Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Eco chamber: Is your favorite crime series a closed text?

Patti Abbott and Gerald So have been blogging about The Hero, and not just any hero, but Superman.

Patti started it, paraphrasing Umberto Eco to the effect that
"a classic Superman story is 'closed,' in Eco's terminology, because it is designed to elicit a predetermined response — the mythological iteration of the Superman character. Therefore, nothing can happen in a Superman tale which advances the hero along the life-path: he cannot marry, reproduce or grow old."

"Has this held true with Superman comics?"
Patti asks. "Is he still catching bank robbers and stopping trains circa the nineteen forties? Or has he been free from his `closed' environment and allowed to do 21st century deeds? Has his character grown?"
Are your favorite crime series "closed"? Do their protagonists grow? Does the "growth" hurt the series or help it? Bonus points if you give examples of each.

Extra bonus points if you answer this question: Should Arnaldur Indriðason's protagonist, Erlendur, ever conclusively determine the fate of his missing brother?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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104 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

I think in a way, my favorite series are closed. Janet Evanovich, Conan Doyle, Sue Grafton spring to mind. But if a writer can take it to a whole new level, or inflect it in some new way, I don't mind that. Maybe the question should be, is it okay for the author to grow? And the reader?

Erlander's story can withstand discovering the fate of the missing brother, I think. Partly because it's too late to change him much.

I mean, I don't think he's suddenly going to become cheery.

April 21, 2010  
Blogger Gerald So said...

Hi, Peter. As I replied to your comment on my blog about lone-wolf private eyes, I think almost all long-running crime series are somewhat closed. This is mainly because, to keep the series going, the author can't have his protagonist age too rapidly or suffer an injury too serious to bear.

My first favorite series was Robert B. Parker's Spenser. The first ten or so Spenser books were open. Spenser started his relationship with Susan in the second book. He aged fairly realistically, broke up with Susan (and coincidentally took a life-threatening gunshot in the following book).

There were no further significant changes to Spenser's equilibrium, however, once he reunited with Susan. For example, in the 1997 book SMALL VICES, Spenser takes an assassin's bullet at close range, and takes a year to recover from it--all depicted in the same book, as if shown in time-lapse photography.

Similarly, I know Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder went from not knowing he had a drinking problem, to attending AA meetings, to finally quitting drinking, but I don't know that he's done anything as significant since then.

I prefer each book to be meaningful. Not to say the protag goes through life changes in every book, but each case should weigh on him, and the cumulative effect should change him. He should learn from each case, perhaps handle things a little differently each time, showing experience. If a series becomes too rote, I stop reading.

April 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, if I had Arnaldur's imagination, I'd be writing his books instead of speculating idly about them. But finding the answer to the big question about his brother would bring Erlendur's quest to an end. Arnaldur would have to find an artful way around this.

April 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I should dig out Eco's essay to see what he says about the hero's world. Does a hero
s closed story imply an open story of the characters against whom he or she functions? Does a hero stay the same while everyone else changes?

I've written often about Bill James' Harpur and Iles novels, particularly books seven through about sixteen. Harpur and Iles are the center, as always, but set against the comic and pathetic social aspirations of the drug dealer Panicking Ralph. Once Raplh has rise about as high as he can get, the series loses a big of its edge.

April 21, 2010  
Anonymous marco said...

Back to comics, in the eighties Peter Parker married Mary Jane Watson. Later his elderly aunt May died. As of today, Aunt May is still alive ( I believe they explained that the one who died was an actress or someone brainwashed into the part or something) and Peter has never been married because a pact with a demon retroactively changed reality.
And there's Franklin Richards, the son of the couple of the Fantastic Four, who has been 5-6 years of age for the last thirty or so.
Series which are meant to be closed at some point in time may afford growth, change and evolution - see S/W Beck's novels.
Indefinitely ongoing series tend to reach a plateau sooner or later. I think in cases like Spenser or Scudder, the earlier novels are more innovative because the writer hasn't yet realized he's going to have to write many more installments. Once he does, he becomes much more careful with changes, or even with clear indications of the passage of time.

April 21, 2010  
Blogger Gary Corby said...

I can't agree that Holmes is closed, though I'm sure that's how Conan Doyle originally intended him. In the first books Holmes eschews all knowledge that does not help with detection. He doesn't even know the earth goes about the sun. Later on, he's studying 15th century manuscripts for relaxation.

April 21, 2010  
Blogger Dorte H said...

Like Seana, I can enjoy a closed series if the writer can come up with a really good crime story - good plot, environment and interesting criminals may be enough. And it is fine that many modern writers add a protagonist who is ´human´ to the extent that he or she change over time, but on the other hand I prefer crime fiction to focus on the crime and solution, not all the squabble of ordinary life (I have plenty of that already, thank you).

April 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dorte, many discussions of crime fiction series refer particularly to a protagonist's ordinary life when they talk about a series being something other than a closed text -- the hero begins or ends a serious relationship, or stops drinking, and the like. But domestic life can be just as much a part of a closed text as the "mythological iteration of the Superman character."

Stuart M. Kaminsky's Abe Lieberman has a domestic life atypical for a tough crime-fiction cop from Chicago. He's happily married, he's a grandfather, and he draws great emotional sustenance from his domestic life. In one of the novels (and maybe more; I've read jusr two), he and his wife are raising their grandson because the child's mother has gone off somewhere to find herself.

