Thursday, July 19, 2012

McFetridge, McKinty, and the Stieg Larssonists

Yesterday’s post about Lars Kepler’s novel The Nightmare took shape when I was struck dumb by the utter contrast between that book on the one hand and two tantalizing excerpts from new work by two of my favorite crime writers on the other.

The Nightmare, I write in an upcoming review, is an explicit example of Stieg Larssonism – a potboiler plot harnessed to didactic political intent. Its potboiler aspect means that everything notable that happens to every notable character is at the very least extraordinary. Nothing in the novel is impossible, but I never believed for a second that anything in the book was really happening to real people.

On the other hand are the bits from I Hear the Sirens in the Streets by Adrian McKinty and Black Rock by John McFetridge. Each features as its protagonist a young police officer just growing into maturity at a time of civil unrest. (Bombs figure in both books, McKinty’s, set amid Northern Ireland’s Troubles in the early 1980s, and McFetridge’s during Montreal’s turbulent year of 1970.)

Each book is, I believe, a serious effort to convey what a real person living through those troubled times must have felt like, a delicate balance between quotidian narrative and social history. More to the point, I read those bits (and McKinty’s current book, the excellent Cold Cold Ground), and I think, damn, that’s what it was like. These guys bring the history alive.

The debate between realism and naturalism on the one hand, and whatever their opposites are on the other, has probably been going on since those terms were invented. Which do you prefer? Or, to put the question perhaps more meaningfully, which is more important to you in your crime reading, the real, or the fantastic? Or do you prefer that more difficult feat, the fantastic within the real? Examples welcome.
*** 
(Go to McKinty's blog to take your shot at winning I Hear the Sirens in the Streets in manuscript.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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41 Comments:

Blogger Dana King said...

Finally, a question I feel competent to answer. It's realism, hands down. I understand no one, including me, wants to read a book that's too real. That would be life, and we read, in part, as an escape from the mundane. What makes writers like McKinty and McFetridge special is their ability to place realistic characters--people we feel like we know--into extraordinary situations and see how they react and are affected by them. I'd rather read a hundred books by them or writers like them than one Larsen debacle.

July 20, 2012  
Blogger Dan Julian said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

July 20, 2012  
Anonymous Dan said...

Realism is my bag as well. Though I'm a sucker for magic realism as a genre, magic realism is the worst in a crime novel. I just got this image of Carella tracking a shape-shifter in the 87th. *Shudder!

July 20, 2012  
Anonymous Barbara Fister said...

Oh, man - those both sound really good, and possessed of something Larsson's work didn't: style and an attempt to chronicle events realistically.

In Larsson's defense, he was doing something different. He loved potboilers. He wrote fanfic when he was young and omnivorously consumed pop culture. He wrote a mashup of everything he loved and borrowed from Modesty Blaise to Sarah Paretsky but he also threw in everything he cared about in his day job as a journalist. It's not fine writing and it's not realism, but it's a hell of a lot better than a totally cynical reuse of pop references for the manufacture of money. (He did want to make money - but he couldn't resist making a point, too, for better or worse.) To me, this is what distinguishes his work from more cyncial knock-offs. He also had a better feel for and genuine appreciation of the stuff he was using in his remix.

July 20, 2012  
Blogger Gavin said...

Actually, there is a guy who I think pulls off the magic/noir mix very well -- Mike Carey, who writes the "Felix Castor" books. It's a hard mix to do well -- most of the attempts I've read aren't very good.

July 20, 2012  
Blogger Richard L. Pangburn said...

The divide is not so simple, and it shouldn't be.

Realism, like actual memoir, can be shallow as well. I have not yet read the McFetridge (three of his books sit on my TBR shelves), but the best thing about McKinty's COLD, COLD, GROUND is its depth.

COLD, COLD, GROUND artfully rises above the dualities to show the greater complicity, and to show that the psychopaths on one side are pretty much like the psychopaths on the other side.

