Friday, June 10, 2011

Karin Slaughter on crime fiction beyond borders

Besides having a fine name for a crime writer, Karin Slaughter has a tantalizingly dark, self-conscious sense of humor. Asked during a panel at Bouchercon 2010  for  a happy book-tour story, she demurred.  "All of my nice stories are tinged with personal horror," she  replied, to much laughter from the audience.  

I remembered that reply when a publicist asked if I'd host Slaughter on a blog tour to promote Fallen, her eleventh novel and the third in her Georgia series. I also remembered — or thought I did — that one of her anecdotes at that Bouchercon panel involved a sauna in one of the Nordic countries. This moved her closer to normal Detectives Beyond Borders territory.   "Fine,"  I told the publicist —  if Slaughter  could come up something that crossed national lines.

Ladies and gentlemen, Karin Slaughter.

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Being an American crime writer comes with its perks, namely that no matter how violent or shocking you make a novel, European audiences will totally believe that any atrocity is possible in an American setting. I suppose we have our pop culture to blame for this. If aliens are monitoring our planet through American media, they will no doubt perceive our men as either highly violent or henpecked, and our women as raging, alcoholic sluts or nagging girlfriends and wives. Which might help explain why the aliens haven’t bothered to come here.

For many years, American crime writers used our perceived violent society as shorthand for character development. There was no bad guy an American detective or PI couldn’t take down. There was no crime so horrific that our white knight couldn’t prevail. And no matter whether he was shot, tortured, beaten or stabbed, he always found time to make love to the tragic heroine in his life. Dashiell Hammett gave way to Raymond Chandler. Mickey Spillane begat Ross McDonald begat Elmore Leonard and Walter Mosley and so on and so on.

Our overseas counterparts haven’t had it as easy. Their pop culture does not work as shorthand. Sure, James Bond always got his man—and his woman—but the brutality of Fleming’s anti-hero was dumbed down for the masses when Bond made the transition to the big screen. It was as if the filmmakers had to Americanize him to make it believable that a British spy would have such a pivotal role in international crime-fighting. Bond was Superman using the Queen’s English.

While American crime writers were mining the familiar tough-guy tropes, Europeans were cobbling together a more nuanced vision of the world. Let’s keep in mind that post WWII, many countries were struggling to make sure there was enough food on the table. The Marshall Plan in all its wisdom created a set of homogenous countries that saw their national identities unchallenged for over a quarter of a century. Thus, European literature became more focused on the day-to-day struggle of existence and what it meant to be British or German or Swedish. By the late fifties, the French had almost completely erased plot from their literature. Stripping away action to make room for strife became the standard by which “good” authors were judged. The excesses of their cross-Atlantic counterparts seemed lush and full of spectacle compared to the small stories of struggle that native authors were creating.

By the sixties, we saw an amalgamation of these cross-Atlantic forms. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones weren’t our only artistic imports. I think the greatest American beneficiary of the European literary influence was Patricia Highsmith, whose work hit its stride during this tumultuous decade. An ex-pat living in suburban Moncourt, she successfully married American-style plotting with European pathos. While Hollywood eagerly produced adaptations of Highsmith’s work, her books were considered too dry, too introspective and too European by most American audiences. While they accepted this sort of thing in Daphne Du Maurier, they never embraced Highsmith’s take on the form. This is the sort of snobbery that still exists in America today, where critics will celebrate the work of Europeans over Americans because our ruling elite believe that everything sounds better with an accent.

Of course, our ruling elite don’t often deign to read crime fiction, or at least not the books labeled as crime (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Lovely Bones, Alias Grace—these are literature, not crime fiction novels about a rape trial, a pedophile and a murderess, respectively.) The everyday reader of crime will tell you that we have all benefited from globalization. One look at the bestseller lists show many familiar names alongside foreign ones. Current American crime writing is far more nuanced than the tough guys of Chandler’s noir. Women are no longer props, only there to be saved or screwed. European crime has changed as well. They’ve not only found the plot, but morphed their work into tense studies of humanity’s response to violence. We influence each other even as we influence ourselves. The relationship is simpatico in every sense of the word.