That's a change in the character's domestic life, and an unusual change likely to hold readers' interest. But more than that, it's an iteration of the Abe Lieberman character, since domestic life and its attendant responsibilities are as much a defining part of that character as are toughness and the willingness to use violence if necessary.

April 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Marco, I tread warily because I have not read Eco's essay, and I don't know precisely how he defines closed texts and how (or if) he distinguishes these from open texts. But it sounds as if Spiderman was a closed text that reverted sharply to its original state when someone tried to open it -- and open-and-shut text, appropriate for crime fiction. Or maybe a New Coke/Coke Classic text.

And there's Franklin Richards, the son of the couple of the Fantastic Four, who has been 5-6 years of age for the last thirty or so.

It always occurs to me that an author may take a year to write a crime novel whose action covers three days. So, a child who seems to be 5 or 6 years old for five years may be 5 or 6 years old for just a few weeks or months in the novels' own time scale -- if the author does indeed write the series as a temporal sequence.

April 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I can't agree that Holmes is closed, though I'm sure that's how Conan Doyle originally intended him. In the first books Holmes eschews all knowledge that does not help with detection. He doesn't even know the earth goes about the sun.

Gary, I wonder if this makes Holmes an ancestor of the fop or dandy detective. On the question of whether or not Holmes is closed, I'll defer an opinion until I know precisely how Eco defines his terms.

April 21, 2010  
Anonymous marco said...

So, a child who seems to be 5 or 6 years old for five years may be 5 or 6 years old for just a few weeks or months in the novels' own time scale

There's a sort of rule of thumb that 5-7 years in the comics equal 1 in real life. The problem is that all Marvel comics characters live in the same universe, so they should age at the same rate, and sometimes they don't. Characters who appear only sporadically may age much more quickly with no real explanation.
In Franklin's case though there is a longstanding "Peter Pan complex" unofficial theory - he wants to be 5 years old forever, so he just doesn't grow up and noone notices. It works because he's intermittently omnipotent.

April 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

he wants to be 5 years old forever, so he just doesn't grow up and noone notices. It works because he's intermittently omnipotent.

So he doesn't have to worry about growing up. Omnipotence is probably a good shield against bullying 8-year-olds.

Never having been a big Marvel reader, I wonder how rigid a universe's temporal rules can be when the universe stretches over many titles and the work of many writers. And if a writer decides a 30-year-old character in one story would work better as a 20-year-old in the next, would Marvel readers regard that as a rip in the fabric of the universe? I'd regard it simply as a writer's decision. But this should come as no surprise; you've probably gathered from my hesitation about fantasy and science fiction that I have no imagination.

April 21, 2010  
Anonymous marco said...

Once upon a time editorial control was tight, and occasional blunders or variations to continuity were explained in the stories themselves. This gave a real sense of depth and interconnectedness. From the 90s onwards things have grown steadily much more lax, and writers who sell a lot can now probably do as they please, disregarding even what has happened in the issues which immediately preceded theirs.

And if a writer decides a 30-year-old character in one story would work better as a 20-year-old in the next

To a degree, you could have had that cake and eaten it, thanks to alternate presents and possible futures. Frank Miller has written a famous graphic novel about an aging Batman. Both Marvel and Dc had a multiverse, with a plethora of parallel earths. (Alan Moore gave the number 616 to the "regular" Marvel Universe in an early story, and it stuck).

April 21, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

On the whole, I’d probably say my favorite crime series have been “closed” ones. Although this does not mean that they feature that awful psychobabble word, “closure.” Salvo Montalbano, John Rebus, Lew Archer, Aurelio Zen, and Erlendur all grow as characters and this makes the anticipation of picking up the next book in those series all that more pleasant. All these characters share elements of self-awareness, self-assessment, and a greater understanding of the world and their place in it as they evolve (and sometimes devolve).

On the other hand, my favorite short-stories series crime fiction protagonist, the Continental Op, doesn’t really grow or change. He’s already middle-aged and paunchy when we first meet him and he stays that way through all the stories and two novels. His tastes don’t change, he doesn’t have romances (at least in the pages of the stories), he doesn’t get tired of his job, etc. Philip Marlowe, my favorite fictional p.i., really doesn’t grow or change but I really don’t care. Chandler’s writing is too wonderful.

Arnaldur’s Erlendur is a epic character out of world mythology. Like Odysseus, he may have many adventures and many detours over the course of his life’s journey but he must, one day, resolve his quest to “conclusively determine the fate of his missing brother” just as Odysseus, one day, returned to Greece to complete his journey.

April 21, 2010  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

I think even a story which seems closed is open to reinvention if a writer is clever. An embalmed Superman is only so much fun. He can offer insight into his original world, yes. But exposing him to a world which comes later may also free him for new actions. If "you" traveled in time, would you like your abilities and knowledge to be confined to those of 2010?

April 21, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

This is a bit off track, but I was wondering if closed worlds are affected by a relatively recent phenomenon, which is that people from the past suddenly become present again, through the advent of Facebook and other social networking possibilities. People just don't stay strictly in the past the way they used to, so the dynamics you once had with them can pop back out again at any time.
Actually, I can see a whole lot of crime novels coming out of this. Though I'm sure some already have...