I like comfort reads too, but the best noir being written now will have us look into the abyss and the book will then become a mirror as the abyss looks back.

July 20, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I suspect most crime readers would come down on the realism side of this simple divide because that’s where most writing in the genre comes down. I don’t discount writers such as China Mieville or even Eoin Colfer, of course, or crime-adventure stories.

Larsson’s “debacle,” at least in his first novel., may be due less to what he tried than to the editing he never got.

July 20, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dan, I’m not going to knock any possible version of the crime novel until I’ve tried it. In any case, magical realism is not what Lars Kepler do. I'd call The Nightmare improbable realism, maybe.

July 20, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Barbara, The Nightmare is undoubtedly a smoother production that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Modesty Blaise was an obvious inspiration for Lisbeth Salander, but I didn’t know that Larsson was a pop-culture nut. In that case, he had thrown all the ingredients in the blender, but someone turned off the power, and no one churned the ingredients into a palatable mixture. I’ll give Larsson credit for his ambitions, but he must ultimately be judged on his achievements. Alan Moore, for one, mines pop culture to create his stories, though his medium, comics, might lend itself more readily to such pastiches.

Interesting that you should note, correctly, that Larsson was neither realistic nor a fine writer. Perhaps realism can more easily accommodate clunky writing than adventure or fantasy. And I’d guess than a sense of fun is probably a key ingredient for a successful potboiler. I’m not sure Larsson had this.

July 20, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dan, I like your original typo, deleted and corrected, that placed Steve Carella in the 86th Precinct. That would be a good setting for an alternative-reality novel.

July 20, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gavin, I had not heard of the author or the character. Thanks. But I have just found this post about supernatural noir.

July 20, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Richard, of course the divide is simplistic. My question's reference to the fantastic within the real is an allusion to the weird beauty that McKinty has Sean Duffy conjure up in the opening chapters of both The Cold Cold Ground and I Hear the Sirens in the Streets.

July 20, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have not read too much supernatural noir, but Chris Holm's "Dead Harvest" was terrific...also "The Bastard Hand" by Heath Lowrance was also very very good.

July 20, 2012  
Blogger Gavin said...

Peter,

That's a great essay, and I've had similar problems with noir fantasy. (Another one that does it wrong is the Nightside series). I think the thing that saves Jim Butcher's Dresden series is that Butcher realized pretty early on that he's not good at noir, and dropped most of the detective-ish trappings. By now he's writing epic fantasy that happens to be set in Chicago.

I think that he has a good point about the power levels. Even though we don't have magic in the real world, detectives run across corrupt politicoes, gang members, etc, who have a lot of real power. If the detective could become mayor, a lot of the feeling goes out the window.

Glen Cook gets this bit right in his series, though I can't really recommend it. "Child of Fire" by Harry Connolly is also good with this -- both of these authors have protagonists with no magical abilities. Felix Castor has powers, but they're strictly limited, so he also ends up with some agonizing choices.

One thing in that essay that I disagree with is that I don't think that the existence of God in a novel removes the tough choices. IIRC, in "Sandman Slim," it's not really clear that the angels are good. In the "Nightside" series, they're actually bad, because they want to destroy all sinners (which is pretty much everybody).

July 20, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, anon. I have heard some good things about Chris Holm, and both those names come up in crime-fiction circles, which is probably a good sign for readers coming at their work from the crime-fiction side.

July 20, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg. That's the novel whose name had escaped me in connection with supernatural crime stories. Has anyone here read it?

July 20, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gavin, I haven't read any of those authors, but it might be interesting one of Butcher's noir-tinged titles and another from after he dropped the crime trappings.

July 20, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Barbara, these two are two of the best. They write with great style and with a great feeling for character. The extraordinary events in their books are more than plot points for these guys. They're coming to grips with history, albeit history through which each of them lived. They know how to tell stories in all the richness that implies.

July 20, 2012  
Blogger Vanda Symon said...