Every form of art is cyclical, but I think there are no finer examples of good American-born writers than Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Megan Abbott and Gillian Flynn. When I look across the pond at writers like Mo Hayder and Denise Mina, then farther still at Sara Baedel, Liza Marklund and Tomas Ross, I think that we’re seeing the true evolutionary vision of crime stories. There is no longer such a thing as big American crime fiction and little European stories. Neither is there English nor German nor Scandinavian crime, though people seem desperate to put them all into different, market-driven categories. We’re living in a golden age of good literature, where setting is neither exotic nor foreign; it exists as an omniscient narrator pulling the reader into the author’s world vision.
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39 Comments:

Blogger Robert Carraher said...

Today, the 'cliches' that make up genres have crossed borders but I remember reading John Buchan, The 39 Steps when I was very young and my grandmother telling me it was "literature" and an "adventure story". But in my grandfathers garage there were Carrol John Daly Race William novels she labeled pulp. Well, I was maybe 7 and didn't know any better but they both seemed of the same cloth - situations that stretched believabilty. Of course, Buchan had an English idiom and the benifit of a high class education, but I didn't know that they were supposed to be different genre. Of course, Chandler brought the two world together in a way, an English education and hardboiled cliches of American crime. Since then you'll find just as many hardboiled, or noir writers in Europe, Asia and probably other continents as you will here.Today I'd probably not be able to tell the difference between Ken Bruen and Michael Connelly.

June 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Daly never became a governor general, as far as I know, so there's another difference between him and Buchan.

That was a nice, revelatory early exposure to crime and adventure writing, I'd say.

I plan a post soon on a book of and about Irish crime writing. Ken Bruen has a story in it, and the introduction was written by -- you guessed it -- Michael Connelly.

June 11, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

Green Streets?

June 11, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

Don't know if you caught this, but it was fun and revelatory. A different kind of interview of Lawrence Block with a "blind taste test" of Crime fiction. http://dothemath.typepad.com/dtm/a-dozen-crime-novels-lacking-attribution-.html

before you click "here' to the interview/test read the first bits of the 12 books and see if you can ID the book and author. We had a lot of fun with this on FB today. I only got 4 of them right.

June 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yep!

June 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yep to Green Streets, that is. I'd read about the blind taste test, but I didn't know what it was. I'll take a look in the next day or two. Thanks.

June 11, 2011  
Blogger Paul D. Brazill said...

Good post. Spot on about Highsmith.

June 11, 2011  
Blogger Michael Malone said...

Excellent post.

June 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks and thanks.

Paul, I have a long bus trip ahead. May be time to read some Highsmith.

June 11, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Wow. So much to disagree with this in this piece, from Lee Child's country of origin to Ms Slaughter's complete misreading of French postwar fiction. Her interpretation of history is almost Palinesque in its grandeur...but no one wants to hear me blather on all night so let me limit my complaint to this one sentence:

"The Marshall Plan in all its wisdom created a set of homogenous countries that saw their national identities unchallenged for over a quarter of a century."

Huh? How did the Marshall Plan do this exactly? Which country/countries is she talking about? This was in Europe? Really? That's certainly not the history of post war Europe that I was taught/lived through. Where did she learn this strange version of post war European history?

Before her next missive, Ms Slaughter might want to dip into Post War by Tony Judt or, you know, pretty much any other history book about postwar Europe.

June 11, 2011  
Blogger michael said...

adrian, perhaps she wrote from the American POV as opposed to the European POV.

I understood her point and basically agreed. I also realized a limit of space to explore in more detail and the lack of time to do in depth research for a blog tour post resulted in some flaws.

But Karin Slaughter's post here is a great success in one way. I am now going to sample her book.

June 11, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

Adrian, I have to disagree. Tho' the Marshall Plan set no international borders or carved out any countries (that I know of), the American influence on Europe because of the Marshall Plan had far reaching effects in everything from industry to farming to education, and popular culture - we exported everything including popular fiction and Hollywood film. Especially in Austria and Germany, France and Italy. Lee Child may be English (I didn't know that)but it's hard to deny that his writing is very American. Much as Raymond Chandler, born in America but raised for much of his fomative years in England and France brought an English style to hardboiled American Crime Fiction.
As for the state of French Literature post WWII I'll let the intellectuals claw that one out, but the few translations of post war fiction I have read - French, Italian, Spanish etc...- were decidedly character driven and not plot driven . And they were more about dealing with day to day problems not crime on a social level. I would think the French appetite for American authors such as David Goodis, Jim Thompson, and Cornell Woolrich for which they created the name "Noir" and a similar interest in Italy of what the Italians called " giallo Books" and eventually giallo (Yellow) Film.

