Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Crime fiction and adventure fiction

Don Winslow's The Death and Life of Bobby Z, discovered on a post-Bouchercon expedition to Green Apple Books, reminds me that some of my favorite crime fiction is really adventure fiction.

Winslow's book, Adrian McKinty's novels and James R. Benn's Billy Boyle series owe more to Robert Louis Stevenson and Daniel Defoe than they do to Arthur Conan Doyle, and that's just great. When it comes to crime writing, let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred gats send hot lead pills past the hero's startled noggin. If it has a crime in it, it's crime writing, and here's a toast to the varieties of crime fiction that haven't been invented yet. I'll welcome them when they arrive.

Winslow's book is a story of intentionally mistaken identity with a nice twist at the end that you might figure out, but I did not. Among the chief virtues of its peril-fraught journey is its humor. My favorite example involves an evil German:
"A second later they hear the explosion, then see a tower of red-and-orange flame shoot up.

"Johnson can't help himself. `Your friend,' he says, `he wasn't one of them rocket scientists, was he?'

"`Shut up.'

"`I mean, back in the old country?'"
The Death and Life of Bobby Z is crime fiction because its protagonist, Tim Kearney, is a criminal, sprung from a long prison term and almost certain death on the condition that he impersonate the notorious drug dealer Bobby Z. It's an adventure story because he meets an even more notorious drug dealer, a ruthless cowboy, a degenerate people-smuggler, bikers who lack any sense of restraint, a herd of trumpeting elephants, and DEA officers you would not want to mess with. And yes, he gets the girl in the end.

What are your favorite crime stories that also make the grade as adventure tales? And what makes an exciting adventure story? Here's a clue to get you started: A good adventure story needs a righteous hero, and Tim Kearney is righteous, even though he has slit a Hell's Angels throat with a razor-sharp license plate as the story opens. (The guy deserved it.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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29 Comments:

Anonymous adrian said...

Peter

A good deal of western fiction is about crime and criminals. Indeed I'd be hard pressed to think of a novel that didn't involve some form of law breaking. Even Jane Austen is rife with bigamy and confidence tricksters.

But I take your point. I like the criminal on the run in Great Expectations and what about Crime and Punishment? That must count as the most psychologically penetrating of all crime fiction.

Orson Welles had an interesting take on Kafka's The Trial, he felt that Joseph K was guilty as sin.

October 26, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The crime-western connection is especially strong in American crime fiction, of course. That was yet one more interesting subject of the interesting Declan Hughes-John Connolly discussion I've mentioned several times.

Yep, cheating deserving people out of inheritance money was a Jane Austen motif.

So, yes, one can hardly draw clean lines between genres. I meant simply that in Benn, Winslow and that McKinty guy, the emphasis is very much less on the mystery and very much on the protagonist's -- dare I say it? -- odyssey.

October 26, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

OK, there's more of a mystery in Benn's books, but the main emphasis is the opening of the young American protagonist's eyes to the realities of wartime, European life, and so on. That lends the books a coming-of-age aspect, too. I recommend them.

October 26, 2010  
Anonymous adrian said...

Peter

James Ellroy's American Underworld trilogy is like that isn't it? It seems light years away from his procedural novels. There is no whodunnit, or even whydunnit, or even howcatchim (a la Columbo). Its just a bunch of guys conspiring to undermine the President, subvert the constitution, persecute commies and socialists and become rich.

You know, like Glenn Beck. Ba dam boom.

October 26, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You may be right about Ellroy, though I don't think the Underworld trilogy is easily pigeonholed in any genre. There really is more than self-aggrandizement or genre snobbery behind his declarations that he doesn't write crime fiction anymore.

October 26, 2010  
Anonymous adrian said...

Peter

If its not crime fiction it must be alternative history then. I'm not sure it helps Ellroy if he's shelved in the same place as Harry Turtledove

October 26, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I also can't easily imagine Ellroy conceding for public consumption that his history is alternative.

October 26, 2010  
Blogger Yvette said...

Many historical mysteries and/or thrillers are also adventure tales, most especially the ones involving swordplay. When I think 'swords' I automatically think 'adventure'. For instance: CAPTAIN BLOOD and/or THE SEA HAWK by Rafael Sabatini. That sort of thing. Fun books to read.

A great adventure/mystery/thriller is O JERUSALEM by Laurie R. King.
Daring-do in Palestine with Holmes and Russell - who masquerades as an Arab boy for most of the book - on the eve of the Brits giving up control.

Another one by King, THE GAME. Daring-do in India with one of Kipling's famous characters PLUS Holmes and Russell pretending they're not who they are. Tigers, elephants, pig-sticking, Maharajahs, spies, the works.

Lee Child's Jack Reacher series are always adventure thrillers.

I'd also add Elizabeth Peter's Amelia Peabody books which are really, mystery/adventure satires, some written in the style of H. Rider Haggard and the like.

These are all favorites of mine.

October 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, you may know that Laurie King was a guest of honor at Bouchercon. This meant, among other things, that the book bags contained samples of her work.

"O Jerusalem" and "The Game" sound like nice examples of adventure/crime stories. Thanks.

Benn's books are historical mysteries and also adventures, but not because of swordplay (They're set in World War II). Rather, the adventure is that of a young man abroad, coming of age, falling in love, meeting strange characters -- and solving crime while he does so.

October 27, 2010  
Blogger Yvette said...

I meant to post that I've read James Benn's books too. I like them very much. Series set in WWII are some of my favorites.

October 27, 2010  
Blogger Yvette said...

ALSO that Laurie R. King 's Holmes and Russell books are in my top five favorite mystery series of all time. Just thought I'd mention it. I've met King once only. She was very gracious.