My vote is for the realist. Although I'm happy for that realism to be stretched somewhat. But in my heart I like to think something like that could actually happen in the real world, to real people. That thought makes me lose sleep more when in the thrall of a gripping novel than something beyond the realms of possibility.

July 20, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Now, the next question is to figure out the difference between implausibility (bad) and fantasy and adventure (good).

July 21, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I'm a realist. But for writers that really translates into believability. True realism tends to be a turn-off in books, being either boring or incapable if carrying a theme without tweaking, (in which case it is no longer real). As a reader of books, I avoid true crime at all cost, though I keep up with crime in the news.
The answer for the fantasy/adventure questions may lie in that distinction. Most of us want a world we can live in in our imagination.

July 21, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"But for writers that really translates into believability. True realism tends to be a turn-off in books..."

Just as in dialogue, one wants to read not an imitation of how people talk, but a convincing, distilled illusion of how people talk, I suppose.

July 21, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Normally I prefer my crime-writing to be gritty, and spare, and real, but ever since I read the final chapter of 'The Getaway' not only do I grant special dispensation to Jim Thompson, but I almost feel short-changed if he doesn't deliver similar zingers.

btw, Peter, speaking of real, and real-life, have you read any Eddie Bunker?

July 21, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

If 'Falling Angel' by William Hjortsberg was the source novel for the Alan Parker film 'Angel Heart', then I've read it; a few years before I saw the film
I enjoyed both

July 21, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TCK, I haven't read The Getaway, but I know how weird the ending o the movie version is.

I have not read Eddie Bunker, though I recently read an introduction or prefatory chapter he had written to on eof his own books. It was hard-hitting, but oddly he used the word "society" a few times, which I think dated him.

July 21, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And yes, Angel Heart was based on Hjortsberg's book.

July 21, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I'm four chapters into my first Eddie Bunker, 'Dog Eat Dog', Peter, and I can't help but get this feeling of schizophrenia: although I loved the hard-hitting brutality of the first two chapters, the chapter which introduced the third main character sounded too uncomfortably autobiographical to my eyes; which might ultimately prove too much of a handicap.

Lets hope I'm wrong, because there's a lot of greatness there, and, for the most part, he doesn't mess about

July 21, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Did Bunker write that book early in his career? He famously spent a fair amount of time in prison himself. I can well imagine any novelist getting too autobiographical in early works or at least not disguising the autobiography well enough.

July 21, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

This is copyrighted 1997; its his fourth novel; his first, 'No Beast So Fierce' was published in 1973, while he was awaiting trial for the Beverley Hills bank robbery
(that novel was the source for quite a decent little film, 'Straight Time', starring Dustin Hoffman, Kathy Bates and M. Emmett Walsh, of 'Blood Simple' fame).

I'm getting the sense that he might just be too sympathetic, rather than just empathetic, to this third character, while he's able to view the other two ex-con characters more dispassionately

July 21, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No Beast So Fierce is the book whose opening I browsed. Maybe Bunker never got over a tendency toward excessive autobiography.

July 21, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Quite possibly; what made you pass on 'No Beast'?

July 21, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't remember if I passed on it. I may have seen it in somebody else's pile of books at home or at work, or else maybe I was browsing a sample only of an expensive Kindle edition.

But too many invocations of "society" might be enough to make me put a book aside and, at the least, look for another novel with which to begin my acquaintance with the writer.

July 22, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I'm getting far too much detail of the society of a prison and California's justice system right now, and also of ex-con's chat when he gets out, but that might be part establishing character background; I'll know for sure when I get to the heist and its aftermath

July 22, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmmm, I'll think about what crime novels have hte best build-ups to heists.

July 22, 2012  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I liked the Stieg Larsson trilogy. It was fun to read and unputdownable. It was not great writing, I'll agree; no prizes there.

But it was a saga about one character in particular and those around her who ended up helping her right wrongs that had been done, while also handling a few other mysteries, as in Book I.

Most books I read, albeit mysteries, are realistic, but don't necessarily have believable plots or conclusions.