June 11, 2011  
Anonymous solo said...

I have to agree with Adrian on this one, Peter. (There's a first time for everything and, I hope, a last time as well.)

Patricia Highsmith, whose work hit its stride during this tumultuous decade (the 60s). An ex-pat living in suburban Moncourt, she successfully married American-style plotting with European pathos. While Hollywood eagerly produced adaptations of Highsmith’s work

I come from a long line of ignoramuses, Peter, and it's ignorance of a particularly virulent strain, but, feck, even I could do better than this.

Highsmith's highpoint was the 50s, not the 60s. Strangers On A Train was published in 1950 and and her other major novel The Talented Mr Ripley came out in 1955. While the 1951 Hitchcock version of Strangers On A Train made for a decent little movie it did so by eviscerating the novel. Apart from some dogs-dinner TV work, Hollywood, far from eagerly adapting her, never touched her until Matt Damon played Tom Ripley in 1999. The only movie adaptations of her novels in the 60s and 70s were either French or German productions.

I'm a simple fellow, Peter. So maybe you can help me. How am I to determine if this is a good blog post or merely a puff piece for Karin Slaughter's next book. Isn't this simply advertising and if it is, shouldn't you describe it as such?

I'm glad to see that DBB is doing so well that major conglomerates want to involve it in their marketing campaigns but are you sure you want to be coopted in this way? Surely, you wouldn't wanty DBB readers to think you're a pushover for any publicist on the make.

The Russel McClean piece a while back had my bullshit detector wiggling furiously, but I figured he was probably a charming Scotsman, a struggling novelist that you'd read and liked and decided needed a leg up, so turning your blog over to him was your good deed for the day. But Karin Slaughter?

A serious lapse in quality control, Peter.

June 11, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

Solo, I'd hardly rate an authors value on how many successful Hollywood movies were made from them. That being the grading curve, Edgar Wallace (over 160 films were made from his work) would be far and away a better and more important writer than Hammett, Hemingway, Faulkner and Stienbeck and Chandler. Heck, for about 20 years the entire German Film industry was based on his works. BTW, Russel McLean (get the spelling right) is a rising star n the crime fiction world, and Scottish. There is a great number of authors coming out of Scotland and Ireland whose works are decidedly influenced by the American Hardboiled/Noir genre,and they bring a whole new European voice and set of social circumstances to the genre; Ken Bruen, Ian Rankin of course, McLean, Declan Hughes, Declan Burke, Eoin McNamee to name a few. Maybe I am the only American reader that is excited about this, but I don't think so.

June 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I thought her take on the Marshall Plan could have used some fleshing out. Maybe she'll join the discussion.

June 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Michael, I wondered if her opening paragraph might have been better off in the past tense. Do Europeans still believe anything is possible in America? Seems to me European crime writers lead the way in extravagant violence these days.

June 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, I, too, would have chosen the 1950s as Highsmith's high point.

The question about co-opting had crossed my mind. I'd have turned down the request to host Slaughter had I not remembered the internationally tinged remark she made at Bouchercon. So call this post a lark rather than a harbinger of corporate whoredom.

June 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Robert, I wonder where Karl May fits into the history of American influence on European popular culture.

Declan Hughes' piece in Down These Green Streets has much to say about American popular culture in Ireland, but also about English popular culture.

June 11, 2011  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Well, what jumped out for me was, Ross McDonald begat Elmore Leonard. But then I'm always suprised when Elmore Leonard shows up on a list of mystery novelists with series protagonists.

The other thing I usually find interesting in these discussions is how multi-national Hollywood has always been and how it's usually looked at as strictly American. Globalisation has always been good for Hollywood. That may have been interrupted a couple of times while Europeans went to war with one another but Hollywood has always been home to foreign filmmakers.

June 11, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

Karl may is an interesting guy. Wrote westerns and never was in America. Definitly influenced by the old west tails coming out of the U.S.. Course he worte about the orient, Africa etc... and never was there either. I've never read any of his 'work' but I have read about him. In many ways he is like the broadsheet writers of England during the same era. Most of his stories were actually sold by hand by travelling saleman.

I'm trying to think of the very popular English author of detective/adventure stories of probably the 20's thru the 40's who actually lifted stories by Hammett and Chandler, changed the names but otherwise verbatim published, to great success stories under his name. he was eventually "found out" and sued but went on to still write very popular stories. Might have been the gy that wrote the Bull Dog Drummond stories....

