun, a very great teacher, doyen of historians of ideas, author of some forty or so works of which not a few have achieved classic status, plus a constant flow of articles and reviews, found time to read so much of it -- and keep notes. Their book has its quirks and eccentricities and is all the more delightful for that.

April 03, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Philip: I know Symons is no longer writing. I split my comments into past and present tenses, the first for Symons, the second for Keating.

I'll respond at greater length later. For now, I'll say only that the last three letters of the word-verification I was just asked to enter were "fnd." Do you suppose the code-maker is Turkish?

April 03, 2008  
Blogger Martin Edwards said...

Among UK newspaper critics, I'd say Marcel Berlins is excellent, though like his colleagues he seems to have less space at his disposal these days. There are some perceptive online critics, but very few books of crime fiction lit crit have appeared in Britain in recent years. Harry Keating is the doyen, and in addition to the books that Philip mentions, I would add Who-dun-it?, a very enjoyable collection with contributions from the likes of Reg Hill.

April 03, 2008  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

I enjoyed Anthony Boucher's columns on mystery fiction (called that at the time) in the NYTBR.

April 03, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

A consenus seems to be developing behind Marcel Berlins, which makes me feel like a benighted Yank, since I have not read him.

Martin, I can certainly empathize with the declining space he and his colleagues have at their disposal. The American newspaper for which I work similarly seems bent on meeting the decline in readership by cutting back on the very features that attract readers. Keating was already on my shopping list, and I'll certainly look into Who-dun-it? as well. I'll be interested in seeing what that intelligent and humorous writer, Reginald Hill, has to say about crime fiction.

I knew of Jacques Barzun's work, but I didn't know he had written about crime fiction

Patty and Maxine: To you, as to everyone else who commented here, thanks. You're adding not just new books but new types of books to my to-read list. Thanks to all your comments, this post has been as fruitful as any I have made.

April 04, 2008  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

I have a dysfunctional battery and therefore have not been following this debate closely.
I must say I enjoy your reviews immensely and the way you are always exploring new horizons from Mongolia to Tibet.
I have read some of HRF Keating's The 100 Best Crime and Mystery Books and it so well written with the essays capturing the feel of each novel.
Mystery Muses [100 Classics that inspire today's Writers] I found very interesting in that some lesser known writers gave their opinions on very well known books.
The space for crime reviews in some newspapers has become so small that thye are almost in a sidebar and you have to get a magnifying glass to read them.

April 04, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Welcome back, and I'm glad your battery has apparently been recharged. Thanks, too, for the compliment.

I'd read references to Keating's criticsim before this discussion, but never the criticism itself. I meant what I wrote above: I am grateful to be prodded by this discussion toward reading him amd some of the other critics whose names have come up.

There is no future for crime-fiction criticism (and many other "non-essential" features) in newspapers unless a radical change happens. Even such newspapers as do allocate space do so in the form of roundups, which are a fine idea, but only as an addition to full-length reviews or essays.

April 04, 2008  
Anonymous cfr said...

To Maxine: thanks for the appreciation and mention!

Peter, my comments are restricted to the media in the UK, which is my home. I too rate Berlins. With a legal background he has a keen analytical eye. Martin suggests that copy is diminishing these days, but Berlins can say all the right words in a succinct way. Others in The Times stable: Peter Millar is ok by me, but I don't seek him out; Joan Smith (Sunday Times) comes across as having odd opinions with (sometimes) far too much vitriol - and if it isn't positive, I don't want to read on.

I first met Peter Guttridge (crimefic critic at The Observer) back in 2002 and discovered that he enjoyed a certain author's novels as I did. Since then, I've always read his Observer pieces and found an affinity, apart from in the case of US authors. I read very few these days, but that's just a matter of changing taste on my part. There are so many highly regarded ones he reads, but I haven't got around to reading them yet and feel more tempted by other UK stuff at the mo.

Laura Wilson at The Guardian seemed to draw a similar conclusion to myself on Vargas's latest, so I intend to read her reviews from now on.

Finally, last year I became aware of how I could listen to Oneword, the digital radio station, now defunct. I enjoyed Paul Blezard's interviews with various authors, and though these were not reviews per se, he highlighted many books that I then sought to buy and read (to the detriment of my pocket). If he says something is good/interesting/worth reading, I'd believe it. (But again, apart from US crime novels which are not my thing at the moment. I think I was saturated in my reading here in the 90s!)

There's a theme here, yes? Those you rate are those in whom you find affinity in opinion.

Finally, when it comes to blogs, much as I like to support my comrades at arms, I also recognise that we have different tastes and focuses. Maxine is the nearest to me in thought and appreciation, so when I read of her thoughts on UK crime novels, I always take note!

April 04, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for the comments. With respect to UK critics, online publication has eliminated barriers. I'll look for all these writers in their newspapers' online editions. And thanks for reminding me about Peter Guttridge. He's another about whom I've read good things in the past and can look for now.

I have trouble thinking of Maxine as a writer about crime fiction because her range is so much wider than that. I enjoy reading her science posts.

April 04, 2008  

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