Thursday, April 02, 2009

Jo Nesbø, music and maturity

The Redeemer, sixth of Jo Nesbø's Harry Hole novels and fourth to be translated into English, is peppered with musical references. No surprise there; Nesbø is a musician himself, and his novel The Devil's Star contains my candidate for funniest music reference in a crime novel.

The Redeemer offers a Tom Waits reference, so of course I sneered. I'm sure I'm being unfair to Waits and those who like his music, but Waits references always seem too easy. A movie critic once rolled his eyes at moviemakers' inclusion of Pachelbel's Canon in D Major on soundtracks. Cheap, he said. Easy, showily emotional, and a calculated appeal to middlebrow sensibilities. Well, that's how I feel about Tom Waits references.

More surprising is the following: "The painted red lips and make-up around the eyes reminded him of Robert Smith, the singer with The Cure." I'll concede that the necessity of explaining who Robert Smith is undercuts the reference's power. But wait til you see the context.

My favorites, though, are these:

"`Do you remember when they occupied the property in 1982 and there were punk gigs with Kjøtt, The Aller Værste and all the other bands? ... I went there from time to time. At the beginning, at least, when I thought it might be somewhere for people like me, outsiders. But I didn't fit in there, either. Because when it came down to it, Blitz was about uniformity and thinking alike. The demagogues had a field day there ...'"
and

"Harry searched for milk for his coffee. He had started taking it. Probably a sign that he was getting old. Some weeks ago he had put on the Beatles' indisputable masterpiece Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts' Club Band and was disappointed. It had got old, too."
These passages use music to nice thematic effect, I think, in the service of indicating Harry Hole's growing maturity and self-awareness. Nesbø, though decades younger than Andrea Camilleri, joins him as a crime writer whose protagonist grows more reflective or sympathetic with the passing years.

Now it's your turn. What other long-running crime fiction protagonists do this?

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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35 Comments:

Blogger Linkmeister said...

Travis McGee, a little. Nero Wolfe, no. Archie Goodwin, maybe. Sherlock Holmes was a lot more sympathetic to Watson's writing troubles when Holmes tried to tell tales himself.

Wimsey was sympathetic all along. Anthony Gethryn mellowed after marriage. Alleyn I haven't read enough of to determine.

April 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Sherlock Holmes was a lot more sympathetic to Watson's writing troubles when Holmes tried to tell tales himself."

Now, that's interesting. Was Conan Doyle patting himself on the back for being a successful writer? Was he expressing something ge felt deeply about the difficulty of writing? Or was he just using his imagination and having a bit of fun?

April 02, 2009  
Blogger Dorte H said...

Reg Wexford does not age with real time, but he develops from a quite unsympathetic & gruff person to a much more modern & likeable man over time. I have written about him in the 60s and 70s, and when I have time, I am going to follow it up with some posts about the 80s and 90s.

April 02, 2009  
Blogger Philip said...

Dorte is spot-on re Wexford. Over those same years, his number two, Mike Burden, at first conservative and priggish, loosened up considerably, as did Peter Pascoe, initially liberal and priggish, in Reg Hill's Dalziel/Pascoe series.

April 02, 2009  
Blogger fleegan said...

i think in Laurie R. King's Kate Martinelli series that Martinelli mellows out as she gets older.

April 02, 2009  
Blogger Dana King said...

Ed mcBain aged his 87th Precinct character, though at a much slower rate than the time that passed between his books. Steve Carella used to look back at events in his life and how he was changed by them.

I'm always leery of too many "inside"musical references in writing. Too many readers may be left out. As someone who grew up listening to jazz and classical, I'm often at a loss when a writer has a different classic rock song playing in the hero's car in every scene. This may be why it's so easy to stick with Waits, Pachelbel, and the Beatles; it's a higher percentage shot.

April 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dorte, that is just the sort of thing I had in mind. I'd like to read your '60s and '70s posts, especially if I have some '80s and '90s posts to read as well.

