Thursday, August 04, 2011

The good crime writer's guide to self-reference

Circumstances have me reading several books at once,  one of them The Good Thief's Guide to Vegas by Chris Ewan. Since all the reading keeps me from writing, I thought I'd bring back this post I'd made about an earlier book in Ewan's "Good Thief's Guide" series. Ewan also figures in an article by Colin Bateman that sparked one of this blog's longer comment strings.
================================
I've written with some ambivalence about self-reference and in-jokes in crime fiction. Done well, they can be clever. Done poorly, they can be clever – winking, nudging, back-patting and over the top.

Chris Ewan's The Good Thief's Guide to ... novels, the second of which was the occasion of yesterday's post, are bound to contain some self-reference; Ewan's protagonist is a crime writer/burglar whose novels include The Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam, the title of Ewan's own first novel.

I like the first big block of self-reference in Ewan's The Good Thief's Guide to Paris. For one thing, its introduction is a bit of a surprise. The good thief in question, protagonist Charlie Howard, introduces the self-referential note when a reader might well expect him to be raising quite another matter. For another the reference is full of good humor that ought to make all thriller and suspense readers smile.

Howard is worried about his current book, whose plot involves Rio de Janeiro, Carnival, a bank vault, and a robbery, all to be carried out by his series character acting alone. He seeks a spot of advice and sympathy from his agent, who replies:
"Honestly, Charlie, I have clients who need their hands held from time to time but you can really push it. You're concerned about credibility in one of your Faulks novels? Next you'll be telling me Ian Fleming made a few things up."
There are multiple in-jokes here, Sebastian Faulks being among the authors who have written James Bond novels as successors to Fleming. In any case, the reference is an affectionate nod to the stories that I suspect Ewan and many of his readers love.
And now, your thoughts, please, on self-reference and genre in-jokes in crime fiction. Do you like them? Dislike them? Does your reaction vary? Feel free to offer examples good, bad, interesting or indifferent.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009
***
Chris Ewan will be part of my “CRANKY STREETS: WHAT'S SO FUNNY ABOUT MURDER?” panel on Saturday, Sept. 17, 11:30 a.m.-12:30, at Bouchercon 2011.  

Labels: , , ,

28 Comments:

Blogger seanag said...

I am drawn to self-referential, in joke stuff. But I have to admit that the actual experience can be jarring. I can admire the conceit, while my actual reader's experience is to be taken out of the story by extraneous thoughts, and having to spend a good deal of time trying to get back in to the flow of the thing.

As an example, though not a mystery example, I just the other day watched an Eastenders episode where one of the characters referred to watching something on Eastenders. It was clever, as the whole cast of characters would indeed be quite likely to watch a show like Eastenders, and verisimilitude would dictate that it should be referred to. But the experience was actually one of being taken out of the simple story of the show and dwelling on how a character in the show could watch the show.

Gross overgeneralization, but I think readers want to get into a story and stay there until the end, and these disruptions, though sometimes tolerated if they are clever, basically serve to distract.

June 04, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Can i mention again Donna Andrews' masterful pun "We'll Always Have Parrots"?

Oh wait I just did.

June 04, 2009  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

In my humble opinion, a little goes a long way.

June 04, 2009  
Anonymous May said...

Im sorry this is a bit off topic, but I couldn't help noticing how different the two versions of the cover are. Its night and day!

But, more on topic, I think self-reference and genre in-jokes are a bit of a conceit. And I would bet you only find them in later works of writers, after they've established themselves, etc. I suppose one might see it as an author who doesn't take her/himself too seriously. But it seems like a cheap trick.

June 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, that's an interesting take on the dual nature of reading. Perhaps I'll have more to say on this subject when I've finished the book.

I have noticed in my reading since I made the post that the author works periodic self-references into the narrative, and these self-references make narrative sense. Charlie Howard is the sort of burglar/writer who might well compare his own problems to those of a writer and his characters. So, if the self-referemce does lift the reader out of the story (and I'm not sure it does), that lifting out seems a deliberate part of the experience of reading the book. And now I'll stop before I start sounding like a theorist.

June 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I'm working on a story called "If On a Winter's Night a Traveller Read We'll Always Have Parrots."

We'll Always Have Parrots is a terrific title. Is the book any good?

June 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, you'll see from my reply to Seana that there is more than a little self-reference in The Good Thief's Guide to Paris, but that it seems to be working well. I should add that, though self-reference is the focus of this post, there is more than this to the book: a full-blooded protagonist, romantic complications, evocative bits of Parisian settings, and so on. I would not want the focus of my post to have anyone believe that the novel is an elaborate post-modern literary game.

June 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

May, I can shatter at least one of your conceits. Chris Ewan is in his early thirties, and this book is only his second, at least in the Thief's Guide series.

If there's a conceit to ths book, it's that a person would maintain dual careers as a burglar and an author. But why not have a bit of fun writing a book, and let the readers have a bit of fun, too?

Once one accepts Charlie Howard's dual career track, it makes sense that he might use one of his jobs to reflect on the other.

June 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, and I think both covers are reasonably attractive. But yes, they are different, the cool blue, and the warm brown.

June 04, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I havent read it. But if there's one gag in there as good as the title it'll be worth the money.

June 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, Ewan previously wrote The Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam, so I don't know what specifically Parisian gags might apply. But I've liked the book so far. One mild surprise is that it's not been as facical or madcap as I might have expected from a novel with such a title.

June 04, 2009  
Blogger Chris said...