April 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

marco has left a new comment on your post "Eco chamber: Is your favorite crime series a close...":

Once upon a time editorial control was tight, and occasional blunders or variations to continuity were explained in the stories themselves. This gave a real sense of depth and interconnectedness. From the 90s onwards things have grown steadily much more lax, and writers who sell a lot can now probably do as they please, disregarding even what has happened in the issues which immediately preceded theirs.


Ah, a fellow believer in decadence, retrogression, and slippage of editorial standards!

But seriously ... one has to wonder, if one thinks at all about such things, about the extent to which a world in which the writers have that much creative freedom can accommodate the unifying label of universe.

To a degree, you could have had that cake and eaten it, thanks to alternate presents and possible futures.

I remember well from my youth as a DC reader the occasional comics that would break from the normal universe. Such stories bore the charming label "imaginary novels."

April 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think even a story which seems closed is open to reinvention if a writer is clever.

Patti, such is probably a defining difference between imaginatively rich storytelling and its opposite. What could be more dreary and predictable than those god-awful demographics-driven comic strips in which the family ages in real time?

April 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Arnaldur’s Erlendur is a epic character out of world mythology. Like Odysseus, he may have many adventures and many detours over the course of his life’s journey but he must, one day, resolve his quest to “conclusively determine the fate of his missing brother” just as Odysseus, one day, returned to Greece to complete his journey.

Elisabeth, it's all too easy to invoke concepts such as myth and quest with respect to popular culture. Such recourse can smack of grubbing for respectability, but I'm going to do it anyway. Arnaldur is probably the one crime writer I know of whose work can bear such labels without embarrassment. I am confident that however he chooses to resolve Erlendur's quest for his brother, he will not replace it with some cheap melodramatic gimmick.

Is it significant that the Continental Op, that paradigm of mythological iteration, has no name?

April 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I'll get even further off track and recall a comment by Donald Westlake that the era of recording had telescoped the past and the present into a seamless present in which readers or viewers could claim knowledge of eras through which they had never lived. I've quoted more than once Westlake's suggestion that, while many Americans had not travelled by train, thanks to movies and books, train travel was an entrenched part of their mental landscape. So the phenomenon may be a few decades older than Facebook.

That is a salutary reminder that this generation did not invent everything, as much as its corporate technoboosters might want us to believe otherwise.

April 21, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"Is it significant that the Continental Op, that paradigm of mythological iteration, has no name?"

Probably not, at least according to Hammett:

"This detective of mine: I didn't deliberately keep him nameless, but he got through 'Slippery Fingers' and 'Arson Plus' without needing one, so I suppose I may well let him run along that way. I'm not sure that he's entitled to a name, anyhow. He's more or less of a type: the private detective who oftenest is successful: neither the derby-hatted and broad-toed blockhead of one school of fiction, nor the all-knowing, infallible genius of another. I've worked with several of him." (1923)

April 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Cruel woman, to so callously shatter the hopes of a thousand potential thesis-writers and popular-culture respectability-grubbers!

April 21, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I agree about Indridasson, that he may one day solve the mystery of his brother's death, but will never replace this with a cheap gimmick. He is too good a writer to do that and his character too thoughtful to do that.

About "closed" characters, one of my favorites is Commissario Guido Brunetti, Donna Leon's detective. His family stays the same, no big dramas with anyone in it, his co-workers are mostly the same, his universe is Venice with all of its corruption and injustices, his life pretty uniform.

He and his spouse even read the same books they always do, she, Henry James, he, the classics as he sees them.

Yet, the series is very popular in Europe and becoming more so here.

I'm a fan.

Now Inspector Adamsberg, Fred Vargas' character, has a life which changes somewhat--relationships, environments, in France and in Canada. These books have lots of dynamic changes and surprises. Is he closed or not?

April 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

My immediate impression (keeping in mind again that I still have not read Eco's definition of the term) is that Adamsberg is more mythical and closed. His relationship with Camille is something like Erlendur's quest for his brother -- something that is always there, a kind of low-key preoccupation rather than a problem that awaits narrative resolution.

April 22, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Yes. I see the point. Probably true and now there is a child, too, who will pull him in also and Adamsberg will be preoccupied with the child. Because of his relationship with Camille, this, too, will be very complicated and he'll ruminate about all of it, maybe without a resolution.

April 22, 2010  
Blogger Sucharita Sarkar said...

I have a friend who is researching on Amar Chitra Kathas, a series of Indian historical and mythological graphic novels. He intoduced me to the whole new world of modern graphic novels like WATCHMEN and the neo BATMAN series, which are very 'open' and multi-layered.

My favourites like Poirot and Miss Marple are very 'closed' indeed, but more modern writers like Patricia Cornwell and, even, P D James, have more flexible series-detectives, who seem to go through ups and downs and developments in their personal lives and profeessional careers. But the fact that they will solve the crime in the end is a given, and an unchangeable 'closed' premise.

April 22, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

I would love to read an Indian mythological graphic novel some day!

April 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes. I see the point. Probably true and now there is a child, too, who will pull him in also and Adamsberg will be preoccupied with the child. Because of his relationship with Camille, this, too, will be very complicated and he'll ruminate about all of it, maybe without a resolution.