I had never thought about such changes much, and I had certainly not connected them with an author's own aging until I read Camilleri, who is so explicit about Salvo Montalbano's changes with age and who portrays them so well.

April 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, I should read a bit more Reginald Hill in order of composition. Among the small sampling I have read is a novella that leaps back in time to relate Dalziel and Pascoe's first case. It would be an interesting to hear a longtime Hill reader's view of the characters in that story.

April 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, fleegan. "Mellowing out" is a fair description of what Andrea Camilleri's Salvo Montalbano does. I haven't read Laurie King. How does her character mellow out? In Montalbano's case, the most notable example is an increased tenderness toward his girlfriend (though their relationship remains contentious).

April 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I didn't realize McBain was so explicit in this matter as to have Carella muse about changes in his own life. I do remember from the few McBain novels I've read that Carella is a fairly thoughtful character. I can wll believe he would be given to pondering his own past.

My leeriness of musical references is a matter of record. That's why I liked the Robert Smith/Cure reference in The Redeemer. As a copy editor and a reader, I always maintain that if a writer has to explain an off-hand reference, it won't work. But this one does because the context is so unexpected. And no, I won't tell you what it is. You'll have to read the book for that.

Yes, those easy references are higher-percentage shots, which is one reason Ian Rankin's Rolling Stones references got on my nerves. But here, too, Nesbø does something unexpected with unpromising material (in the Devil's Star reference to which I link in this post).

"Too many readers may be left out. ... This may be why it's so easy to stick with Waits, Pachelbel, and the Beatles; it's a higher percentage shot."

That nicely encapsulates a writer's dilemma when contemplating musical, or probably any popular culture, references: Exclude, or pander? It's a tough task, and I admire authors who can pull it off.

April 02, 2009  
Blogger Philip said...

Peter, I do think Hill's Dalziel/Pascoe series is one the towering achievements in crime fiction. The novels become in general more complex over time, as do the protagonists, so reading them in order, more or less, has benefits. There is a difference between the ways in which Dalziel and Pascoe each develop. The latter, as I alluded to earlier, loses some of that youthful sensitivity and climbs off the high horse, and the doing of that has much to do with his learning more about, and from, Andy Dalziel. Until one particular novel, which I'll come to in a second, the fascination in Dalziel's character, and I think the most brilliant aspect of the series, lies not in seeing him change but in seeing him revealed, little by little coming to realize that there is great complexity and there are many surprises behind the exterior of what was originally intended by Hill to be no more than a gross, insensitive, unreconstructed copper to act as a foil for Pascoe. That one particular novel in which things take a different turn is A Cure for All Diseases, in which Dalziel's brush with death leads him into more open reflection upon things, the more so when he finds that his long absence from the heart of things has wrought changes. One would not, I think, want Dalziel changing too much at all, for change would rather work against the process of revelation. Nor is it, I think, that Dalziel is not what he appears -- that would suggest less of an achievement on Hill's part. He is what he appears -- it is rather a question of whether of we, like Pascoe, ever really understood him.

April 02, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

In something like life imitating art, if I correctly recall an article that I recently read, you have David Suchet who recently that he had gotten too old for playing Poirot, and that--says Suchet--was one reason for Poirot's curtain call.

Ironically, readers also grow much older and--if the readers think too much upon the issue--they may become resentful because the fictional creations, though also growing older, remain forever alive within the eternal sanctuary of stories, novels, and films.

Alas, readers (and authors) do not have that option.

April 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T.: I had not thought of readers' place in this. I have not been reading crime fiction long enough to resent an eternally young protagonist.

An author has no obligation to age his characters in real time, of course. A novel whose events span two weeks may take a year or two to write, edit and bring to the market. Why should the author feel compelled to age characters the year or two of his or her own life rather than the two weeks of the characters' lives? The device of aging characters in real time, seen occasionally in those focus-group-driven family comic strips in daily newspapers, has always struck me as a clumsily artificial effort at realism. In any case, I don't think Nesbø makes a big deal of aging Harry Hole. He's a better writer than that. It's more an occasional subtle shift in attitude than a flipping of calendar pages.