Hi Peter

I'm a fan of self-reference in novels, and the idea of books within books, but to the extent self-reference appears in The Good Thief books this is, as you say, really a result of Charlie's profession as a mystery writer, rather than any intent on my part to play games with the reader and yank them out of the story. I guess when you include self-reference, there's more than a passing danger of the book coming off as a spoof, which certainly wasn't my intention. That said, Charlie does have a tendency to view life as a bit of a game (and not to take it a great deal more seriously than he might take one of his own mystery novels).

At the moment, I'm just finishing the third book in the series, set in Vegas, and there's less self-reference this time around. This is all down to plot and circumstance. In book 3, Charlie gets into trouble while on holiday in Sin City, and so he isn't in the middle of doing an actual writing of his own at the time.

June 05, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

The books sound intriguing, Chris. Hope we haven't sounded too critical of your work while we've been analyzing our reactions to self-reference.

June 05, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Chris: You realize, of course, that you run the risk of having me ponder the possibility that fiction itself is a game with the reader.

No, wait. Forget that I said that. I'm not post-modern, I'm not a theorist. Hell, I'm not even French.

June 05, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana: That's a small apprehension I sometimes have about my tendency to discuss some feature or another of a book rather than to write reviews. Especially if the post draws a fair number of omments, a reader is apt to assume that the subject of the post is the defining feature of the book. Perhaps I ought to post a comment about this book's suspense, and its jokes -- hmm, and at least one other feature that I've noticed as I read.

June 05, 2009  
Blogger Chris said...

Hi Seana

No worries at all. It's great that Peter has mentioned my book here, and it's interesting to hear people's thoughts/reactions on self-reference in general.

Maybe it's the Paris vibe, Peter. You'll be smoking Gauloises next...

Chris

June 06, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know about the Gauloises. Last time I visited Paris, the restaurant on the corner was preparing for the smoking ban by allowing smoking only before noon -- a sensible way of easing its customers into the shocking new era, I'd say. I may have to content myself with increased wine consumption and the occasional Gallic shrug.

I liked the book's reference to St. Julien le Pauvre, among others. I saw a concert there on the same visit.

June 06, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Chris, I was already eyeing thThe Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam, which just recently arrived in the bookstore in paperback a week or so ago, and this chat has definitely bumped it up the TBR pile.

Peter, I don't know that you have to change your manner of posting about a book. It's all where the comment thread goes anyway, and that's pretty much anyone's guess.

June 06, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I'll be as steady as an old oak in my method of discussing a book. I'll just always try to make it clear that I may be discussing some small (though significant) aspect.

I've written about humor in Scandinavian crime novels, for example. Can you imagine the hilarity that might result if some careless reader picked up one of these books expecting a laugh-a-minute knockabout farce? (The closest I think any of the books gets is a hilariously disastrous school outing in Håkan Nesser's novel The Return, but the scene culminates in the finding of a dead body, which brings affairs to a slightly more somber conclusion.)

June 06, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Funny, but I was just talking about both Chris's book and Scandinavian crime fiction with a friend/customer yesterday. She actually ended up with a Donna Leon, but she's a good candidate for the Good Thief series in the future. Mankell made her want to jump off a cliff.

I actually enjoy both ends of the spectrum, but I am kind of surprised how many fans of Scandinavian crime fiction there are, considering the gloom.

The Dutch don't seem to be so dour, at least judging by Van de Wettering.

June 06, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And here's a signpost to many more Dutch crime writers.

Van de Wetering was anything but dour. His wry, philosophical approach sparked my interest in international crime fiction. Here, I thought, was somethnig different.

If Mankell made your friend want to take a flying leap, she might indeed like the Good Thief books. And Van de Wetering. If she likes Italian mysteries, there's always the excellent Andrea Camilleri. And, if she's willing take another flyer on a Swedish writer, Nesser.

June 06, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Thanks, Peter. That Dutch crime list looks like a fine resource.

Personally, I'm hoping she likes Donna Leon, as that series ought to keep her busy for awhile.

June 06, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And that means keeping you and your colleagues busy, a good thing.

Those Crime Time guides are excellent introductions. The Switzerland guide is up now, following the guides to the French and Dutch crime-fiction scenes. Here are links to all three.

June 06, 2009  
Anonymous Liz said...

In the 70s, a coworker bought the Annotated Sherlock Holmes--a revelation that went far very fast. Sentence by sentence (word by word) analysis is too much like work. Still, the hidden gems make rereading worthwhile.

August 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know any of the various annotated editions of Sherlock Holmes, but study anything hard enough, and perhaps it's inevitable that it will become self-referential. I may have to browse the wall full of Holmesiana at the Mysterious Bookshop one of these days.

August 05, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

That sort of thing passes me by. If I think about it, then it seems to me the author steps away from the story to have a laugh. Perhaps he believes people will get it. That implies that the reader is a fan who has made a study of the author's life and works.
I don't pay that kind of attention. It's the fiction that matters.

August 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., the best self-reference will work equally well whether the reader gets it or not. It ought not to be so clever that it takes the reader out of the story, or so essential to the story that not getting it will detract from the reading.

August 05, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

If one wants humor, I agree that Camilleri's series provides it, both via Montalbano's character and that of the mis-speaking dolt of an assistant, Catarella. But he's hilarious.

Hakan Nesser's works are very clever. Here an unsuspecting reader is following a serious murder investigation, and in drops an incredible witticism.

I've actually been floored by some of Van Veetering's remarks or thoughts, where I had to put the book down, laugh out loud, think "He didn't say that, did he" and then take a minute before I go back to reading. A stroke of genius.

August 06, 2011  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home