BTW, I use my Kindle in the hot tub and the bath with that cover I sent the link to, and nary an accident. It is very secure on the hand. I'll have to do some photos and post them to my blog demonstrating it.

June 11, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Have to agree with Solo. Highsmith's best work was done in America. She might have been more content in Europe but contentedness and art are seldom bedfellows.

It wasnt really a "take" on the Marshall Plan was it? She said something that seems like it might be true but is in fact completely false. Tony Judt's book and every other book on this subject makes that abundantly clear. It's an utterly silly ahistorical statement.

When you look at the cultural history of post war Europe, especially in countries like Poland, Austria, France and Germany you do notice one common factor and thats the fact that pre war much of the cultural innovation was undertaken by Jews. Post war Europe's cultural slump was largely a result of the destruction of European Jewry. That and the fact that half of Europe was under the control of Stalinist regimes. Nothing whatsoever to do with the Marshall Plan.

June 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, I was going to mention Ernst Lubitsch, Douglas Sirk and our man Hitchcock among those Europeans in Hollywood. And this will be relevant to Adrian's comments as well, I think.

June 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I have never bought into the idea of American cultural conquest of Europe, at least as far as conquest implies unwillingness on the part of the conquered. And if I had so thought, Declan Hughes' piece in Down These Green Streets might have changed my mind.

June 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Robert, I think Sapper was the guy who wrote the Bulldog Drummond stories. I had not heard of him or anyone else lifting Hammett and Chandler in the way you describe.

June 11, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

It was James Hadley Chase! Here's the blurb: The Anglo-American crime author, Raymond Chandler, successfully claimed that Chase had lifted a section of his work in "Blonde's Requiem" (published 1945) forcing Chase to issue an apology in The Bookseller."Chase also wrote many American crime stories working from an American Slang Dictionary and maps as well as some sort of reference to to "The American Underworld". since a lot of his books dealt with organized crime, I wonder just what this reference could have been.

June 12, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

What jumps out at me is this concept: that The Lovely Bones is literature. What, I ask? When was that book declared "literature"?

That makes about as much sense as saying a pear is like a strawberry.

That book is a novel. There is a mystery component. But it is so insipid and ridiculous that it does not deserve the term "literature." It has gimmicks, the kind that serious readers of crime fiction or "literary" fiction catch on to and dislike.

I saw the first few pages and did not venture further. The movie was ridiculously long, needed one-half to be edited out and the rest to be edited.

I don't agree with the author on the Marshall Plan either or U.S. culture conquest of Europe. And I do agree that Nazi genocide ridded Europe of Jewish people who brought much culture, or created much of the culture pre-WWII.

Also, Lee Child is British.

June 12, 2011  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, you're the last fellow I'd accuse of being a corporate whore.

My comment about Highsmith quibbled with two assertions in the post: that Highsmith's success was a thing of the 60s and that Hollywood 'eagerly produced adaptations' of her work. Both assertions are flat out wrong.

Subsequent comments about what I said make me think I have to go back to the drawing board and learn how to write proper English so my views don't end up being so misunderstood.

June 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Robert: Here's a bit from the Wikipeda article on Chase:

Prohibiton and the ensuing US Great Depression (1929–1939), had given rise to the Chicago gangster culture just prior to World War II. This combined with Chase's book trade experience made him realise that there was a big demand for gangster stories. After reading James M. Cain's novel The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), and having read about the American gangster Ma Barker and her sons, and with the help of maps and a slang dictionary, he wrote No Orchids for Miss Blandish in his spare time over a period of six week ends.

It appears that his fascination with the gangster side of American popular culture predated the Marshall Plan.

June 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I have read harsh words about The Lovely Bones' narrative concept, but yours is the harshest condemnation.

I haven't read the novel or the movie based on it.

June 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, I understood at least part of your comment. I, too, have always associated Patricia Highsmith the 1950s rather than the '60s.

I'm less able to judge adaptations of her work because I haven't read the books that were the basis of the Highsmith movie adaptations that I've seen, and I don't know if there ever was an adaptation of "The Tremor of Forgery."