April 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, that's a beautifully written tribute to Hill. Though I haven't read enough of his work to trace the developments you suggest, I do recognize him as one of the finest prose stylists in crime fiction and as a writer unafraid to take a chance. I also notice that, while Dalziel is delightful as a fat, gross counterpoint to Pascoe, he is far more than that.

To write a story that takes his characters into space and to make that story work is a virtuoso achievement. Michael Dibdin's Cosi Fan Tutti is the only comparable one in crime fiction that comes immediately to mind.

April 02, 2009  
Blogger fleegan said...

yeah, in the Martinelli series as she gets older it seems like she's getting tired of the job (what with murders and danger) and would rather be at home with her family. so where the job was very important to her when she was younger, now she's more into having a family.

April 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's another interesting spin there, the increasing importance of family. How old is the character as the series progresses? How old was Laurie King when she started the series, and how old is she now?

Camilleri was around eighty when he started having Montalbano worry about turning fifty.

April 02, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Laurie King at Wikipedia.

41 when she started the Martinelli series, 57 now. But. There are only five Martinelli books, all written between 1993 and 2006; in the interim she's written eight Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes books (and a ninth due this spring) and five others which aren't a part of either series.

April 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yep, sounds as if she wrote the bulk of the series as she moved into middle age, a time of introspection for many. Jo Nesbø is about 50 now. Camilleri started writing the Montalbano series when he was in his seventies, but Montalbano is around 50 when his tenderness and introspection kick in.

April 02, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

The new Mary Russell by Laurie King (The Language of Bees) comes to the marketplace on 4/28/09. (Note: Perhaps it is only me, but I have a tough time with the Mary Russell books, especially because I cannot believe Holmes would have ever married.)

April 02, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

Someone please stop suggesting that being 50 years is the threshold of an introspective over-the-hill twilight. You may wish to impose that upon writers, but you're making me at my age feel as though I ought to be thoroughly sagacious and contemplative. Indeed, I had rather thought I would wait until the 70s or beyond to ruminate on the past and dispense wisdom to others, so please do not make me feel as though I have already wasted nearly 15 years.

April 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I don't know the Mary Russell books, but I suspect your wariness is the sort that many readers have about pastiches, prequels, and continuations of beloved characters. No doubt Holmes himself would offer a perfectly logical explanation for his apparently irrational decision to marry.

April 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., would it help if I told you that I turned 50 last week? I'm not sure I'm any wiser or more sensitive than I was, but I couldn't help noticing that that figure, er, figures prominently in the two examples I cited of introspective protagonists.

April 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And I meant to suggest a sometimes giddy, sometimes sobering enlightenment rather than an over-the-hill twilight.

April 02, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Testify, R.T., Testify! ;)

(I'm looking at 59 in November.)

I dunno, I like the Russell books. I can see Holmes marrying; after all, he carried a torch for Irene Adler, so he wasn't averse to women. And Russell is close to his intellectual equal; were she not, he wouldn't have considered marrying her, I'm sure.

April 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I like your observation about King's books capturing the flavor of Holmes and his times. Even such a harsh Holmes critic as Richard Posner concedes that Conan Doyle did a fine job capturing the atmosphere of Victorian (and I guess Edwardian) London. For a contemporary author to recreate that flavor is a big accomplishment.

April 03, 2009  
Blogger Dorte H said...

Peter, I plan to write about Reg Wexford in the 80s, but don´t quite know when. I read the ten 60s and 70s novels over a very short period, and after that I needed a break.

Interesting that no on has mentioned Inspector Rebus (as far as I have noticed). Rankin´s pensioning Rebus off was what gave me the idea of taking a look at Wexford who is apparently some kind of Dorian Grey ;)

April 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dorte, the series in which I have read ten or more books don't age their characters, or they do so minimally: Bill James' Harpur & Iles novels, Donald Westake's comic Dortmunder books, the Parker novels Westlake wrote as Richard Stark, Janwillem van de Wetering's Grijpstra and de Gier novels. So this is relatively new territory for me.