A child would seem to contradict the suggestion that a mythic hero cannot advance along the "life path," but somehow I don't think this will make Adamsberg entirely open. I suspect this may produce more rumination with no significant increase in domestic drama.

Maybe the Adamsberg series just seems closed because the focus is so much on the character's thoughts and relatively little on adventure, clues, crime-solving and so on.

April 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sucharita, that's why I just may have to read Eco's essay if this discussion continues, to see precisely how one might apply his terms to stories that would seem to have both closed and open elements.

April 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I would love to read an Indian mythological graphic novel some day!

I wonder if the books are mythological in form, in content or both. Any of these could make for fulfilling reading -- and some good pictures, too.

April 22, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Yes, I did say that Adamsberg would ruminate more due to the complexity of the child with Camille.

But his cases, his travels throughout France and to Canada are more open than, say, Brunetti, and some of the shenanigans that go on while solving a case and the cases themselves go over the top; creativity unhinged--I like it but it defies convention.

April 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, Vargas defies crime fiction conventions left and right, in her focus and in her storytelling. Unhinged may be an apt description.

I don't know whether the travel would make the stories closed or open. One might consider the travel as one big journey, which certainly rings of the mythic, the closed, the cyclical, and so on.

April 22, 2010  
Blogger Rita said...

My favorite thriller writer is Peter Steiner, and his protagonist Louis Morgon gets older with each book -- and people he loves die...And in The Terrorist, his newest book, he actually deals with cancer treatment while hunting down the terrorists! So, I guess his books aren't "closed" which makes them more human --
ritam636

April 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Welcome, Rita, and thanks for the comment.

Cancer treatment could certainly change Morgon's "life-path" -- and this make the stories open -- unless the series stretches out to a great many books, and the hero is constantly overcoming life-threatening diseases.

April 22, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

I know of Steiner but haven't read him--this ups his interest for me.

I haven't really had time to read any mysteries this month and this discussion is certainly making me long to get back to them! I still have some Vargas, Indridason and lots of Leon to get to, apart from anything else.

April 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I may have a book of Steiner's lying around, but that's just a maybe.

Shoot, people whom Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor loves die, too. I'm unsure whether this makes him open or closed. But one day, perhaps after I've read Eco's essay, I may think about how my favorite crime writing fits his cagtegories.

April 22, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Oh, to have some unread Vargas, Indridason and Leon to read. I'm waiting for my library to get "Hypothermia," which is the only Indridason I have yet to read. And I've read all of the translated Vargas.

And I'm waiting for the new Leon to appear in the library near me.

A friend is rereading Leon's books now.

I've got the new Cornelia Read, a John Harvey and the Juli Zeh waiting for me at the library, where several early Hitchcock films and a few other pre-WWII b/w films await me.

April 23, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Kathy, you remind me that having a to be read pile a mile high pile could actually be a good thing.

April 23, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It looks like Arnaldur's next novel to appear in English will be a non-Erlendur book, though it does apparently share certain features of setting with the series. We'll have to wait until October for that one.

April 23, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Oh, I wish this library would get "Hypothermia" or I'll have to buy it.

Yes, a high TBR pile seems to be the lot of us readers. But the more riveting books always take precedence, at least in my life, even if I've started another book.

I won't say what I put down to read Jim Kelly's "Death Wore White," which was recommended to me at the library by an avid reader, but it was worth it.

Read Maxine Clarke's column at Petrona and was astounded (in a good way) at the number of new international crime books which are listed there, which all look enticing.

And she liked, "The Man from Beijing," and gave it five stars. That's Mankell's stand-alone.

Have not had time to read much in the last two weeks, have to remedy that.

April 23, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, having a mile-high to-read pile is a good thing -- unless one is intimated when one has a task ahead.

April 23, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, a high TBR pile seems to be the lot of us readers.

A high pile, or a broad, massive one, like a glacier.

April 23, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

A glacier--yes! Of books, of course.

And it's annoying that I have not had time to read for two weeks due to necessary tasks and projects needing attention.

I think spring weather pulls one outside. In the winter, one can rationalize staying inside, with a cup of tea, reading one book after another, letting the ice and snow pile up outside.

Now it's harder; the nice weather calls one outside. And living in a big city, it's hard to just pull up a stoop and sit and read--although I've done it.

April 24, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In a big city, one can repair to a cafe to do one's springtime reading or find a park and sit under a tree.

April 24, 2010  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Lessee:
Travis McGee—open. (A daughter he never knew he had turns up in the final book.)

Dirk Pitt (yeah, yeah, not detective, but certainly crime)—open. (Twin children appear in the later books.)

Wolfe & Goodwin—partially open. In Please Pass The Guilt Archie's talking about Seaver and the Mets, and he also mentions that the Palestinians have elected Arafat as their leader.

Commissaire Guido—open.

Bernie Rhodenbarr—open.

Luis Mendoza—open.

The 87th Precinct—open.

April 24, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A previous commenter called Donna Leon's Guido Brunetti stories closed: "His family stays the same, no big dramas with anyone in it, his co-workers are mostly the same, his universe is Venice with all of its corruption and injustices, his life pretty uniform."

