Saturday, August 28, 2010

Kevin McCarthy's "Peeler," or, sometimes the where is the what

When Clive James turned into Francis Fukuyama three years ago and as much as declared the end of crime fiction (“In most of the crime novels coming out now, it’s a matter not of what happens but of where. Essentially, they are guidebooks.”), I dissented.

For one thing, the where can constitute its own what, a setting so different from the reader's own that it offers fictional possibilities even Clive James never dreamed of.

I've just now opened Kevin McCarthy's novel Peeler, and its plot, its duelling epigraphs, and the note of uncertainty in its second sentence offer the promise of an exciting and maybe even morally serious work. And it's all because of where the story takes place: in Ireland, during the country's war of independence, the Royal Irish Constabulary and the IRA each investigating, unknown to the other, a young woman's killing.

I'll be back to tell you what's what about the where, though I'm not sure when.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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10 Comments:

Blogger Loren Eaton said...

For one thing, the where can constitute its own what ...

Absolutely. Setting can drive theme just as well as any of the other fundamentals of literature. Dennis Lehane does it well in crime fiction. So does Timothy Hallinan.

August 28, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One quick and dirty test is could a given story have been set anywhere else? I always cite Xiaolong's first novel, Death of a Red Heroine, as one for which the answer is no.

August 28, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

It's funny, because I'd say that crime fiction is one of the healthier and more vital branches of the novel right now. I don't know what Mr. James has been reading that would give him the impression that it has become static. Certainly there are a few clunkers that he might have happened upon, but I think the invigorating thing about crime fiction is that the reader, though she or he might criticize the plot development at times, is rarely caught in the more fundamental unease of wondering why it was necessary for the book to be written at all. In some ways, the genre frees the writer from these more high-falutin' concerns, while I think writers who aim for 'high literature' struggle with this all the time and often fail to find a satisfactory answer, for either themselves or us.

My vword is very luxurious but not terribly PC these days:

sably

August 28, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll try to shpill the bubbly on your sably.

James is a perceptive reader. I like what he had to say about Andrea Camilleri, for example, and, while I may have disagreed with his conclusion about Hakan Nesser, I can well understant his reasoning.

You can read his article to see what James had been reading. He's sharp but dilletantish, glib and shallow when it comes to crime fiction.

August 28, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

He starts out by maligning Henry James, which is not the right tack to take with me--although he can have The Turn of the Screw if he likes--and then somehow uses James to malign everyone else. He reads ten Donna Leon books and still manages to get a dig in at her because she is not Venetian by birth, just lives there, then 'selects' Gene Kerrigan as above the "average" crime writer, only to end by saying he only meant the first half of Kerrigan's book. Give me a break.

And what about those operational German helicopters of WWII? Sheesh, don' even get me started.

August 29, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Whatever else he meant with his stance on Henry James, he tried to have it both ways: to be seen as irreverent enough to tweak a revered intellectual giant, but at the same time as comforting to intellectually insecure readers who needed to be reassured that at bottom, the big name really is superior to crime fiction.

August 29, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Yep. I also take offense that there is anything wrong at all in profs taking a go at crime writing. Some of the most lovely stuff has been written by the academicians taking a break to write crime--Michael Innes, Dorothy Sayers, Carolyn Heilbrun are only the first to spring to mind. The world would be poorer if they hadn't taken a break from their fields of study. So why mock?

August 29, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't remember his jab at crime-writing academics; I'll have to read the article again. Carolyn Heilbrun, for one, would certainly be immune from a charge that one might level at academic crime writers: that their worlds are insular.

I've discussed elsewhere James' unaccountable sloppiness in writing about Massimo Carlotto, but let's admit that what's most objectionable is his condescending tone. He can be good on a given writer (His offers plausible criticism of Michael Dibdin, for example, even one does not agree with his assessment), but overall, his tone is one of amusement at the very idea that anyone should take crime fiction seriously.

August 29, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

I may have mispoken when I said academics, because I thought C. Day Lewis a.k.a. Nicholas Blake was one, but perhaps he was a poet of independent means. In any case, here's the relevant paragraph:


The temptation isn’t new. The British poet C. Day Lewis was once the crime novelist Nicholas Blake, and for a while Julian Barnes was Dan Kavanagh, whose bisexual private eye Duffy patrolled Soho in search of loose change. All over Europe and all through modern history, there have been literary writers sending out a sleuth on the same mission. John Banville is the latest to fall for the lure, adopting the pseudonym Benjamin Black in order to produce a crime novel called “Christine Falls,” starring Quirke, a pathologist in a Dublin hospital.

I think you're right--in general it's the tone. Also, though, pronouncements such as this one:


It took a long time for the roman policier to run through all its possible variations of plot and character.

Okay, but you could say the same for the Western novel in general. You could say the same for any of the arts. You could also turn out to be wrong. Because the thing about imaginative artists of all stripes is that you never know exactly what they're going to do, where they're going to burst forth, when they're going to flaunt your decree about them.

And to go back to your argument, place is one of the resources a writer has to make all things new. But there is also the writer's unique stance. I'd challenge anyone to say that Fred Vargas, for example, is just ringing in the same tired old changes. And yet, since Simenon, hasn't it all been done?

In a word, no.

August 29, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Perhaps James demonstrates that he is insensitive to the pleasures of conventions and of ringing changes thereon, or that he lacks the imagination to allow for the possibility of anything new in the crime novel.

For some reason I don't remember having noticed before now that James never mentions quite a number of the authors whose names come up on this site. That would have been fine had James restricted himself to witty observations on crime writers he had read. But he declares a more ambitious goal. Anyone writing about crime fiction across borders who claims as his field “most of the crime novels coming out now” had better account for his exclusion Fred Vargas, Ken Bruen, Qiu Xiaolong and Arnaldur Indridason, to name four.

At least in this article, James comes across as a talented feuilletonist who wants to be thought a scholar but is too lazy to do the necessary work.

August 29, 2010  

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