October 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, James Benn says he chose to make his protagonist a young man from South Boston because he wanted a central character who was not excited about being overseas and at war. But the choice of protagonist gives him another advantage as well. Because Billy is young and seeing new places for the first time, and because he's a first-person narrator, he can talk about what he sees -- and give little history lessons at the same time; he's observing only what would be natural for anyone getting his first look at England or Ireland or Sicily. This gives Benn a neat and engaging way around the dreaded information dump, a special hazard in historical fiction.

October 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've met Laurie King at a couple of conventions. She seems a highly pleasant sort, which can't hurt her book sales. Thanks to this most recent Bouchercon, I have her on my list.

October 27, 2010  
Blogger Yvette said...

I love first person narratives. Though I was recently reading a piece on John MacDonald's blog about the limitations of the first person thing and why he thought major literary works weren't written that way. (Maybe he forgot about Jane Eyre?) But on the whole, he's probably right. Have you seen it, Peter?

Don't know how to put a link into a message.

Yes, I do like Billy Boyle's observations. Well, I love most anything connected to WWII, so his thoughts are especially interesting to me. The last book was especially good about this sort of thing.

October 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I haven't seen that piece, but it sounds worth seeking out.

I'm no author, so I have not thought much about first- vs. third-person narration. I also have no special attachment to World War II books, but I do like clever storytelling and an engaging narrator and central character, and Benn has both.

Here's how to put a link into a message, except that you type < instead of (

and

> instead of )

(a href="http://www.whateveryourlinkis.com/") the words that appear in contrasting color for the user to click(/a>)

October 27, 2010  
Blogger Yvette said...

Peter, I sent it to your email address. I am hopeless when it comes to following computer directions. Usually my daughter has to translate for me. :)

October 27, 2010  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Declan Burke's "Crime Always Pays," is a great crime-adventure trip to Greece.

And Don Winslow's earlier PI novels are a lot of fun, too, some good adventures there.

October 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Yvette. I'm not giving up on you, though. I'm going to take one more shot at helpling you make links a part of your life. If you type:

Thanks for (a href="http://thetrapofsolidgold.blogspot.com/2010/10/jdm-on-writing-in-first-person.html") the MacDonald link(/a).

but with < instead of (

and

> instead of ), you get:

Thanks for the MacDonald link.

October 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, John. Burke's The Big O is another road story/adventure tale that calls itself a crime novel.

It's because of wonderful books like that and some of the others that have come up here that I get steamed whenever I read media references to whodunnit when the writer means crime novel. I intend absolutely no slight to mysteries; it may be harder to write a good one than it is to write other kinds of crime stories. But anyone who thinks mystery or whodunnit is synonymous with crime fiction is not paying attention.

My copy of The Death and Life of Bobby Z is tagged crime fiction rather than mystery, which I found interesting. I enjoyed the book, as you can probably tell, and I bought Winslow's The Dawn Patrol yesterday at Philadelphia's fine crime-fiction bookstore called, er, Whodunit?

October 27, 2010  
Blogger Yvette said...

Thank you, Peter. I will try again at some point.

October 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's so much fun that you'll wind up posting links even when you don't need to.

October 27, 2010  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Add I.J.Parker to the historical adventure series. As for example, ISLAND OF EXILES, where the protagonist becomes a convict in order to investigate the presumed poisoning of an imperial traitor.

October 28, 2010  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

Desmond Bagley wrote 16 adventure novels which had at least one crime at the center of the plot, and they took place all over the world.

Here's an enthusiastic fan site with lotsa links.

October 28, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And the I.J. Parker books are set in a tantalizingly exotic and culturally glorious time and place, which adds to the adventure.

October 28, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, a panel on forgotten authors at Crimefest in Bristol (England) this year was titled "Forgotten Authors – Desmond Bagley and who?" I don't remember which panel member cited Bagley. It might have been Caro Ramsay or Stanley Trollip.

October 28, 2010  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

Oh, well, besides Bagley I would add Hammond Innes, another Englishman who wrote adventure yarns. I've got most of his books as well as Bagley's on my shelves. Innes often focused on political or criminal exploitation of natural resources like timber or water as a theme his hero would face.

October 28, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's an interesting article. His protagonists were ordinary men put in extraordinary situations. He turned to ecological themes later in his career, etc. Thanks.

October 28, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

It's so much fun that you'll wind up posting links even when you don't need to.

God, isn't that the truth. I've just entered a 12-step program that promises me that if I scourge my body with 50 lashes a day, wear hairshirts of a particularly vile nature and maintain eternal vigilence, I can be cured of the habit. I don't know, Peter. Sounds too good to be true to me.

Speaking of Don Winslow, as you were, I read thirty pages of his book The Dawn Patrol, before consigning it to that incinerator I keep burning night and day for really bad or annoying books. (Book-burning gets a bad rap, Peter. Some books deserve to be burned)

It wasn't just that the characters were unbelievable or that the patter between them was just silly. The real problem was that the book was written in the present tense. It's the first time I've ever incinerated a book simply because of the tense it was written in.

I'm sure the present tense has its advantages but only a writer of more than ordinary ability is likely to make use of them. Don Winslow is not that writer.

October 30, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

What can I tell you? I generally find present tense an annoying affectation, and The Death and Life of Bobby Z was -- or is -- written in the present tense. It worked for me, though, possibly because much of the action and narration was deliberately outsized. The book was one enjoyable romp.

I bought The Dawn Patrol this week. If Winslow can keep that sense of fun, I might like the book more than you did.

October 30, 2010  

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