There's no necessary reason to assume either one of you is wrong. I have thought of Bill James' Colin Harpur and Desmond Iles as closed characters around whom open stories swirl. Whether theories, Eco's or otherwise, account for this sort of thing, I don't know.

I know those Wolfe references, and I think your characterization of partially open is accurate. The contemporary references are all the more striking in the case of a detective who almost never leaves is house. Talk about your set-ups for a closed story.

Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano novels are open, and movingly so. The protagonist muses on his mortality and shows increasingly tender regard for his lover, Livia.

April 24, 2010  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

I guess I was thinking that Guido's daughter demonstrably ages, so that would imply "open."

Wolfe and Archie don't age, but the world around them does. Archie got a lot more refined as the series went along. In the first three or four he was pretty crude; he was even defined as a roughneck somewhere.

April 24, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Both those examples sound like what I wrote about Harpur and Iles. Perhaps the hero whose story is closed while those of other characters are open is part of Eco's theory. There's just one way to find out.

I have read descriptions of Archie that match what you said. I never found him especially crude or rough, at least not by the standards that came later.

April 24, 2010  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

He wasn't very politically correct in Too Many Cooks, calling all the staff niggers (feels weird even typing that word out—that's how conditioned I am). His language was pretty raw in Fer-de-Lance, too. By the time he met Lily in Some Buried Caesar he'd become pretty suave (anyone meriting the pet name Escamillo from a woman as chi-chi as Lily HAD to be suave!). I can't think of the exact quote, but he calls her something like a gazelle (I'm sure that's wrong) in a herd of Guernseys, which in the context of the novel was pretty cute.

April 24, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, I'll know what I'm talking about the next time I see a reference to the mellowing of Archie Goodwin. Thanks.

April 24, 2010  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

I dug up my copy (and started reading it again); Archie spies Lily at the Methodist lunch tent. "Looking like an antelope in a herd of Guernseys . . ."

Many years later Lily and Archie are somewhere and she flops into a chair, looks down at her legs, and mutters "Antelope legs," to which Archie responds by quoting himself exactly and then says "You still do."

April 24, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've occasionally discussed self-reference in crime fiction. That's a charming example. Thanks.

April 24, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I think Guido Brunetti is pretty closed--his family life pretty staid; he comes home at lunch to good meals cooked by his charming and brilliant spouse, Paolo, his children are around but no big drama, his friends and habits--even trattorias, his meals, his wine, his coffee, his reading over of his classics, his co-workers, all the same.

There are different plots--but that is true in every book or we'd all die of boredom and so would the author and character.

On the use of racist, anti-Semitic words, I don't write them, never have, never will. If I have to write something, I explain racist words were used. I will break out in hives if I ever do that and to me, rightfully so. My parents taught us this at young ages and they were right. If I had children, I'd do the same.

April 24, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think readers of popular fiction have occasionally had an inferiority complex about series. I once read a defense of series, though, on grounds that a series constitutes a kind of epic of the protagonist's life.

Sounds to me as if Brunetti may be deliciously closed.

April 24, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes and I guess I agree about Adamsberg being somewhat closed, obsessed with Camille and the child now, although his adventures take him all over France and to Canada and plot developments go wild.

Now, Harry Bosch is somewhat different, I'd say, the winner of Jen's contest of p.i.'s. (Maxine Clarke's contest of women p.i.'s ended up with a tie between Miss Marple and Kinsey Millhone; me, I'd have voted for V.I. Warshawski--the first tough, feisty, unbeatable woman p.i.)

Harry solved all kinds of cases in California, got married, divorced, had a child, etc. Went off on his own, then was rehired to solve cold cases.

Now, in "The Nine Dragons," an important person in his life suffers an unfortunate end and he goes to Hong Kong and gets involved fighting gangs, etc. Several developments push the envelope with his life--personal and professional.

And he's been teaming up with his brother, Mickey Haller, and will again in the upcoming Connelly book.

April 24, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The significant developments on this front are that I found out where Eco's essay appears and also that his categories include open, closed and open/closed texts. I will be eager to see how that last category especially might accommodate crime series.

I also heard last night that Harry Bosch was teaming up with his brother, or half-brother, I guess. The Lincoln lawyer is a great hook for a protagonist.

April 25, 2010  
Blogger Rita said...

About not being "closed" -- I was just thinking about the old Ed McBain 86th Precinct series, -- the detectives all got married, had children, got divorced, etc. If you read the series out of turn, you could miss whole chunks of their lives.Okay, not thhinking about this subject anymore...
Ritam636

April 25, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Rita, you kicked McBain's characters one precinct over. They're the 87th, not the 86th.

In any case, though I've read just a few of the many novels, I think they form a good example. One of the books included a number of touching scenes between Steve Carella and his wife. The scenes were the type that might seem calculatedly humanizing in a contemporary story but must have been bold and innovative at the time. And McBain could write beautifully, so the scenes work today.

Before I join you in dropping the subject, I'll suggest that McBain's deliberately open stories may have been an explicit reaction to the sorts of closed "texts" that got this discussion started.

April 25, 2010  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

It occurs to me that McBain, Stout, and other long-term series authors are practicing what's called "world-building" in the SF community. The difference is that the crime worlds they build are ones the reader recognizes; there's no need for a bunch of definitions.