June 12, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

Yep, his sure did. The Marshall Plan was really all about rebuilding Europes economy, and not so secretly holding back communism. A lot of American Culture was imported in the form of books, music and film. Most of those industries had pretty much ceased to exist during the war. I'm sure that that had some influence on western Europes culture, but really, at least in books, there had been an interest in American culture even predating WWI and a growing interest during Prohibition - in a way Britan was on "the other side" during Prohibition, a lot of there liquor was imported to Canada and a lot of the Chicago, Detroit and Buffalo boot leggers made a killing from there. The family that opened Seagrams after Prohibition, the Bronfmans, had family members shot and killed delivering liquor to Al Capones mob. The Bronfmans are one of the 100 ricest familys in America now and at one time owned the Montreal Expos.

June 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I am from Montreal so know about the Bronfmans. Sadly, we Montrealers no longer have a baseball team to root for. (I have read that the weird logo on the Expos cap and uniform was, in fact, the initials of one of the Bronfman women.)

Thought I knew about the American gangster archetype, I had not thought until this discussion of Prohibition as an occasion of and agent for transmission of American popular culture abroad.

June 12, 2011  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

To be fair, it wasn't the author of the post making the literature-genre statement, but anyway, no one wants to go down that road.

And Peter, if you had gone to McGill you would likely have spent time in the Bronfman Building (though I think it's in the business department). I've seen plays at the Sadyie Bronfman Centre.

Seagrams, like other Canadian distilleries and breweries, didn't close during prohibition but the Bronfmans always get singled out as being the ones who dealt with Al Capone rather than the Molsons or Labatts (who switched to the famous 'stubby' bottle because it was easier to transport for smuggling) or Hiram Walker in Windsor.

Somehow the gangster stuff has never made it into Canadian literature or pop culture but most of the literature, at least, is really only up to world war one so far ;).

June 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, I've seen plays and concerts at the Sayde Bronfman Center, one of my friends was friends with one of the younger Bronfmans, and I think someone I went to summer camp with one of them.

In re Canadian brewers and distillers and Prohibition, I thought of you when the subject came up. You've written fiction set in Montreal in the 1940s, if I remember correctly. Why not go a little further back?

June 12, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

While stationed in England with the USAF, I hung out at a little pyb restaurant in a village called Finchingfield. The restaurant was owned by an older couple, The Webbs. Barry Webb and I used to bird hunt the fields around the village and we both loved reading. Their daughter was married twice to Edgar Bronfman Sr. I had occasion to have Christmas Dinner with Edgar and his wife and I'd just read a book called The King And His Castle about the Bronfmans during prohibition and on up. It had a lot of the history of the Bronfmans and how they went from owning a little hotel and pub to owning a distillery and bootleging booze into the US during prohibition. Edgar varified "off the record" that much of it was true. But his old man had the foresight to not only go legit but wrap up the rights to import almost all the scotch into north America as well as a lot of French Wines. Shortly after prohibition ended he was sitting pretty and with in a few years Seagrams and Distillers Corporation Limited became the largest maker of distilled spirits. It was interesting, and Edgar was a nice guy.I still have a Water Pitcher (In England they put a pitcher on the bar for you to add your own water) Ingraved with teh Chivas Regal logo and finished in 22 carat gold. Was a gift and sits proudly on my bar.

June 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

To this day, I find it odd to imagine Scrabble tiles being drawn out of anything other than a purple velvet Seagram's bag.

June 12, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Well, on The Lovely Bones, I know I'm not alone. I offer no apologies.

A friend of a friend couldn't read the book either and actually threw it across a room. I don't do that with books but I understood why.

As I said earlier, it is based on a gimmick, one I particularly loathe.

The cast in the movie was excellent, the acting superb.

However, the movie itself really was a horror movie, graphically violent, absolutely not a movie for young folks, certainly not for children, and given the violence towards children, not one parents would want to see either. And, of course, it had the book's plot, based on an absurd, impossible plot device.

June 13, 2011  
Anonymous John Wirebach said...

Pete: I urge you to check out Leigh Redhead's Peepshow. The PI's a Melbourne PI trying to escape from her regular life as a stripper and gets involved with the murder of the piece of slime that owns the club where she works.
It's kind of graphic but I think a good director could get it in as an R rated film.
Buy it on Amazon or ABE

Best, John Wirebach

June 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have a copy of Peepshow lying around. When browsing before purchase, I remember thinking that it was graphic but with disarming humor.

June 13, 2011  

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