April 03, 2009  
Blogger Pat Miller said...

In Michael Connelly's "The Overlook", Harry Bosch struggles with the aging process mainly through his mental contests with the latest technologies. Most longstanding readers of this series revere Bosch, who has always had a heart of gold however cleverly disguised, so Connelly's ability to enable our hero to age "gracefully" is a wonder to behold.

May 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the comment, and welcome.

Technology is a good sign post, especially in these days when technology is more that ever a fashion item and a consumer good and thus more than ever subject to planned obsolescence.

What sorts of mental contests does Bosch have?

May 03, 2009  
Anonymous Pat Miller said...

Thanks for the welcome, Peter. I realise this example isn't really "beyond borders" but your question brought this so vividly to my mind that I had to respond.
In The Overlook, Michael Connelly writes: "Bosch was not adept in a digital world and readily acknowledged this. He had mastered his own cell phone but it was a basic model that made and received calls, stored numbers in a directory, and did nothing else - as far as he knew." His opinion of a piece of evidence, a Blackberry: "To Bosch it looked like some sort of child's toy, like the ones he had seen kids use on planes. He didn't understand why he always saw people typing feverishly on their phones. He was sure it was some sort of warning, a sign of the decline in culture or humanity but he couldn't put his finger on the right explanation for what he felt. The digital world was always billed as a great advancement but he remained skeptical." But Bosch is always resourceful and lets his new young partner manage all the high-tech stuff. There are other telling signs of Bosch's wrestling with his age scattered through this book and at the end is a wonderful interview between Michael Connelly and Harry Bosch which I will leave you to enjoy.
I realised that this is probably my favourite book in the series and will now go back to re-reading it!
It was the post about Jo Nesbo that led me to this and I feel that the two Harry's have a lot in common, but I'll have to read a bit more of Nesbo to test that theory.

May 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And I may have to read some Michael Connelly, Happily, I may have the chance to meet him at CrimeFest in Bristol next week. And I may start my Connelly readnig with The Overlook.

I quite like the passages you quoted. They mix fascination with bewilderment without descending to easy slapstick.

May 08, 2009  
Blogger Pat Miller said...

Yes! Though it would be fun to read a scene of slapstick if it was written by Connelly. He's an excellent writer. Just to cap off: Harry is starting to become just a bit self-conscious, but only to the extent that it keeps him on his toes: "At 56 years old he was trim and fit and could even stand to add a few pounds while other detectives his age were getting round in the middle...The gray had not yet chased all of the brown out of his hair but it was getting close to victory...In his own eyes Bosch saw a basic understanding of homicide work, that when he stepped out the front door he would be willing and able to go the distance - whatever that entailed - to get the job done. It made him feel as though he was bulletproof." I certainly hope he stays that way, even if it means putting on a vest!

May 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's a wonderful passage. Is it also from The Overlook?

I find it exciting when an author follows a tradition while putting a fresh spin on it. Connelly certainly does so with that bit about Harry Bosch's being able to stand adding a few pounds. You're nudging me closer to picking up some Connelly.

May 09, 2009  
Blogger Pat Miller said...

Yes, that was also from The Overlook. While I hesitate to tell anyone that that they "must read" a book or an author, I can say for myself that I consider Connelly's books worthy of the "Desert Island Shelf". I've been collecting the earlier volumes so I can retrace Harry's development from damaged Vietnam vet to his present admirable status. Los Angeles gets a great coverage in all this, too, so if you, like me, enjoy books for their sense of place, these are worth the time spent reading from the first book in the series, The Black Echo. Enjoy!

May 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You've done a good selling job for Connelly. And yes, I very much enjoy stories where character and place and story combine to create a vivis setting.

May 10, 2009  

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