April 25, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I prefer my fictional worlds to have a decidedly realistic tinge, but I think you make an exceedingly apt observation.

April 25, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Sorry that my above comment came out as "Anonymous." That was just a wrong selection at play.

I agree on preferring fiction which is reality-based. When a plot becomes impossible, fantasy, or too much coincidence, that's it for me.

April 25, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wasn't criticizing wild plots. By realistic tinge, I meant simply that I'm generally not attracted to fantasy or science fiction.

April 25, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Nor was I saying that I don't like wild plots, i.e., I adore Fred Vargas' writing and if that doesn't qualify for "wild" writing, I don't know what does.

But was agreeing on the fantasy or science fiction genre. That has no appeal for me at all.

April 26, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Aha, yes. Vargas' writing can stray into the unusual, all right, but I've only read one criticism that her plotting was implausible. It concerned Retancourt's concealment of Adamsberg in "Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand."

April 26, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I absolutely love that plot segment. I laughed about it for days, still do when I think about it.

Discussed it with a friend who had just read it also.

Who else could have thought of that, I ask? No one but Fred Vargas, with her amazing imagination.

I am waiting for a movie to replicate that scene.

April 26, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I liked that scene as well. I cannot think of an odder scene in any crime fiction I've read.

April 26, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Those so inclined might want to jump on over to Rob Kitchin's blog and share your views, as his latest review is on Vargas, and he's somewhat bemused by his own enjoyment of it.

April 26, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Okay, will check out Kitchin's blog on Vargas.

I so wish that more of her books would be translated and made available in the U.S. Or I could reread the one I've already read.

A veritable genius is she.

April 26, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Here’s a Vargas Web site in French, which includes pictures of her books’ covers. “Debout les morts, “L'Homme aux cercles bleus,” “L'Homme à l'envers,” “Sous les vents de Neptune,” “Pars viet et reviend tard” and “Dans les bois éternels” have appeared in English.

You’ll see from the site that this means more Vargas is potentially available for translation.

April 26, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I've read five Adamsberg-centered books by Vargas and "The Three Evangelists," which I thought was a stand-alone but not so; that one is part of a series also.

April 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

At least one other book features the Three Evangelists, and there is a bit of crossover between those books and the Adamsberg novels. I don't recall the details, but I think Adamsberg may mention or even call in Old Man Vandoosler.

April 27, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand is the only Vargas I've read. I was enjoying it until she had Adamsberg make the phenomenally stupid statement: 'I know he's dead. I was at the funeral.' Even PC Plod would know enough to want to see the actual body before assuming death. I started skipping forward looking for the exhumation scene but that didn't come for over a hundred pages. Aside from her dubious plotting skills, though, she does have much to recommend her.

I'm not sure if I correctly remember the scene where Ratancourt conceals Adamsberg but I think it's similiar to the one Günter Grass uses for the opening of The Tin Drum.

April 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Vargas' scene is similar but even odder in its way.

I don't recall the 'I know he's dead. I was at the funeral' remark, so I can't say if it was ironic, if Adamsberg is supposed to be doubting the statement even as he makes it, or if it's simply a lapse on Vargas' part.

With respect to plotting, fans of tightly plotted police procedurals would be advised to adjust their expectations before coming to Fred Vargas.

April 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Those so inclined might want to jump on over to Rob Kitchin's blog and share your views, as his latest review is on Vargas, and he's somewhat bemused by his own enjoyment of it.

Seana, I suspect he is not the only crime-fiction reader who has reacted this way to Vargas. She is not the most conventional of crime writers.

April 27, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Her nonconventionality is what makes her writing so interesting, Vargas, that is.

One can pick up a conventional police procedural or other such formulaic crime fiction anywhere.

It's similar to wanting a wonderful French meal rather than going to the coffee shop on the corner.

When one wants to go on a needed mental vacation, read Vargas' books, a complete change of scene, a thoroughly imaginative trip, etc.

In her book which has information about the bubonic plague, where else could one read that poor people thought jewels protected one from contracting the plague; therefore, they sought them from the rich.

Also, on statement that Adamsberg didn't see the body, this theme seems rampant lately.

I have read so many books lately where a funeral was held and/or a burial, but no body was seen. And an astute reader must think, "there is no body," or "it's a different body," or it was all a sham.

I've seen this lately a number of times, including in David Ellis' "The Hidden Man," although no one says it overtly.

It's getting to be a tired plot device or non-device.

April 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, the body that turns out not to be the right one or not to be a body at all is a time-honored device, all right.

Vargas' best work is like a wonderful French meal with some unexpected spice.

In re jewels and the bubonic plague, I presume Vargas picked up her knowledge from her own research as a historian. I wonder if wedding rings first were really worn in an effort to ward off the plague, as asserted in Have Mercy On Us All.

April 27, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Vargas is working on or worked on a project on the bubonic plague.

She is a specialist in medieval history.

I thought what she wrote on the plague in "Have Mercy on Us All," was illuminating--and true.

I remember that she said that poor people thought that wealthy people were protected from the plague because they had bright, shiny jewels--not because of better, cleaner, sanitation and less rat infestation, since people then did not know about what caused the plague.

Anyway, it was a great plot device. I'll say no more so not to be a spoiler.