Are Jo Nesbo's plots realistic? Nemesis was great, but it's made up stuff, all of it. Could it all have happened that way in reality? Doubt it. But wonderful stay-up-all night reading and twists and turns.

Indridason (one of my favorite writers) writes creatively, but not everything is realistic.

Camilleri, a favorite, isn't a realist either in all things, except perhaps about the wonders of Italian dinners.

And Fred Vargas, who writes quirky plots like no one else, is beloved by many readers.

I'll also throw in here, for want of a better spot, that I just read Pierre Magnan's Death in the Truffle Wood. Loved it. Felt like I was in Provence truffle hunting.

But realistic? Not really. Is that okay with me? Yes.

July 22, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm glad you enjoyed Pierre Magnan. I think he offers plausible stories of what life might be like in rural France, plausible because those lives are so rich.

Vargas' characters are a bit like fairly-tale characters plopped down in the real world. I think she pulls that trick off well.

It sounds as if the Larsson trilogy is a kind up Perils of Pauline...except that, as much as Larsson apparently loved pop culture (and thanks to Barbara Fister for her informative content), I regard it as cheating for an author to pretend to be writing a pop-culture romp but have to lard the book with chapter headings full of statistics about violent crime. It somehow feel sas if he's dishonoring both the pop culture and the crime.

July 22, 2012  
Anonymous Barbara said...

Oh, that's interesting. I can see where you're coming from. Yet I can also see the attraction of saying "I'm going to talk about something that matters to me in a format that I think is entertaining as hell, and people who won't read the newspaper, or perhaps read it and sigh and think there's nothing to be done about all the world's problems, might be induced to think a little harder about these things if they are in an empathetic mood."

It would be a problem if the social issue were exploited simply to milk it for entertainment value. I don't think that's what Larsson was doing. I think he wanted to make some quick cash and thought highly enough of pop culture to feel it was worthy of carrying a message as well as a bit of fun.

But I could be wrong. I was kind of thrilled that so many people embraced a story so laced with the unfun topic of violence against women, but now that 50 Shades of Grey has rapidly outsold Larsson I have no idea what any of it means.

July 22, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Barbara, I'm just saying I find the Larssonite mix of pop culture and higg political seroiusness an uneasy one -- except I shouldn't even call it a mix. It's more like a suspension. The way Larsson does it, the politics and the potboiling take up the same space, but they really don't mix (I will concede that in Lars Kepler's case, the pop-cutlre parts of the mix are entertaining.)

I find Manotti fabulously entertaining, so it's not that I think politics has no place in crime fiction. I'm just not a fan, so far, of what seems to be this evolving Larssonite method.

July 22, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Even Larsson's admirers concede that he was not a great writer, and the writing in Fifty Shades of Grey is, according to one thoughtful assessment of the phenomenon, "dire." My oen experience with The Da Vinci Code (I read almost the whole first paragraph) oleft me feeling I had read possibly the worst English prose ever set down on paper.

One can safely conclude, I'd say, that good writing does not matter when it comes to popular success.

July 22, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Just finished 'Dog Eat Dog'.

It took him a long time to hit second gear, never mind top gear, and I was getting seriously pissed off with too much detail about conditions in US prison system and reminiscences of ex-cons, and, worst of all, detaled descriptions of LA geography, and topgraphy, and how this and that and the other had changed beyond recognition in the 20 years, or whenever, since he had been inside, but it started to click into gear with the scheme to divest a big-time drug dealer of some of his ill-gotten gains, and it hardly ever faltered once it hit top gear round about the time of the kidnapping.

On the whole recommended, - with some particularly gripping, and well-written, scenes in the second half of the novel: maybe I'll give it another read-through when perhaps I'll be more tolerant of his 'preliminaries'

July 23, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maybe he never got over a tendency to autobiographicize at the expense of story, and readers are too in awe of his gritty creentials to complain. But that's just a guess; except for the briefest of glances at No Beast So Fierce, I haven't read him.

July 23, 2012  

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