Also, not to cast aspersions on David Ellis' book, The Hidden Man. It was a very good legal thriller, suspenseful, a page-turner, interesting.

April 28, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've always wondered whether Vargas' background as a medievalist gave her a favorite among the Three Evangelists, one of whom also specializes in the Middle Ages. I very much like the arguments among the three over their historical specialties -- prehistory, the Middle Ages, and World War I.

April 28, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I'm sure Vargas enjoyed the heck out of creating those three historians and was very particular in choosing their specialties.

This is a book I've been meaning to reread; now I will.

April 28, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd agree that she was probably particular in her choice of specialties. Each of the three characters is passionately attached to his area, which gives rise to my favorite line in Vargas. Lucien, the specialist in World War I, is arguing with one of the others, who yells at him: "Idiot of the trenches!"

I just read in the Wikipedia entry on Vargas that her brother was the inspiration for Lucien.

April 28, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I don't remember that line but will reread that book soon.

April 28, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The line is just one part of a funny exchange that I think is fairly close to the beginning of the book, not long after the group gets settled in its old house.

April 28, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Going back to the main characters evolving or not, I had mentioned that Harry Bosch's life has changed and did so in giant steps in "The Nine Dragons."

Bosch won the contest at Jen's Book Thoughts blog for being the best p.i. character, defeating many popular historic and contemporary detectives.

She reports on one panel at the L.A. Book Festival which included Michael Connelly who said that Bosch would keep evolving and changing.

April 30, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It appears that the Harry Bosch books are the ultimate open texts, then.

I had heard about that contest, but I wasn't sure if it was for best PI or favorite PI. I see now that the contest was set up as a bracket, like the NCAA basketball tournament: 64 fictional detectives faced off in one-on-one matchups, the 32 winners did the same, then the 16 and so on until Harry Bosch came out on top.

I wonder how Jen determined the matchups. The NCAA sets its matchups up so the best teams have the best chances of advancing to the next round. I'm not sure Jen set her competition up similarly.

Arlandur Indridason's and Andrea Camilleri's detectives were eliminated in the first round, evidence of the wonderful diversity of taste among crime-fiction readers.

April 30, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

V.I. Warshawski and some other women detectives were eliminated pretty early on, Kinsey Millhone a bit later.

Maxine Clarke had her own informal contest for women detectives.

April 30, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I remember that Maxine started her poll or list out of frustration that a previous list -- David Montrgomery's, perhaps -- had been so dominated by male detectives. As you might expect, her list generated some lively discussion.

One must consider lists in light of the audience. A list of my own favorites would not include many estimable American authors simply because of this blog's purview. Similarly, any contest in which Salvo Montalbano is eliominated in the first round and Harry Bosch wins is one in which readers of this blog probably did not vote, or at least did not hit the button too many times.

April 30, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Harry Bosch experiences great changes in his personal and professional life over the course of the series but he, as a character, as a person, neither evolves nor changes. I think this is one of the series' great appeals to a mass readership. You see the next novel and you know that Harry will have adventures aplenty but, at the end, he will still be the Harry you know and love.

Bosch's core values remain unwavering but Connelly has tinkered a bit with the physical Bosch over the series. When we meet him in "The Black Echo" he is described as being about 5'9", wiry, with curly brown hair and a mustache. Over the course of the series he does age a bit -- graying hair mainly -- but even in his early 50s, and with a lover about 15 years younger than he is, Bosch still fits that first description. In more recent novels, Connelly has backed off from providing us much info about Harry's physical changes. No recent mention of his hair, his trim physique that apparently leaves him as fighting fit as he was 20 years ago, and only a nod to his aging in the glasses he needs for close-up reading and the occasional creaking of the knees as he stands from a squat. Needless to say, Bosch's height has not been mentioned for many years. Too bad, as the less-than-tall hero up against the world was a fine image.

The unchanging hero is a common staple of many crime series (my beloved Continental Op and Philip Marlowe being among the best-known, perhaps) but as Connelly's writing has not changed over the series (each book reads more like a long chapter of a single novel rather than an evolving narrative) and Bosch himself has changed little I find there is now less anticipation in reading the next one in the series. It's become more an obligation than a tasty treat as is, for ex., each Montalbano. Not to mention Hammett and Chandler.

April 30, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I voted but early on voted for many detectives including Brunetti, Donna Leon's commissario; Inspector Adamsberg of Vargas' fame; Inspector Erlander of Indridason's books; and then some U.S. detectives including V.I. Warshawski and others. And I voted for Sherlock Holmes early on, too. (Have not yet read Montalbano nor a friend's favorite Pepe Carvalho.)

But it soon became clear who the favorites were. Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe held out for as did Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Dave Robideaux, Harry Bosch and a few others. It became a contest of a contemporary detective vs. a historical one.

But, alas, a detective beyond this border did not win. I think if a U.S. detective won, that Bosch is the most popular one these days, if I go by friends' reading and crime book blogs.

April 30, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

So, Elisabeth, does that make the Bosch series open or closed?

Don't ask me; I still haven't read Umberto Eco's essay.

April 30, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I'd originally thought the voting was for best detective, rather than favorite. It's hard to argue with anyone's preference.

Camilleri's Montalbano faced Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer in the first round, a tough matchup. Perhaps a more telling competition, at least if most of the voters are American, would put American detectives on one side of the bracket and non-Americans on the other, guaranteeing three results: favorite American detective, favorite non-American detective, and favorite detective overall.

April 30, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"...does that make the Bosch series open or closed?"

I don't know. What do you call a character who marries (check) and reproduces (check) but doesn't undergo any real internal or psychic change? Giving up beer and getting home earlier to bond with his teenage daughter does not count as real change in my book.

April 30, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Aha. So the question becomes does a real hero give up beer?

April 30, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Don't know if Bosch's personality changes or habits but I think he mellows out but also circumstances in "The 9 Dragons" cause him to have to change and take responsibility for another person as he had not before; he has at stake someone beside himself to worry about and protect.

So that may cause him to change quite a bit.

I don't know if Jen's contest was for "favorite" or "best" detective. I think that people vote based on their favorite characters and who they enjoy reading about.

Must read Chandler, about Montalbano and others.

April 30, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Not unless he wants to become insufferably smug and virtuous -- poor qualities in a homicide detective.

April 30, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I have mentioned previously, maybe even in this discussion, that I have enjoyed Montalbano's consciousness of his own mortality and increasing tenderness toward his lover, Livia, in the more recent books. I'm not sure where that would fit into Eco's schema or into this discussion, but I enjoyed them because they were not your typical changes: marriage, divorce, children and so on.

April 30, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, the kings of detectives who give up drinking are Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder and Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor. Both authors use the device to good effect, Bruen laceratingly so. (In one of the novels, he has Taylor order drinks, line them up, then not drink them. That sort of think would lose its effectivess if repeated to often, but for one book, it says much about Taylor's character.)

April 30, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

But weren't those guys alcoholics? In only one novel did Harry imbibe to excess and he was never an alcoholic. Giving up the evening beer because there is now a 13-year-old girl living in the house seems a bit prim to me. We'll see if Harry sticks to the pledge in the next novel.

April 30, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sounds like a possible source of occasional domestic comedy.

Such is not the case in the Block and Bruen books. I think some longtime Block partisans complain that removing the drinking robbed Scudder of some of his edge. I've read just a few of the books, though, and having Scudder stop in at AA meetings at odd hours in dubious neighborhoods was a haunting touch.

April 30, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"...some longtime Block partisans complain that removing the drinking robbed Scudder of some of his edge" -- these could only be readers who do not have an alcoholic friend or family member in the immediate vicinity. That's like saying "taking Zoloft removed some of her edge." Good riddance to bad edge!

April 30, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ken Bruen says readers who have come to love Jack Taylor ask, after Taylor has gone several novels without, "Why won't you let the bastard drink?"

April 30, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Yeah, makes me want to down a Zoloft with a whisky!

Are you familiar with 1930s-40s hard-boiled p.i. Peter Kane, created by Hugh B. Cave? Kane is an alcoholic who sometimes drinks a tad less (I wouldn't go so far as to say he sorta sobers up) in order to solve a case. A compilation of the Kane stories was published in 2000: "Bottled in Blonde: The Peter Kane Detective Stories." The effects of Kane's drinking are fairly realistically portrayed for a pre-postmodern detective. And the drink lost him the woman he loves, natch.

April 30, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, I don't know that Kane, but I have cited Jo Nesbo for following a principle on fictional drinking similar to what Allan Guthrie says about fictional violence. Guthrie says that when he writes about violence, he wants it to hurt. When Nesbo's Harry Hole goes on a bender, he hurts.

Declan Hughes' City of Lost Girls has this, which I found interesting:

"Not that he drinks too much, although he certainly drinks a lot. Anne still makes this distinction, which would probably make her look like someone who drank way too much to those who don't think there's a distinction worthy of the name. Americans, in other words."

April 30, 2010  
Anonymous Peter Steiner said...

I'm pretty deaf normally. But oddly enough I somehow seem to hear quite well when my name is mentioned.

It's true, as someone said earlier, that my Louis Morgon novels are open in the sense you're discussing here. But that's not a decision I made or even thought about.

The decision was to write life-like novels with life-like characters, and closing off the novel seemed to me to be shutting out life. My protagonist had to be subject to the same laws and dangers as other characters or, to me at least, the book felt rigged. There always had to be the real and believable possibility that he would suffer extreme consequences, otherwise the deck felt stacked.

Of course, I was never that interested in writing about crimes unless there were real people involved. I write about characters who find themselves in difficult situations. Yes, the situations are fraught with danger, but the danger is emotional and psychological and moral as well as physical. And those dangers are ultimately more interesting to me than physical danger. And, when presented convincingly, they're scarier too.

May 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Peter Steiner has left a new comment on your post "Eco chamber: Is your favorite crime series a close...":

My protagonist had to be subject to the same laws and dangers as other characters


With respect to open, closed and crime series, I suppose much depends on how much time the author intends to have elapsed between books in his or her fictional world. If a critic objected that a protagonist had not changed much in ten books over ten years, an author might reply that only six months had elapsed in the protagonist’s fictional world.

I wonder if a kind of tyranny of realism is at work, if readers demand that fictional time be equal and congruent to real time, that characters go through life changes, and so on. I admire any author who can write those changes convincingly, but I don’t demand that the author approach fiction that way.

May 07, 2010  

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